Nestled between coconut trees and a sundry shop, the smell of fried kunyit (turmeric) permeates Aunty Nyook’s yellow house.
Stray dogs bark intermittently as motorcycles pass by. Across the road, school kids rush to the roadside stalls selling Malaysian snacks, or kuih.
Aunty Nyook is unfazed by the Malaysian afternoon heat. She continues frying her kunyit chicken without breaking a sweat. I hear a clink from the kitchen—she’s pounding bird’s eye chillies with lime and fermented shrimp paste. A thunderstorm of spice and heat. I cheekily peep into the kitchen to catch the smell and hear her shouting at her husband:
“Ah Ling, go across the road and get some kuih please!”
I go back to the lounge and lay on the marble floor hoping to cool down. I close my eyes and suddenly it’s all hands on deck.
“Get the plates out! Help me carry these dishes to the table please. Where is Ah Ling?” Aunty Nyook calls out.
Dishes fly out of the kitchen, all perfect tens on landing. Uncle Eng Chin—Ah Ling—returns with the kuih. I scramble to get the seat closest to the kunyit chicken. Aunty Nyook is the last to sit at the table.
Once there, everyone at the table echoes a collective “Wah!” I immediately fork the juiciest piece of kunyit chicken and drown it in as much sticky sauce as my mother would allow—I am greedy. One down. Who else needs another? Me.
Aunty Nyook smiles at me, “Amboi! So hungry ah? Have more lah!” I politely nod. My sister scowls at me for eating all the chicken.
After lunch, I retreat to the lounge for the sought after spot under the ceiling fan. I starfish on the cold marble floor. Aunty Nyook joins me in the lounge and sits in her favourite rattan chair. Her hands are yellow from the kunyit. I ask her how she would get rid of the colour. She shrugs and tells me it’s not something she’s concerned about. I close my eyes and drift away to a colder climate in my imagination.
This was my childhood.
Aunty Nyook’s Kunyit Chicken Recipe
1 medium piece of turmeric (length of your pinky finger)
4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon white peppercorn powder
3 stalks of fresh lemongrass (hard outer layers removed)
3 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of salt
6 free range chicken drumsticks
Canola oil for frying
1. Pound the turmeric, shallots, garlic cloves, peppercorn powder and lemongrass in a pestle and mortar (alternatively, pulse in blender with a dash of neutral oil like corn oil or vegetable oil).
2. Strain the juices from the pounded mixture into a bowl and keep the leftover paste in a separate bowl. Add the remaining ingredients (sugar and salt) to the juices.
3. Add the chicken drumsticks into the bowl with the juices and leave to marinade for at least 1 hour at room temperature.
4. After 1 hour, heat some canola oil in a wok. To gauge if the oil is hot enough, stick a bamboo skewer or the end of a wooden chopstick into the oil—it should sizzle.
5. Add the chicken and fry until golden. This should take 5-10 minutes depending on how large your drumsticks are.
6. To make the kunyit sauce, heat 5 tablespoons of the frying oil in a separate pan, add in the paste from step 2 and fry until fragrant. Add cornflour until mixture thickens. Pour sauce over chicken. Serve with fluffy rice.