Anyone who’s attended an A Tiger in the Kitchen event or reading in the last year knows: The big thing I learned from cooking with my aunties in their Singapore kitchens was the importance of “Agak-Agak.”
The Malay phrase, which means “Guess-Guess,” encapsulates their method of cooking. They don’t rely on recipes or cookbooks — ingredients are tossed into a wok by sheer estimation, one that’s based on powerful instinct honed from years of very good cookery.
Since my year of cooking with them, I’ve found myself inspired to do the agak-agak thing more in my kitchen. Where I once was terrified of simply peeking in the fridge and throwing dinner together, with my busy book travels recently, that’s become rather the norm. Out of this new practice, however, has emerged interesting stir-fries, stews and more.
Just this week, as I was trying to recall how I’d made a dish I liked a few months back, I realized with great chagrin that like my aunties, I’ve not written any of these inventions down.
Well, that’s going to be fixed.
Starting with this stir-fry, we’re going to start recording it all. If you love turmeric and sambal, then definitely read on …
This little stir-fry grew out of a love for the turmeric fried chicken wings my mother’s helper in Singapore makes. For years, I looked forward to visits home so I could eat these spicy chicken wings. Finally, I sat down and watched how she made them — and I was floored by how easy it was.
In my Brooklyn kitchen, I’ve adapted it to a more traditional stir-fry meat: chicken breast. And then I’ve spiced it up with sambal and some asparagus, making it a one-dish meal when combined with rice.
(By the way, if I haven’t said it before, this is my favorite brand of sambal — if you see this in an Asian grocery store, snap it up!)
It was so easy I didn’t think to write it down. But trust me, once you’ve tried it, you’ll be glad I did.
Turmeric-Sambal Chicken Stir Fry
1 lb chicken breast, cut into small cubes
1/2 lb asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 TB minced garlic
1-2 shallots, minced
4 TB vegetable or corn oil
1 TB sesame oil
1.5 TB (or more) ground turmeric
1 to 2 TB corn starch
1 to 2 TB soy sauce
White pepper (Several generous sprinkles)
1 to 2 TB sambal
1/2 to 3/4 cup chicken broth
Place chicken in a large bowl and pour in soy sauce until all pieces are well coated. Then, add corn starch, turmeric and a few sprinkles of salt and white pepper and mix well, until each piece of chicken is well coated. (Note: These amounts are pure guesstimations — you basically want enough of the marinade so each piece is nicely coated with a dense paste of soy sauce, turmeric, cornstarch, pepper and salt.) Refrigerate chicken for an hour.
After the hour, heat four TB vegetable or corn oil in a wok until very hot then slowly add chicken. (Cook this in two batches if you have a small wok.) Fry up the chicken for a few minutes, until each piece is fully cooked and has a crispy coating. Remove with a slotted spoon and let it rest on a paper towel-coated plate.
Remove all except 1 TB of oil from the wok. Then add sesame oil and heat up the wok until oil is very hot. Add garlic, frying for 30 seconds or so, until fragrant. Then add shallots, stirring well, frying for a minute or two, until the shallots have softened and are fragrant. Add asparagus and stir-fry for a minute, until well mixed. Then add sambal and chicken broth, stirring well. Cover and cook for two more minutes. Uncover and add chicken to the mixture, stirring well until everything is combined and well-heated through.
Serve with hot rice.