Comfort food made easy! How to make Ayam Masak Merah, or chicken stir fried in an sweet and savoury, tomato-based sauce in just 20 minutes.
I make a lot of Ayam Masak Merah recipes here on this blog. I have the authentic version, an easy version that uses canned tomatoes, and then we have THIS 20-Minute Ayam Masak Merah. This has been my go-to whenever I’m craving Ayam Masak Merah these days!
Ayam Masak Merah is a beloved Singapore Malay/Malaysian dish that bursts with vibrant flavours and cultural significance. This tantalising chicken dish is a staple in Malaysian cuisine, known for its rich, spicy tomato-based sauce that’s both sweet and savoury.
If there is a Malay dish you need to try making at home, it would be Ayam Masak Merah.
It is that one dish that not only is a family household favourite, but is also often prepared during festive occasions and special gatherings.
The name itself translates to “Red Cooked Chicken,” referring to the striking red colour of the sauce. Its flavour profile combines sweet, spicy, and tangy elements, making it a firm favourite for Malay households.
Why you will LOVE this recipe
- QUICK & EASY: Ayam Masak Merah can take up to 1 hour to make. A long cook time is required to break down the tomatoes and cook down the dried chilli paste to create that delicious savoury sauce. With this recipe, I shortcut by using ready-made sambal and boneless chicken thighs!
- SAUCY STIR FRY: The saucy stir-fry approach simplifies the cooking process, making it accessible to both novice and experienced cooks.
- BOLD & BALANCED FLAVOURS: This is the perfect balance of sweet, spicy and tangy, which is why this is a firm family favourite!
- CUSTOMISABLE: Customise the spice level and adjust the ingredients to your liking.
- VERSATILE: This is a saucy dish that is great served over rice… but is so good with some noodles too!
Key Ingredients for Ayam Masak Merah
- Chicken: Traditionally, chicken pieces are used, but I adapted this recipe to use boneless chicken thighs, which will cook quickly and still remain juicy and tender. You can use boneless chicken breast as well. I marinate the chicken with turmeric and salt to remove that sort of ‘fishy’ gamy chicken flavour.
- Sambal: To add the signature kick to the dish, you’ll need ready-made sambal. Traditionally, a blend of dried chilli paste will be cooked down over low heat first, which can take a while for it to reach optimal flavours. By using ready-made sambal, we skip this step! Use any of your favourite store-bought one: this and this are great options. You can use sambal oelek as well, but try to find Sambal, since sambal oelek is tends to be acidic. Unconventionally, you can also use Thai red chilli paste or red curry paste! Ready-made sambals are already seasoned, so always taste test and add salt and sugar to taste. OF COURSE, I will always recommend making a big batch of my versatile Sambal Tumis and store in the fridge for recipes just like this! Adjust the spice level to your liking.
- Tomato Puree: The heart of this dish is the luscious sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce. To give the gravy an instant hit of concentrated tomatoes without the long cook time, we use tomato puree. This can also be known as tomato concentrate, or tomato paste. This is not to be mistaken for tomato ketchup or tomato sauce. I also used some fresh cherry tomatoes in this recipe, but it is optional.
- Aromatics: I used a simple blend of onions, garlic and ginger to create a paste so we get a nice creamy gravy going for the Ayam Masak Merah. Add water for easier blending.
- Sugar: To get some balance out the spice and the tang of the sauce, add sugar.
How to Make 20 Minute Ayam Masak Merah
1. Prep Chicken & Aromatics
Prep boneless chicken by cutting to equal parts – I chopped mine into 2-inch chunks. Sprinkle on turmeric powder and salt, and combine to coat.
Option to marinade overnight, but not necessary for this recipe.
To a blender, add onion, garlic and ginger with a couple splashes of water for easier blending. Blitz to a smooth paste. If you want to skip this step and saute the aromatics, that’s ok – although bear in mind blending the aromatics will yield a creamier gravy.
2. Pan Fry Chicken
Heat pan and add oil. Once hot, add the chicken pieces and allow to sear for about 5 minutes. No need to cook the chicken all the way through; just until the surface changes colour.
Remove chicken from the pan and keep to one side.
3. Cook the Sauce
In the same pan, add the blended aromatics and give a quick stir fry. Allow the paste to come to a boil.
TIP! To level this dish up even more, add a cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves and cardamom pods at this stage and stir to combine. This is also known as ‘4 Friends’ or ’empat kawan’ in Malay cooking!
Once it boils, add the tomato puree and sambal. Add tomatoes, if using. Any fresh tomatoes will work, I’m using cherry tomatoes. This will add a nice freshness to the dish. Stir fry to combine with the paste.
4. Add Back Chicken
Add back the chicken, and season with salt and sugar. Stir fry to combine. Allow the chicken to finish cooking in the sauce. Add water bit by bit, if gravy is drying up too quickly.
Once chicken cooks, Ayam Masak Merah is ready! Garnish with coriander and fried shallots to serve.
How to Serve Ayam Masak Merah
This is traditionally served with rice, and it’s how I love to have my Ayam Masak Merah too!
If you have a bit more time, make my Nasi Minyak or Ghee Butter Rice in the rice cooker. This tastes exceptionally well with the Ayam Masak Merah.
Another way of having this? Dump some noodles in!
Since this dish is not as spicy as most Malay dishes, you can have this by itself too if you’re not much of a carb person.
More Recipes Like This
- Ayam Masak Kicap | Soy Sauce Braised Chicken
- Ayam Paprik | Thai-Malaysian Chicken Stir Fry
- Turmeric Chicken Stir Fry | Ayam Masak Kunyit
20 Minute Ayam Masak MerahCourse: Recipes
300g boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp salt
- to blend:
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 inch ginger, chopped
1/4 cup water, for easier blending
- the gravy:
2 tbsps vegetable oil
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp sambal (adjust to preference)
1/2 cup fresh tomatoes (optional)
1/2 cup water, or as needed
2 tsps sugar, or to taste
Salt to taste
handful of coriander
- Add all of the ingredients for the blended paste in blender. Blitz until you get a smooth paste. Add water for easier blending.
- Add turmeric powder and salt to chicken chunks, and combine to coat.
- Heat vegetable oil in a pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the chicken and allow to sear on one side for about 2-3 minutes, before flipping to the other side to sear for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from the pan.
- Using the same pan, add the blended aromatics paste. Stir the paste until fragrant.
- Add the tomato paste, sambal and the fresh tomatoes, if using. Stir fry to combine with the paste, until you get a red sauce forming.
- Add back the chicken pieces, along with sugar and salt to taste. Stir fry to combine, and allow the chicken to finish cooking in the sauce, for about 5 minutes. If the gravy is drying down too fast, stir in water bit by bit, until you get your preferred gravy.
- Once the chicken cooks through, the dish is done! To serve, garnish with cilantro and fried shallots.