How to master the zi char classic: Malaysian Buttermilk Chicken. Crispy chicken bites in a creamy, garlicky, spicy and rich sauce!
Malaysian Buttermilk Chicken (ayam buttermilk/ayam masak butter/lai yao kai/奶油鸡) is a popular hawker zi char dish of crispy fried chicken bites tossed in a creamy, buttery garlicky, spicy sauce. The sauce is rich, creamy, savoury and sweet; an absolute delight!
This is very similar to my Singapore Crispy Butter Chicken recipe – in fact, it might be the same iteration of the dish. We just don’t call the dish buttermilk chicken. In any case, I have to do a separate recipe for the Malaysian Buttermilk Chicken. Whenever I make the jaunt across the Causeway to Malaysia, this would always be one the sharing dishes we would order for a zi char meal!
By the way, “Zi char” (or “tzi char” or “cze char”) is a term used predominantly in Singapore and Malaysia to refer to a style of dining that involves ordering sharing dishes and can be served in casual, family-style eateries, restaurants or hawker centres. The term “zi char” is a Hokkien phrase that roughly translates to “cook and fry” or “cook and stir.”
Why You will LOVE This Buttermilk Chicken Recipe
- EASY with Minimal Ingredients: This is one of those dishes that looks and tastes complicated, but is so easy to whip up at home for true zi char flavours!
- QUICK: Unbelievably, this dish takes less than 30 minutes to make.
- Flavour Harmony: Malaysian Buttermilk Chicken strikes the perfect balance between savoury, sweet, and spicy flavours. The rich, creamy and garlicky sauce, punctuated the heat of bird’s eye chillies and the aroma of the curry leaves, creating a unique symphony of tastes that dance on the palate!
- Comfort Food at Its Best: Malaysian Buttermilk Chicken embodies the essence of comfort food. Its creamy, rich sauce and familiar crispy chicken make it a heartwarming and comforting choice for any meal.
- Textural Delight: The contrast between the crispy fried chicken and the velvety sauce is pure culinary bliss.
The Chicken in Buttermilk Chicken
The star of the show are succulent pieces of crispy fried chicken! The crispy chicken grips at the thick, savoury-sweet sauce for a textural and flavour explosion in every bite.
To make the crispy chicken bites you just need:
- Chicken: I used breast here, but thighs work too. Chop them up into equal bite-sized pieces.
- Marinade: You can use a simple marinade of just salt and pepper. Optional, but I added oyster sauce for umami, and dash of curry powder as well. This gives the chicken another depth of flavour to complement the curry leaves. Egg is added later on to give a bit more flavour, but most importantly provide moistness to the chicken and allow better grip for the flour coating.
- Flour Coating: I used a combination of corn flour and rice flour for ultimate crisp! You can also use either or, but do note using just rice flour will not result in a golden batter.
In this recipe, I pan fried the chicken instead of deep frying. You can deep fry of course, but I find it more practical to pan fry (and use less oil) at home to get the crispy chicken.
Usually, I would use my air fryer to get my crispy fried chicken with zero mess! If you want to go the air fryer route, follow the steps in my Air Fryer Salt & Pepper Chicken recipe or my Air Fryer Sweet and Sour Chicken recipe.
The Buttermilk in Buttermilk Chicken
Surprise, there is no actual buttermilk in Malaysian Buttermilk Chicken. The name comes from the use of butter, and evaporated milk, hence buttermilk!
1. Evaporated Milk
The creamy sauce gets its richness and velvety texture from evaporated milk, a canned shelf-stable milk. I go for the Carnation brand of evaporated milk, but essentially they all will work for this recipe. This and this are good options too.
What is Evaporated Milk?
Evaporated milk is a type of milk product that has had about 60% of its water content removed through a heating process. This gives it a slightly thicker consistency and creamier texture compared to regular milk.
Evaporated milk is not to be confused with condensed milk, which is sweetened, and a lot thicker and denser. Evaporated milk is unsweetened.
Can I use regular milk? You CAN and you will still get a delicious sauce, but the flavour will NOT be what you get at restaurants and hawker zi char stalls in Malaysia.
While still rather liquid, evaporated milk is slightly thicker than regular milk. If the recipe calls for the thickness of evaporated milk, you may need to adjust the consistency by using less regular milk or adding a thickening agent like cornstarch.
The taste also differs from regular milk. Evaporated milk has a slightly caramelised flavour due to the heating process. Since evaporated milk is the main base flavour of the sauce, the recipe does rely on this flavour. Using regular milk will result in a milder taste, but the ultimate dish will still be delicious. With regular milk, you will find there is a difference in flavour.
Evaporated milk has a richer, creamier taste compared to regular milk, so the final dish may be less creamy if you use regular milk. Evaporated milk thickens as it cooks, and further thicken as it cools down. Regular milk will not do this. To compensate for this, slightly reduce the amount of milk and add cornstarch slurry to have the creaminess.
In this recipe, I added water (optional) to create a saucier sauce. I love that extra sauce to further drizzle and flavour my rice. Evaporated milk thickens as it cooks, and further thicken as it cools down. If you prefer a thick sauce coating your chicken, there is no need to add water.
Won’t it turn soggy? Yes it will, which is why this dish should be served immediately! The cornflour and rice flour coating will also prolong the chicken crisp in the sauce.
The other important component of the sauce is butter! Butter adds that luxurious, creamy smoothness to the sauce and imparts a rich, indulgent flavour.
I used salted butter in this recipe. If using unsalted butter, make sure to add a pinch of salt to bring out the flavours.
3. Everything Else
Buttermilk Chicken is one of those dishes that is deceptively EASY to make with minimal ingredients! These are the rest of the ingredients that you will need:
- Garlic: Minced garlic infuses the sauce with its aromatic and savoury notes, elevating the overall flavour profile.
- Bird’s Eye Chillies (Cili Padi): These tiny but fiery chili peppers bring the heat to the dish, delivering a spicy kick that contrasts beautifully with the creamy sweetness.
- Curry Leaves: Curry leaves contribute a distinct citrusy aroma and a burst of flavour that enhances the complexity of the sauce. You can buy them in bulk, and freeze them too for curry dishes. There is no close alternative to curry leaves in terms of taste, but I’ve seen people use basil leaves. It will be a different flavour profile, but still yield a delicious dish.
- Condensed Milk: In this recipe, I used condensed milk to sweeten the dish. As a bonus, it makes the dish a little bit more rich and creamy! Optional though, you can simply use sugar to sweeten the sauce.
- Cheese Slice: This sounds strange, but melting in a slice of processed cheese – save for fancier cheeses here! – will give an extra layer or creaminess to the sauce. This is what some (of the better) zi char restaurants do. This adds richness, and a bit of deliciously umami salt to the dish to boost the savoury notes in the sauce.
- Salt & Pepper: Add a dash of salt and pepper to the dish, only if needed. In this recipe, I did not add any, because it doesn’t need the extra salt.
How to make Malaysian Buttermilk Chicken?
1. Marinade and Coat Chicken
To cubed chicken, add curry powder, oyster sauce, salt and pepper. Combine to marinade for 10 minutes, overnight is best.
Add egg to the chicken and stir to coat. Then coat chicken with the cornstarch and rice flour mixture.
2. Cook Chicken Until Crisp
Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. Once hot, add coated chicken pieces in a single layer. Do not overcrowd and work in batches if needed. Do not touch chicken, allow it to properly cook and crisp up on one side, about 3-4 minutes. Then flip chicken over to the other side and allow it to finish cooking and crisping up for another 3-4 minutes. Remove from the oil and allow to drain on some paper towels.
3. Make the Sauce – Butter
In another pan or wok, add some oil.
TIP! Option to use the same pan you used to fry the chicken (I usually do this!). If using the same pan, remove some of the excess oil until you have about 1-2 tablespoons of oil left in the pan.
Melt butter in the pan with the oil. Once butter starts melting and bubbling, add garlic, cili padi and curry leaves. Stir fry in the butter.
4. Make the Sauce – Milk
Once fragrant (and it will start to smell SO GOOD!), pour in the evaporated milk and condensed milk or sugar. If needed, add salt to taste. Stir to combine with the butter.
Once it comes to a boil, the sauce should start to thicken slightly. Option to stir in water for more sauce, and add the cheese slice. Stir to melt and combine.
5. Add Back Chicken
Add back the crispy chicken and toss to combine. Continuously stir the chicken in the sauce until coated through.
Turn off the heat. Sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.
6. Serve Immediately!
Buttermilk Chicken is a dish best served hot! The chicken is still crisp, and the sauce is at its perfect creamy texture. As the dish cools, the sauce will thicken further and can turn sort of ‘gloppy’ – unless you added some water like I did here, which will help buttermilk retain its sauciness for longer.
I love serving this with rice. That rich, savoury sweet sauce goes so well with rice. In its thicker form, i.e. no additional water, this is so addictive to snack on!
More Recipes Like This
Malaysian Buttermilk ChickenCourse: Recipes
- Crispy Chicken Bites
300 g Chicken breast, cubed or sliced
2 tsps curry powder
1 tsp oyster sauce
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 egg (beat an egg, and scoop out half of the beaten eggs)
- to coat and fry
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup rice flour
enough oil, for frying
- buttermilk sauce
1 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs curry leaves
1-2 bird’s eye chilli (cili padi)
1 cup evaporated milk
2 tbsps condensed milk (or 1 tbsp sugar)
1/4 cup water (optional)
1 cheese slice (optional)
cilantro and spring onions, for garnish
- To the chicken, season with salt and pepper, curry powder and oyster sauce. Toss to combine. Option to let this marinade overnight.
- Add the egg to the chicken and combine to coat. Meanwhile, combine cornstarch and rice flour. Add the chicken pieces to the flour mixture and coat. Shake off any excess flour.
- To a pan, add enough cooking oil to pan fry or deep fry. Heat over medium heat until hot.
- Lay chicken pieces in the oil and allow to cook and crisp up on one side for about 3-4 minutes, before flipping over to the other side to fully cook and crisp. If deep-frying, deep fry for about 8 minutes. Once chicken is crispy and cooks through, remove from the oil. Place chicken bites in a paper towel to drain any excess oil.
- Heat pan over medium heat, and add oil. Once hot, add butter and allow to melt.
- Once butter melts, add garlic, bird’s eye chillies and the curry leaves. Stir fry to release the fragrance.
- Once fragrant, add the evaporated milk, condensed milk, salt and pepper, to taste. Stir to combine. Let the sauce come to a boil.
- Once boiling, add water and cheese slice, if using. Stir to combine with the sauce until the cheese fully melts.
- Add back the chicken and toss to combine. Once chicken is coated, turn off the heat. Plate and serve immediately! The sauce will further thicken as it cools.