Recently, there was a big furor over roti prata being labelled ‘Asian croissant’. To be honest, I have no idea what the fuss is about. Anything that helps a foreigner understand our cuisine better is a good thing in my perspective. And in fact, some of our local dishes do take a lot of inspiration from the West, given Singapore’s history of formerly being under British rule.
Take the curry puff for example. Some speculate that the British’s love for Cornish pasties combined with the ingenuity of the Indians led to the creation of puffs filled with curried potatoes. The Chinese then put their own spin on curry puffs by combining it with their lamination pastry techniques, which is uncannily similar to croissant-making.
When making croissants, butter is encased within water-based dough. The dough is rolled out and folded, over and over, forming alternating layers of water dough and fat. The butter melts in the oven’s heat and generates steam, creating a flaky texture.
In Chinese flaky pastry, such as in char siu sou, egg tarts or Teochew mooncakes, oil or lard is the fat of choice. It is often combined with some flour to form an oil-based dough, which is layered with the water dough not through folding, but by rolling the dough up like a Swiss roll.
Since the fat is mixed with flour to form a dough, this pastry is far easier to make than puff pastry or croissants. You don’t have to worry about the butter melting from being too hot or cracking from being too cold. This dough is so forgiving that I have seen some people rolling it through their pasta machine to get it super thin – a good alternative to a lamination machine. And when you work with an oil-based dough rather than a butter-based dough, there is no wait time between lamination as you don’t have to chill the dough to prevent the butter from melting!
I highly recommend you giving this a go, even if you have never made puff pastry or croissants in your life – the satisfaction you get from seeing the signature spiral patterns on the curry puffs as they emerge from the fryers is unparalleled.
Flaky Curry Puffs
Makes 18 curry puffs
For the filling:
250g boneless skinless chicken thighs, diced finely
3 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 a large onion, peeled and diced finely
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 chilli padi, sliced
1 sprig of curry leaves, removed from stalk
350g peeled and diced potatoes, soaked in water to prevent discolouration
240g coconut cream
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 hard-boiled eggs, cut into quarters
For the water dough:
1 teaspoon salt
50g ghee or oil, heated to 80-100C
For the oil dough:
85g lard or margarine
Mix 2 tablespoons of curry powder with the diced chicken in a bowl, and set aside to marinate for 10 minutes. To prepare the filling, heat the oil in a saucepan over heat high and saute the onion until slightly browned and fragrant. Add the garlic, chilli and curry leaves. Fry for an additional minute before adding the chicken thigh. Break the meat up to prevent clumps. Drain and add the potatoes, coconut cream, remaining 1 tablespoon of curry powder and 240g water. Turn the heat down to low and allow to simmer for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and almost all the water has evaporated. Sprinkle over the flour and stir until a dry paste-like mixture forms. Season with salt and sugar – it should taste delicious, even without the crust. Transfer to a tray and set aside to cool.
To prepare the water dough, stir the flour and salt together. Add the hot fat and stir with a spatula to combine before rubbing in with your fingers to form crumbs. Gradually add water until a dough forms. Cover with a tea towel while you prepare the oil dough. Mix the flour and fat together until all the flour has been absorbed. Divide each dough into 9 pieces, and roll each into a ball.
Take a piece of water dough and flatten it. Wrap it around a ball of oil dough (which should be smaller), and bring the sides of the water dough up around it to enclose. Seal it shut and roll it out into a long rectangle, approximately 20cm x 10cm. Roll it up from one end to the other, like a Swiss roll. Turn the roll 90 degrees, and flatten it with the base of your palm, seam side down.
Roll it out once again to a rectangle of about 30cm x 6cm in dimensions. Roll it up tightly and cut in half. Each half will be one wrapper. Repeat for the rest of the doughs, keeping the ones that you are not working on under a damp tea towel to prevent them from drying out.
Roll each half into a circle about 11-12cm in diameter. Place a generous tablespoonful of filling on the centre of the dough, with a hard-boiled egg quarter. Dab the edges of the wrapper with water and fold in half, pressing the edges to seal the curry puff. Crimp by hand or use a curry puff mould. At this stage, you can freeze the curry puffs or fry as they are.
Heat a wok with oil to 180C. Add the curry puffs and fry until golden brown and crisp. Drain on a wire rack and enjoy. If frying the curry puffs from frozen, do not thaw – deep-fry them frozen.
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