Lemak Cili Padi, The Turmeric Gravy You Can Use to Poach Anything

When I asked my friend Ahmir about what he feels is a quintessential ingredient in Malay cooking, he told me that it’s probably turmeric root. Though turmeric powder is more commonplace, they have a different flavour. He says, “Fresh turmeric root has a bit of a ginger taste, while the powder is more earthy. Turmeric powder is usually for Indian dals and curries, while turmeric root is always made into a paste. I always pick out the younger roots as it is not as fibrous, making it easier to break down.”

In Ahmir’s household, turmeric root is made into a paste and used as a key ingredient in chicken or satay marinade, for lodeh or lemak. One of his favourite dishes is lemak cili padi and he talked me through how to cook it. Basically you prepare a rempah which you fry with oil to remove the raw flavour of the aromatics, then add coconut milk at the end to form a gravy. You can adjust it to your desired richness with coconut cream. Add some lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and poach whatever you like in it. I have chosen to poach some barramundi and tomatoes, but Ahmir says that chicken or vegetables such as young jackfruit, cabbage and snake beans are equally good.

Lemak Cili Padi

Feeds 4-6

½ red onion, cut roughly

5 garlic cloves, peeled

15 chilli padi, stalks removed

50g turmeric, scraped to remove skin then sliced

4 tablespoons oil

1L thick coconut milk

1 lemongrass, white part only, sliced

5-10 kaffir lime leaves

3 teaspoons salt (or to taste)

2 teaspoons sugar (or to taste)

Water or coconut cream to adjust the richness, as desired

750g fish fillets, cut into chunks (I used barramundi)

4 tomatoes, cut into wedges

Blend the onions, garlic, chilli padi and turmeric until a spice paste forms – Ahmir says that it doesn’t have to be too fine. Heat the oil in a wok or pot and add the spice paste. Fry on low heat until it is fragrant and “as paste-y as it can be”. Add the coconut milk, lemongrass, lime leaves, salt and sugar. Stir and bring to a simmer. Add water or coconut cream to adjust the gravy to your desired richness and consistency. Add the fish fillets and tomatoes and allow to poach for 5-10 minutes on low heat or until cooked – do not stir too much to avoid breaking up the fish. Serve with steamed rice.



Pamelia Chia is a Singaporean chef and the author of the bestselling cookbook ‘Wet Market to Table’. After graduating with an Honor’s degree in Food Science and Technology from the National University of Singapore in 2014, she decided to trade a food scientist’s lab coat in for chef whites. She has since been working in restaurants in Singapore and Melbourne, including Candlenut and Carlton Wine Room. Her deepest interest being the preservation and celebration of Singaporean food heritage and culture, she started Singapore Noodles in 2020 as a platform to share about Singaporean food to a global audience. Find her on Instagram @pameliachia.

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