This is comfort food. When I was growing up in the United States, it’s a dish my paternal grandmother made often for her Saturday dinners or Sunday lunches for the family. And, when I left home, it was a familiar dish to order at inexpensive “rice plate” Chinese restaurants.
It’s something I make at home, too, although my recipe is slightly different from my grandmother’s: she didn’t use fish sauce but I do, and I prefer to add coconut milk instead of the canned evaporated milk she used. But it still tastes of home.
Curry powders vary a lot in flavour, depending on the spices used. I use the Koon Yick Wah Kee brand, which is made in Hong Kong. If you like a slightly spicy curry, and there’s not enough chilli in your brand of curry powder, add a small amount of cayenne pepper or Korean chilli flakes (gochugaru). It shouldn’t be very spicy though – the flavour should be mild and slightly sweet.
I use a fresh, small chicken for this, that's been cut into nine pieces (two drumsticks, two thighs, two wings and two breasts, plus the lower back.
Pour oil to the depth of about 2.5cm (1in) into a large skillet and place over a medium flame. Spoon some cornstarch into a shallow dish. Dredge the chicken pieces in the cornstarch to coat them completely, then shake off the excess. When the oil is 180°C (350°F), place the chicken pieces in the pan and cook until the crust is set – you don’t want to cook the meat completely. Turn the pieces over and fry the other side. You’ll probably need to do this in batches; don’t crowd the pan. When the chicken pieces are ready, drain them on paper towels.
Finely chop the onion and mince the garlic. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 2cm (⅞in) chunks.
Heat about 30ml (2tbsp) of oil in a large, wide pot and place it over a low-medium flame. When the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until the onion is translucent but not brown.
Add the ginger and stir for about 30 seconds, then mix in the curry powder (and the cayenne or chilli flakes, if using). Stir almost constantly for about 30 seconds, then pour in the fish sauce, sugar and 400ml (1⅔ cup) of water. Add the potatoes and 1tsp of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, stir well, then cover with the lid and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Add the dark meat chicken pieces to the pot – drumsticks, thighs and lower back – nestling them among the potatoes so they are partially submerged in the liquid. Bring to the boil then lower the flame, cover the pot with the lid and simmer for eight minutes, stirring occasionally and turning over the pieces halfway through.
Add the wings and breast pieces, mix well, then simmer for five minutes.
Add almost all of the coconut milk, reserving about 15ml (1tbsp). Stir the ingredients then simmer for a few minutes before tasting the sauce. If it’s too spicy, add a little more sugar. If the sauce is too thick, stir in some water.
Ladle the ingredients into a serving bowl and drizzle with the reserved coconut milk. Scatter the toasted coconut shreds on top and serve immediately, with plenty of rice to soak up the sauce.