Hooray for unforgettable tohay

The age-old recipe used belly pork, but chicken tastes good too


My mother used to serve a whole chicken to celebrate an occasion, but today, we eat it regularly.

It is regarded as white meat. Being health-conscious, we would choose chicken (and pork, dubbed "the other white meat") over red meat like beef and lamb.

Even so, we did not eat the dark meat and skin of the bird, restricting ourselves to the bland white meat.

But now, with fat no longer a dirty word, we can be more relaxed about our choice of meat.

According to health website WebMD, studies have shown that saturated fat, long thought to raise heart disease risks, has no effect. In fact, monounsaturated fats are now thought to help the heart.

Despite such findings, chicken is often cooked and eaten in my household. I still remove visible fat from the chicken and refrain from frying it, though this is more to avoid oil spatters rather than health concerns.



    1 medium-sized chicken (about 1kg)

    1 Tbs oil

    1 tsp salt or to taste

    3 kaffir lime leaves

    1 stalk lemongrass, cut into short lengths, white part only

    2 to 3 red chillies, left whole


    2 Tbs red wine lees paste

    2 Tbs cincalok (fermented shrimp fry)

    1 onion, chopped


    1. Remove the skin and visible fat from chicken. Cut into large pieces.

    2. Heat 1 Tbs of oil in a pan and add the chopped onion. Allow it to soften.

    3. Add the red wine lees paste and cincalok, then the chicken pieces.

    4. Toss to mix well, then add water to cover half of the chicken and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and allow to simmer.

    5. Add kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chillies.

    6. Add salt, adjusting for taste.

    7. When the chicken is tender, it is done. Serve with rice and a salad or vegetable dish.

    SERVES 6 to 8

When I rediscovered this old recipe for belly pork, I decided to cook it with chicken instead.

This age-old recipe involves cooking shrimp fry, fermented in rice, salt, red yeast (angkak) and a little brandy to produce a pungent red condiment called tohay.

It has an unforgettable taste, like belacan and cincalok, which are also made by fermenting shrimp fry.

Belacan is made from salting and drying fresh baby shrimp, while cincalok is baby shrimp fermented with rice and salt in bottles. Brandy is sometimes added.

While belacan and cincalok are available in the shops, few people make tohay today. I followed my aunt's instructions and ended up with a fair approximation of my memory of tohay.

This may be just a braised dish, but the delectable seasoning makes it unforgettable. It is lovely, cooked even with white chicken meat, stripped of its skin. In fact, removing the skin allows the seasoning to penetrate the meat.

Anyone can cook this old-fashioned dish. You just need cincalok and the red wine lees paste that the Foochows use for their red chicken soup. Both are available in the shops.

You mix the two seasonings together to obtain a good substitute of the tohay paste, without the bother of fermenting it yourself.

You then brown the chicken in this paste and braise it, adding aromatics like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and red chilli to enjoy a taste of ayam tohay.

  • Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous Eat To Live recipes can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste.

Limit use of cincalok and use lean cuts of meat

This ayam tohay dish is low in fat and can be served with wholegrain rice to increase its fibre content.

One of the ingredients in the dish is red wine lees paste. The fermented product is made up of glutinous rice, cooking wine, water, salt and sugar.

Not much research has been done on the health benefits of red wine lees.

Fermented foods are generally rich in probiotics, which are known as good bacteria. However, some studies show that a high intake of fermented foods increases the risk of gastric cancer. 

Fermented foods sold commercially may contain a lot of acid, salt and sugar, which are added to ensure a longer shelf life.

This dish uses cincalok, or fermented shrimp. It is low in calories and fat, and high in protein.

A 100g portion of cincalok provides 55kcal, 0.8g fat and 9g protein. However, the same portion contains 4,485mg of sodium.

This is double the daily recommended sodium intake of 2,000mg.

To make it a healthier dish, you can limit the use of cincalok.

Also, use only lean cuts of chicken to reduce your total fat consumption.


(per serving: 115g)

Energy: 209kcal

Protein: 16.4g

Total fat: 14.8g

Saturated fat: 4.4g

Dietary fibre: 0.3g

Carbohydrate: 1.6g

Cholesterol: 68.7mg

Sodium: 533.8mg

• Note: The nutritional analysis of red wine lees paste is not available.

Bibi Chia
Principal dietitian, Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Hooray for unforgettable tohay'. Print Edition | Subscribe