A Malaysian Progressive Dinner: Spicy Sambal

My husband and I returned two weeks ago from a lovely holiday spent traveling in Malaysia. We visited the capital Kuala Lumpur, the beautiful island of Langkawi, and Malaysia’s food hub itself, Penang, sampling a variety of delicious dishes throughout the journey. Perhaps the real beauty of Malaysian food is that it is a fusion primarily composed of Indian cuisines, with Thai, Chinese, and of course Malay influences. A few regional dishes aside, I was usually hard-pressed to find a truly Malay dish. When questioning Malays about this, they confessed that there were indeed few, but eagerly shared their favorites, which I sampled and created at home to share in this series.

Sambal is the condiment that makes Malaysia go round and I feel it merits its own post, as it will play a larger part in two other dishes in this series. It’s unique flavor is difficult to pin-down: a mixture of spicy-garlicky goodness, with sour, savory, and sweet notes; and I haven’t yet discovered an adequate substitute. Though I have read that sambal is available in many Asian stores, I can’t imagine that the store-bought version’s flavor compares to that of homemade.

Note: There are several ingredient combinations to make sambal, and it appears that each family has a different recipe. I made my version based on the sambal I tasted in Langkawi, as well as certain ingredients told to me by a particular Malay. I used both tamarind juice and lime juice, but tamarind can be omitted if it is not available. Though is adds great depth, shrimp paste could also be omitted; I’m sure using two teaspoons of fish sauce in its stead would achieve this as well.  Feel free to use this recipe as a guideline to create your own sambal. 



10-12 fresh hot chilies, seeded and stems removed

5-6 dried chilies, stems removed or 1 tablespoon ground dried chilies, unseasoned

6-8 shallots, roughly chopped

1 inch piece ginger, roughly chopped

1 stalk lemongrass (only the bottom 3-4 inches is used), finely chopped

1 head garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

1 and 1/2 teaspoons shrimp paste (plain or sautéed variety)

2 teaspoons lime juice

1-2 tablespoons tamarind juice (if available)

1-2 teaspoons honey or sugar

2 tablespoons oil for sauteing, such as grape seed

Salt to taste


Combine everything in a small food processor or blender and pulse, pausing to scrape down the sides as needed. If the paste is too thick, add liquid (water, more lime or tamarind juice or a light-tasting oil like grapeseed) one teaspoon at a time until it is a manageable consistency.

Once the sambal is blended well, heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook the sambal, stirring continuously, until it takes on a deep red color, and is very fragrant, about one minute.

Enjoy the sambal over plain rice, as Malays do for a quick bite to eat, or use it as a condiment for any dish that needs a bit of a perk.  It will keep in the fridge for a few weeks, but in my home, storing it wasn’t a problem. It was used up after only three days.



About continuethislabor

Hi I'm Tera. I'm interested in how flavors work together and how we can work together to be responsible Earth citizens. Currently I teach English in S. Korea with my husband, but someday we will own a small organic farm. There, we will grow vegetables, raise chickens and goats, and play Catan in our little cottage while drinking good coffee.

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