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.