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. 

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Ingredients

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

Method

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.

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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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