My aunt used to make me jars and jars of sambal belacan to bring back to North America with me every time I go home to Malaysia for holiday. I had decided that I should learn to make it myself and luckily with the advent of the Internet, I found many sambal recipes posted online by fellow Malaysians locally and abroad (like me). I had previously posted a version of nasi lemak last year, served with sambal telur instead.
I am posting an adapted version of sambal ikan bilis from Rasa Malaysia, only because I do not use ikan bilis (anchovies) in mine (it’s vegetarian) and I used jarred chopped chillies instead – see picture above (mainly because I was not able to find long thin dried chillies here). I made this version of sambal for a potluck in December and it was a huge hit. I really do think that the secret ingredient to my sambal are tamarind (assam jawa) juice, brown or palm sugar (gula melaka) and sea salt (as opposed to iodised salt) .Also, I do not own a mortar and pestle, I would love to because food does taste different compared to those made with the food processor, but I don’t think my neighbours below me would appreaciate it😛
- 1 cup of water
- 1.5″ to 2″ ball of tamarind pulp (size of a small ping pong ball)
- 1/2 red onion
- 4 shallots
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 stalk lemongrass thinly sliced (use only the bottom 3 inches of the stalk)
- 10 dried chillies or 1 cup jarred chopped chillies
- 1 teaspoon of vegetarian belacan (prawn paste) powder
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt or to taste
- 1 tablespoon of brown/palm sugar (gula melaka), or to taste
- Soak the tamarind pulp in warm water for 15 minutes or more. Squeeze the tamarind constantly to extract the flavor into the water. Remove seeds, drain the pulp and save the tamarind juice.
- Slice onions into rings or half rings.
- Pound or grind the prawn paste together with lemon grass, shallots, garlic, and chillies. We will call this the spice paste.
- Heat 1/2 cup of cooking oil in a hot wok. Do not skim on the amount of oil when it come to making sambal or curries. Good curries and sambal has a layer of spiced oil on top of them when they are done. The fat is necessary to bring out the taste of spices.
- Fry the spice paste until fragrant.
- Add tamarind juice, sugar and salt. Some people like their sambal sweet. Use as much sugar as needed.
- Let the paste cook while stirring occasionally. It is ready when oil from the paste floats to the top. This is called ‘pecah minyak’ in Malay. You can choose to ladle off the layer of oil before serving, or if you are keeping them for future use in a jar, keep the layer of oil to preserve the flavour. Like all curries or anything spice based, they get better the day after or even longer, if stored properly.