The Secret is in the Sambal

Sambal is very popular in Southeast Asian cuisine, especially amongst the Malays and Nonyas. I grew up eating all kinds of sambal and my Mum ensured that I started early on this fiery addiction.

If you are wondering where the distinctive taste of any good Malay stall or Nonya restaurant comes from, in all likelihood, it has to do with sambal.

Sambal is basically made from chillies along with various condiments – like shallots, belacan (shrimp paste) and lemongrass – depending on the type of sambal one is making. When the raw ingredients are mixed into a paste, it is sometimes called rempah.

Some sambals are eaten raw, like Sambal Belacan. Most are gently cooked in a wok with some oil added. As the flavours of most herbs are oil-soluble, the tastes will fuse, resulting in a sambal with mellowness and a wonderful mouth-feel from the oil and caramelized onion-based paste.

Different chillies can be used, fresh or dried (which needs to be rehydrated), and they all give slightly different results. The smaller and fiery chilli padi are often added to notch up the spiciness. Use the best chilies you can find in regards to flavour, texture and spiciness.

The traditional way of pounding and bruising chillies in a mortar and pestle (lesong) is still the best way of releasing and mixing the ingredients. I can remember doing a lot of squatting and pounding as a child in my Mum’s kitchen. The process will bring tears to your eyes but you can smell the flavours developing as you add various ingredients to the lesong.

I recommend this for making Sambal Belacan as it is best eaten fresh in small amounts. Pounding, as opposed to grinding in an electric blender, produces a different flaky texture – a difference which you will notice.

However, an electric blender will work too, especially when you are making a huge lot of sambal. Apart from speed and convenience, it also spares you some tears.

I should add that using the lesong has its own convenience too, especially when you want to quickly pound a small amount of herbs. I find it indispensable in my kitchen.  

As for cooked sambal, the key is to caramelize or sweat the onions patiently in an amount of oil which is roughly equivalent to that of the onions.

Almost always, these appetizing sambal dishes are enjoyed with white rice and eaten traditionally using your hand.