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Seriously Malaysian: How to Cook with Sambals

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Kare laksa. [Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Sambal Recipes

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Last week we featured a couple of the major ingredients in Malaysian cookery and discussed the importance of sambals in the cuisine. Assuming, of course, that you rushed immediately to your nearest South East Asian market and acquired the all-powerful belacan (fermented shrimp paste), then you probably have a sambal or two sitting in your refrigerator. Aside from its role as a condiment, a sambal also happens to be a handy base in cooking other dishes.

The famed laksas, a curried noodle dish with endless variations, begin with a paste that's essentially a nonya sambal (also known as sambal belacan) embellished with ground spices. In other words, once you've gone through the trouble of assembling a sambal (the toasting of the belacan, the grinding of the shallots with the spices and chiles, and so forth), the actual work required to compose a dish is just a few steps away. Bulked up with more ground spices, the sambal is sautéed slowly in oil much in the same way that a Thai curry paste is toasted (or "cracked") in coconut oil. Coconut milk and water are added, after which the entire broth is simmered along with tofu and your choice of protein (chicken, seafood, and so forth.)

The broth of kare laksa, with its heady and complex flavor, is rightfully one of the famous Asian noodle soups alongside other luminaries like Vietnamese pho. Bone-in chicken is a wise choice for laksa, as the pieces of chicken that are stewed in the coconut and curry mixture will produce a meaty broth in the cooking process. For variation, seafood may also be added towards the end of the simmering time. My favorite additions are shrimp and lightly fried fish, though when lobster prices come down, the pairing of the dense lobster meat with the rich soup is ideal.

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The same method of combining a toasted sambal paste with coconut milk can be used to cook tofu or vegetables. In this week's tofu recipe, deep-fried pieces of tofu are simmered alongside vegetables for a hearty home-style dish. The tofu is particularly suited for absorbing the deep flavors of the sambal: even diluted with coconut milk and water, the flavor of the belacan comes through for a slightly funky, shrimp-suggestive undertone.

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Fried tempeh and tofu.

Tempeh, another popular soy product in Malaysia, is a compressed cake of half-cooked, peeled and dried soybeans that are traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and fermented for a few days. Deep-fried tempeh that takes on a nutty, mellowed taste. Toss slices of deep-fried tempeh in your choice of a sambal, which penetrates the dense texture of the tempeh. To deep-fry the tempeh, simply slice the block into thin sections, about 1/3 inch thick, and fry in medium-hot oil (about 350°F) for two to three minutes until the slices are lightly browned. Do not be tempted to fry the tempeh for even a second more than is necessary, as the slices will turn darker brown and bitter when fried for too long.

Regardless of what you decide to do with your sambals, remember to toast the pastes slowly in medium-hot oil. Sautéeing the pastes should always take more than five minutes; towards the end, the oil will have begun to separate from the paste. Be sure to toast carefully and slowly, lest the chilies and sugar in the pastes burn in the oil.

Start using yours sambals with these recipes for Kare Laksa and Simmered Tofu and Vegetables »

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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