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Last year I took a Southeast Asian cooking class on Pulau Ubin, a tiny island in Singapore. Nestled in the jungle in an old kampung style house, I learned how to prepare an important ingredient that forms the flavor base for much of the cooking in these parts: chili sambal. Though more complex, sambal is the Southeast Asian equivalent to a French mirepoix (celery, onions, carrots) or Spanish sofrito (garlic, onions, peppers). As chili forms one of the main ingredients, sambals are usually extremely hot. It's used to flavor everything in Singapore, from vegetable dishes, to fish, to meat. It's even served on the side to be dabbed onto your food at will, just in case your dish wasn't making you sweat enough. Here, a dish isn't proper unless it makes you feel the pain.
To make the sambal in class, we pounded out the ingredients (dried chilies, Thai chilies, shallots, garlic, ginger, and salt) by hand using a mortar and pestle. In my kitchen, I often skip that step and plug in the food processor. To cook, the mixture is fried until softened, golden, and the oil begins to separate from the aromatics. My chef instructor said to "cook it till the aroma of the chili makes you cough." A warning here: it does. Tart tamarind pulp and palm sugar are mixed in to balance out the heat.
Though we didn't fry up the sambal with chicken and shrimp in class, I decided to wing it here. I marinated the chicken and shrimp in a portion of the sambal (cut this step if you're in a hurry), then tossed it all into a wok to quickly stir fry. This is no humble dish. Intense heat and spicy, full flavor is what you're in for here. Serve this delicious meal with a bowl of white rice and a towel nearby to dab your forehead with.
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About the author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of the new cookbook One Bowl Baking: Simple From Scratch Recipes for Delicious Desserts (Running Press, October 2013), also available at Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Powell's, and The Book Depository. Watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. Follow her Chocoholic, Chicken Dinners, Singapore Stories and Let Them Eat Cake columns on Serious Eats. Follow Yvonne on Twitter as she explores Singapore.