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Javanese and Nonya Sambal, and Stir-Fried Rice with Sambal

Learn more about ingredients used in Malaysian cooking here.

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Sambals are pastes in Malaysia that are the foundation for so many other recipes, as well as condiments to be served at the table. Sambals are pounded, puréed, or finely chopped; made with chili, shallots or onions, and garlic, the pastes also incorporate a wide range of ingredients, like shrimp paste, palm sugar, and lemongrass.

The Javanese sambal is made from sautéing shrimp paste, grinding it with aromatics, chilies, and palm sugar, and sautéing the entire mixture in a wok until the paste is dark, thick, and slightly caramelized. The Nonya sambal, on the other hand, is uncooked (save for the shrimp paste). While the pastes taste balanced as they are, feel free to experiment with additions of candlenuts, lemongrass, and tamarind juice, depending on your specific tastes. Think of a Malaysian sambal waiting in your fridge as would a bottle of sriracha or a fine quality soy sauce: Having one on hand drastically cuts down on preparation time, all the while adding complexity to whatever you're cooking.

Pungent and deep, a sambal can be the only enrichment for a dish of rice or noodles; a few pats can be the base for a curry laksa (noodle soup) dish. To demonstrate, I've added a recipe for stir-fried rice with egg—using any one of the sambals on hand, the entire dish can be assembled in 10 minutes, yet the rice is spicy and fragrant with hints of shrimp paste, palm sugar, and lime. A pat of sambal can also be added to stir-fried noodles, or with other stir-fried dishes of meat 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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