How to Make Sambal
Sambals are pastes in Malaysia that are the foundation for so many other recipes, as well as condiments to be served at the table. View sambal recipes here »
Malaysian cooks employ techniques and ingredients that we've come to associate with the Chinese, Indian, and Thai, yet the balanced, sophisticated flavors that the cuisine offers are entirely novel to palates unaccustomed. The country spans more than one mass of land; given its complex political history, neighboring Singapore and Indonesia make culinary contributions that are sometimes mere influences, and more frequently, one and the same.
This is a primer that discusses the basic ingredients that are, relatively speaking, unique to Malaysian cookery. (For those cooks who've already amassed ingredients commonly used in Thai cuisine—for instance, lemongrass, coconut milk, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves—the transition to Malaysian cuisine will be considerably smoother. Refer to the primer on Thai curries for a refresher.)
Belacan / Shrimp Paste
"belacan is always toasted and used in small quantities, providing a savory depth to curries and pastes"
Belacan (pronounced buh-LAH-chan) is one of the most important, and by far, the most pungent ingredient in Malaysian cookery. Unlike the oily, garlicky shrimp paste used in Thai curries, belacan is a hardened block of shrimp paste, made from tiny shrimp mixed with salt and fermented. The fermented paste is then ground into a smoother paste, then sun dried, shaped into blocks, and allowed to ferment again. The resulting blocks are chalky and only slightly moist. Powerful in both smell and taste, belacan is always toasted and used in small quantities, providing a savory depth to curries and pastes. (Play around with the amount of belacan you prefer in your sambals. If, like me, you always add more than the recommended number of anchovies to your Caesar salad dressings, you may just want to add an extra half teaspoon or so of belacan to your sambals!)
Though many have described belacan as pungent, I'd go so far as to describe its smell as stinky, like a gym bag, a sneaker, or whatever other foot-related image comes to mind. Belacan's malodorous quality only intensifies when browned. To toast belacan, used your palm to compress a tablespoon or so of the paste wrapped in a small packet of foil. Place the foil over a gas stove burner and toast over low heat for 30 seconds to a minute on each side, until the edges of the disk of belacan are lightly browned and crisp. The belacan will emit an alarmingly smoky, burning smell, which is an indication that it is toasting up nicely.
A word of warning: The first time I toasted just a teaspoon of the block over a small gas flame, the belacan emitted such smoky, funky smells that even with the windows open and the exhaust fan turned on, the entire apartment became a petri dish for its insidious odors. Not having fully realized this until I left my apartment, I (and my neighboring classmates) spent the entirety of a yoga class inhaling the residual smell of belacan that had works its way into the fibers of my clothes.
Sweet Soybean Paste
Falling somewhere between the consistency of a paste and a sauce, this condiment of fermented soybeans, rice flour, sugar, and salt has the winey complexity of miso, but with a much sweeter undertone. Halved soybeans are suspended throughout the sauce; the nubby texture and beany flavor pair well with many stir-fried noodle dishes and stews.
Indonesian Sweet Soy Sauce
Though it's mostly used in Indonesian dishes, Malaysian cooks will employ the sweet, smoky syrup known as kecap manis, or sweet soy sauce, in various sambals and simmering dishes. Thick and syrupy, this dark-brown mixture of palm sugar and soy sauce has an admirable sweet-savory, honeyed taste. It's complex enough to be drizzled over rice and noodle dishes, but it's also an important addition to pastes.
Native to Indonesia, candlenuts are distantly related to macadamia nuts, though they're larger with a rougher exterior. Ground up, candlenuts thicken pastes and coconut-milk based curries. (Candlenuts are also mildly toxic when raw, inducing just a friendly warning level of nausea.)
Palm sugar, made from the boiled-down sap of the tree, is sold in either large cylindrical tubes or smaller, rounded disks. Brown sugar can be substituted in a pinch, but it lacks the complexity of palm sugar, which adds a caramel-like, toasted taste to both sweet desserts as well as savory dishes.
The fruit of the tall tamarind tree, native to east Africa, is a smallish curved pod with a brittle shell that encases a sticky, brown pulp. Sweet and sour, the pulp is usually mixed with warm water to extract the juice—a fruity, sour liquid that's used in soups and curries, as well as stir-fried dishes. The rigid blocks of pulp contain little bits of seed and pod that should be strained out prior to use. (Don't use the whole tamarind pods, also commonly sold in Asian markets, which are meant to be eaten as fruit.)
Want to use some of these Malaysian ingredients? Try these recipes for two kinds of sambals and sambal-flavored stir-fried rice here »