Learn more about ingredients used in Malaysian cooking here.
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.
Read more: An Intro to Malaysian Food: The Ingredients
- Yield:enough 3/4 cup to 1 cup paste
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon belacan, pressed into a disk 1/4 inch thick
- 5 shallots
- 3 cloves garlic
- 12 fresh red chilies, such as red Holland, Fresno, or cayenne, stemmed and coarsely chopped
- 1 teaspoon palm sugar, thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons belacan, pressed into a disk 1/4 inch thick
- 1 shallot
- 3 cloves garlic
- 5 fresh red chilies, such as red Holland, Fresno, or cayenne, stemmed and coarsely chopped
- The juice of one lime
1. Heat the oil wok over medium heat. Add the disk of belacan and brown it on both sides, turning just once so as not to break up the disk more than necessary. Using a sloted spoon, remove the disk from the oil and allow it to cool.
2. Place the belacan, shallots, garlic, chiles, palm sugar, and salt in a small food processor. Pulse until you have a paste with a slightly chunky consistency.
3. Over medium heat, reheat the oil. Place the paste into the oil and saute. Lower the heat to low, stirring occasionally. Continue to saute for 8 to 10 minutes, until the oil separates from the paste and the paste itself is a few shades darker. Salt to taste.
4. Transfer the paste to a small bowl and allow to cool completely before using. Leave it in the bowl for eaters to spoon at their own discretion, or used in a stir-fried dish. Leftover sambal may be stored in an container for up to a week in the refrigerator.
Nonya Sambal (Sambal Belacan)
1. Toast the belacan, pressed into a disk, in a foil packet set over the burner.
2. Place the toasted belacan, shallots, garlic, and chiles in a small food processor. Pulse until you have a paste with a slightly chunky consistency.
3. Transfer the paste to a small bowl. Leave it in the bowl for eaters to spoon at their own discretion, or used in a stir-fried dish. Leftover sambal may be stored in an container for up to a week in the refrigerator.
Stir-Fried Rice with Sambal
- makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon of the sambal of your choice
4 tablespoons oil
4 cups day-old rice
1 teaspoon sweet soy sauce
Cilantro, to garnish
1. Heat the wok with the 1 tablespoon of oil. Crack the eggs into the wok, two at a time, and fry until the whites are browned on the edges but the yolk is still runny. Set aside.
2. Add the sambal to the wok and stir fry over low heat for just a few seconds. Add sweet soy sauce and the rice and stir around to mix the grains evenly with the seasonings.
3. Transfer the rice to bowls and top with an egg. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately.