The quintessential Malaysian condiment, sambal is a deeply fragrant, spicy and sweet chilli paste with the added kick of dried shrimp paste that Malaysians chuck on just about everything.
Be it to stir fry vegetables like aubergines, okra or kangkung (water morning glory/water spinach), to intensify meat and fish dishes or as an accompaniment to our favourite hawker staples like nasi lemak, curry laksa, Hokkien mee and prawn mee, sambal is insanely versatile and characterises the Malaysian addiction to all things hot and tasty. A million different "authentic" versions abound depending on who you ask, but after much experimentation I've found that the recipe below is the closest thing to the stuff we find back home.
Whilst purists will insist you can only make a decent version with the traditional pestle and mortar, I see no point in wasting the convenience of my electric blender and have thus far had no complaints :) Feel free to adjust the heat, saltiness or sweetness as desired.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
Firstly, deseed about 50g-100g dried chillies (basically a big handful, depends on the heat you want) by tearing them in half and letting the seeds fall out. Don't worry if you leave a few in, but shake most of them out or you'll burn your tongue off!
Boil the chillies for 30-45 mins to further reduce the heat. Drain off the liquid and let cool.
Blend to a fine paste:
The prepared chillies above
15 shallots (the tiny red Asian type) or 3 medium cooking onions
20 cloves of garlic
A small handful of whole dried anchovies
1 tsp belacan (dried shrimp paste)
Heat a generous amount of oil in a saucepan or wok, and fry the blended paste over medium-high heat for 10 mins or so until the oil separates (by this, I mean until the paste thickens and visible trace amounts of oil seep from the sides and "separates" from the bulk. This is a crucial step to make sure the spices are fried thoroughly enough and all the moisture is evaporated).
Add and cook a further 5 mins until a darker red:
1/4 cup asam jawa (tamarind juice- soak a large chunk of tamarind pulp in hot water, stir, then strain through a sieve and discard the seeds)
1/3 cup gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) or dark brown sugar
Salt to taste
Let cool completely before using. Stir in whole crispy fried anchovies to make it sambal ikan bilis, serve alongside nasi lemak or any other rice/noodle dish, or use to stir fry vegetables, seafood or meat.
Store in a container in the fridge, or freeze for later use.