Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sambal Belacan (Malaysian condiment with a nasty kick!)

Very popular in the South-East Asian countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, sambal is a chili-based sauce that is most often used as a spicy condiment that goes with just about anything and everything served in those countries. What started out as an ubiquitous sauce used mainly in traditional Malay dishes, sambal has inevitably found its way into the cuisines of Malaysia's multi-cultural society. For instance, one's morning can begin with a kick start when sambal ikan bilis (crispy fried anchovies cooked with sambal) is served as an essential accompaniment to nasi lemak, a rich coconut milk and screwpine leaf-scented rice breakfast dish. It is also a must-have condiment when eating the hearty Indian-Muslim specialty of nasi kandar, a rice-based dish served with your choice of as much as 20 or more different types of curries and kormas. Not to be left out, the Chinese community in Malaysia has also embraced the spicy sambal as an essential sauce that goes with most anything, be it fried noodles or rice or even in soup-base dishes. Even the very traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice dish (hailing from Hainan province in China) is served with its own version of sambal, one that comes with the inclusion of minced ginger and garlic.

Now that we know what sambal is, what about belacan? Well, it is certainly not for someone with a weak stomach or nose. Like the infamous durian, the thorny fruit whose smell has often been described as resembling a dirty toilet or wet socks, belacan has its own unique pungent aroma. Made from sun-dried ground shrimp, it is left to ferment for days before it is sold in the shape of brown rectangular blocks. To Western noses, belacan can be pretty unappetizing but when combined with sambal, it creates a new dimension of smell and flavor. The smokiness and decidedly strong aroma provides a nice counterpoint to the spiciness of the sambal, unapologetically showcasing what South-East Asian cuisine is all about: strong flavors with just a little uneasy pungency. Belacan is quite a rare item here in the U.S. and can only be found in certain Asian specialty stores. It can be quite hard to procure unless you have the right connections!

Growing up in Malaysia, no meal is complete without sambal belacan. It is easy to make and can last up to a week in the refrigerator. Here is what you need:

2 oz block of belacan
8 red jalapeños (deseeded)
3 - 4 Thai bird chilis (deseeded)
3 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon of sugar
Salt to taste

First, the belacan needs to be toasted. Be careful to turn on your stove's hood ventilator because the pungent smell will permeate just about everywhere (just ask my kids as they head out the door to escape!). When softened, you can either use a mortar and pestle to ground it up or just cut it into smaller cubes to get it ready for the food processor. Traditionally, sambal belacan is prepared exclusively on a mortar and pestle but less than a minute in a modern food processor should provide the same result as well. Some people like their sambal belacan a little on the chunky side where you can still make out tiny pieces of the various chilis. And this is achievable only on a mortar and pestle. When using a food processor, pretty much everything is shredded fine (just like what you see in the picture above). So, just add all the ingredient above into the food processor and voila! sambal belacan.

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