Sambal Tumis (Spicy Malaysian Sautéed Chilli Paste)
Posted March 6, 2011on:
Sambal tumis or simply, sambal is what I consider the “mother sauce” in Malay cooking. It is the base sauce for many spicy dishes such as sambal udang, sambal petai, sambal kangkung and many others that prefixes with the word sambal. Our national dish, the nasi lemak, must come with a dollop of sambal together with fried anchovies, peanuts, and hard boiled eggs. We also put a spoonful of that with the peanut sauce when eating satay. Not to mention, we cook them with rice, noodles, and shove it in our kids mouth if they can’t seem to shut up.
Okay, maybe not always to that extreme but the point is, Malaysians are obsessed with sambal. It’s brings a spicy touch of savoriness to an otherwise plain and boring plate of food. It elevates the dish, more so than adding ketchup to chips or fries. It makes the dish, period. I think what’s wonderful about it is the sweet-spicy combination of shallots/onions and red finger chillis which are then slowly sautéed to bring out the flavors.
An important ingredient in sambal tumis is belacan, which is fermented shrimp paste/block. It makes the sambal savory and pungent. Most foreigners would describe the smell of belacan as raunchy but locals absolutely love it. Belacan is essential but I decided to make a batch of sambal tumis without it. This way, when I use it to saute with meat or vegetables, I could use some belacan or just a pinch of salt, depending on who I am serving.
- 500g (about 1 lb) fresh red chilli, finely chopped
- 2 medium onions (or 1 large), finely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- About 6 tbsp concentrated tamarind pulp
- pinch of salt (or belacan)
- vegetable oil
- Sauté onions, garlic, red chilli in a wok on medium low heat with enough oil to make a wet paste. As you cook and the oil is absorbed, add more oil to keep it very wet. Continue to slowly sauté until the paste goes from bright red to dark red/brown, about 45 minutes (see pictures above).
- Add a pinch of salt and the tamarind pulp into the sambal tumis. Sauté for another 10 minutes until you get a consistency of a jam.
- Allow to cool and store it in a jar.
- Make sure you have enough oil to prevent burning the paste. You are suppose to have enough to shallow fry it.
- Don’t rush. You want to slowly evaporate the moisture from the paste and bring out the sweetness of the onions by caramelizing it.
- Remove the seeds and the middle cavity to reduce the spiciness.
- This recipe should yield a regular 6-7 inch mason jar of sambal. I highly recommend making twice as much because the process is time consuming and you can keep it for a long time in the fridge.
- If you are using belacan when making your own batch, omit the salt and slowly add toasted belacan to taste at the very end of the process. You should dry toast your belacan on the frying pan first to bring out the flavor.
- If you are using finely chopped shallots (not scallions or green onions), use as much shallots as you would with onions in weight.
- Terasi is Indonesia’s version of fermented shrimp paste/block and you can substitute belacan with it.