There are few things more central to a Singaporean table than sambal. Sambal is a loose term used to refer to a chilli-based condiment in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In a spice-obsessed country such as Singapore, each hawker dish is paired with its sambal. Each sambal has its own unique blend of ingredients, but most have garlic, shallots and chillies as its backbone. For acidity, some employ the use of calamansi juice, others the sharp tang of vinegar.
Sambal tumis is a chilli paste that is fried in oil, and is an entirely different animal to the chilli condiments that are eaten raw. It is a thick jammy paste, its colour a deep red to reddish brown. Its bold, rich roasted flavour comes from the slow-caramelization of chilli and onions. It is to Singaporeans what nam prik pao (chilli jam) is to Thai, and its uses in the Singaporean household are manifold.
Fold through some deep-fried ikan bilis and it becomes a fitting accompaniment for nasi lemak. Hard boil some eggs, deep-fry them then roll them in the sambal. But my favourite way to eat sambal tumis is undoubtedly with seafood.
Growing up my mother’s hack for putting food on the table quickly was this. She would smear a piece of fish with sambal tumis, roasted it in banana leaves. It is her riff on the iconic hawker dish sambal stingray. There isn’t any stingray where i live, but a flatfish such as flounder works beautifully as a substitute. And once you have sambal tumis in your fridge, it is a snap to make.
Sear the fish in an oiled pan until almost cooked. Smear the sambal on both sides before wrapping in banana leaves. Place the banana leaf package on the pan over low heat until the fish is cooked. Flip at least once so that both sides cook evenly. Unwrap the package at the table, scatter on thinly sliced red onions and squeeze lime juice over. If you want to make this truly sublime, serve with a dip made with with cincalok, lime juice and sliced red chillies. Pure heaven!
Makes 2 medium-sized jars
50g dried chillies
40g haebee, soaked for 10 minutes, drained and blended to a floss
400g red onions or shallots, peeled and cut roughly
60g garlic, peeled
20g belacan, crumbled and toasted in a dry pan
45g galangal, skin removed and sliced thinly
2 stalks of lemongrass (white part only), sliced thinly
30g tamarind pulp
40g gula melaka
With a pair of scissors, snip the dried chillies in half. If you prefer a more spicy sambal, skip this step and keep the chillies whole.
Place the dried chillies in a colander or large bowl and shake well. This will cause the seeds to fall out of the dried chillies. Transfer the dried chillies into a bowl, leaving the seeds in the colander.
Pour hot water over the chillies and allow the chillies to soak until soft, about half an hour.
Place the red onions or shallots at the bottom of a blender.
Place the belacan, lemongrass and galangal on top of the onions and garlic. Blend until a watery, purple paste forms.
Drain and squeeze excess water from the dried chillies and add it to the blender. Blend until smooth.
Mix in the haebee floss.
Heat the oil in a large pan or pot until it shimmers. Add the paste to the hot oil and stir the paste in to mix it in quickly. Alternatively, you could start cooking the spice paste in a dry pan over high heat until it bubbles. When the bubbling stops, add the oil and mix it through.
Cook over medium heat until the paste turns a deep reddish brown. Add the tamarind and gula melaka. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.
Cool and pack into jars. Store in the refrigerator.