Two recipes for the price of one: sambal terasi & sambal terong

Sambal is one of the foundation stones of Indonesian cuisine. It is often referred to in translation as chilli relish—but it is so much more than just a condiment, such as mustard or tomato ketchup. It might be served as a side dish, to accompany a main dish. But it is also often made into a main dish in its own right. I’m going to show you how to make a basic sambal, sambal terasi, and then turn this into a dish that is more of a main dish—sambal terong. ‘Terong’ means ‘aubergine’ in Indonesian. Sambal terasi, as its name implies, is essentially chillies and terasi, or shrimp paste, which I wrote all about in my last blog. I think of this as being the basic sambal. My family in Jakarta call it sambal ulek. But I know that some cooks use this name for an even more basic sambal, which doesn’t even have terasi—it’s just chillies ground with salt.

Ulek-ulek and cobek: pestle and mortar

ulek + cobek 1024

The traditional way of making sambal, as well as grinding the herbs, seeds, nuts and spices in many Indonesian dishes, is with a shallow stone mortar and a stone pestle. The pestle is called an ulek-ulek, from the Javanese for ‘to grind’ — hence the name sambal ulek. You can use a food processor and still get perfectly good results, but I reckon the effort of using a pestle and mortar really connects you with the raw ingredients, and somehow the end result tastes that little bit better!

Unfortunately it’s not easy to find these shallow stone pestle and mortars in the UK, where I live. I use two, both of them brought from Indonesia. I think you can find them in some Chinese supermarkets—if I find a supply I’ll post it on my blog. If you are in the US there is an online operation called Indo Food Store that sell them, together with most the ingredients you’re ever likely to want. Click to go to their website page.

I have seen recipes for sambal that call for the chillies to be boiled first. Personally I don’t do this. I prefer to use them raw. This retains their fresh, vibrant flavour. I also keep the seeds, which some discard in the interests of reducing the heat level. Sambal terong is really just sambal terasi with a couple of extra ingredients. It is still essentially a dish of raw ingredients, with the exception of the shrimp paste, which has been cooked in advance. This recipe is in fact my mother’s. The common way to serve sambal in Indonesia is to put the basic sambal ulek, or sambal terasi, in its own dish on the dining table, together with plates of different vegetables (or even fruits). You take a selection of vegetables, some lightly boiled, some raw, put them on your plate, and eat them together with a liberal quantity of sambal. Simple, but oh so delicious! Well my mum decided one day to serve a couple of the raw vegetables, the aubergines and the long beans, together with the chilli relish ground together on the same dish. The Soekardjo version of sambal terong was born!

Ingredients

Quantities shown are for enough sambal terong for four, served as a side dish, served with a main dish of meat or fish. If we have it at home on its own, just with rice, we would eat this amount between the two of us.

sambal terasi ingredientslime + palm sugar 1024terong, beans, basil 1024

For sambal terasi

  • Red chillies | 6 or 7 (the long, finger-size ones that supermarkets sell; possibly jalapeño, but the variety is rarely specified)
  • Green chillies | 9 or 10 (the small, hot ones; usually called finger chillies—though they’re smaller than anyone’s fingers— or the smaller, hotter bird’s eye); quantity depends on how hot they are, and how hot you want the sambal! You can even leave them out completely.
  • Cooked shrimp paste | 3 tsp (or an equivalent sized chunk if it’s still in solid form)
  • Sea salt flakes | 2 tsp
  • Lime | 1 quarter
  • Palm sugar | 1 tsp

For sambal terong

  • White aubergines (the small, hard, round ones) | 2 or 3
  • Chinese long beans | 3 or 4
  • Fresh basil | 3 or 4 sprigs

Click to jump to notes on ingredients and where to find them

Preparation

  1. Red and green chillies Cut the stalks off and break them into a food chopper or processor. The green chillies are small enough to be popped in whole. Blitz for a few seconds to break the chillies down to a coarse pulp.
  2. Scrape out the chilli pulp onto a mortar.
  3. Sea salt, terasi Spoon the salt and the terasi onto the mortar, then combine them with the chillies using the pestle, until you get a uniform mixture. This process should take a minute or so. You want the to break the chillies down a bit more, but you’re not looking for a smooth paste.
  4. Lime, palm sugar Squeeze lime juice over the mixture, add the palm sugar, then grind for another 30 seconds or so, to incorporate everything nicely together.

    At this stage you have your basic sambal terasi. You can serve this as a relish to accompany many other dishes, or as an ingredient in recipes that call for red chillies. It will last in a jar with a lid for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

  5. White aubergines, Chinese long beans If you are going to carry on and make sambal terong, roughly chop the aubergines and cut the beans into 2 cm long pieces, and add to the mortar. Lightly smash the vegetables into the chilli mixture. You’re looking to break up the surface of the pieces, rather than reduce them in size.
  6. Basil Pick the leaves off the basil stalks and scatter over the mixture. Then just bruise the leaves with the pestle.
  7. With a table spoon just give the mixture one final stir, making sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed.

If you don’t have a pestle and mortar there’s really no reason you can’t get perfectly good results doing all these steps using a food processor. Just be sure not to reduce everything to a uniform pulp. It needs to be chunky! Be particularly careful when adding the aubergines and beans—just a very quick burst so as not to chop the vegetables too small. And break the basil leaves up by hand and add them to the sambal after you’ve removed it from the processor.

Serve

If you are using a mortar you could do worse than putting it straight on the dining table. The dark grey stone surface really sets off the bright red and green mixture —one of the advantages of using one. You can treat the sambal as a very tasty, very healthy light meal, just served with boiled white rice. (Make sure you use good quality, fragrant basmati rice—‘basmati’ in fact means ‘fragrant’ in Hindi. I’m planning to write a blog shortly about rice.)

Or for something more substantial you can serve it as as a side dish with a main dish of meat or fish.

Notes on ingredients

  1. Red and green chillies. I wrote a blog about chillies a while back. It is very difficult to specify the type, since retailers are usually pretty vague about the variety on offer: if you look for ‘red chillies’ on the Tesco website you’ll see that the little packs they sell are the produce of ‘UK, Jersey, Egypt, India, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, the Netherlands, Senegal, Spain, Zimbabwe’—so I guess it’s hardly surprising! The inescapable fact, as I wrote in the blog, is that you just don’t know from one batch of chillies to the next how hot they are going to be—even if you use the same type. Welcome to the world of natural cooking, where things do vary from one session to the next! Just bear in mind the rule: the smaller the hotter.
  2. Shrimp paste (terasi). Covered in depth in my last blog.
  3. Sea salt. For my catering I buy Malvern salt flakes in a big plastic tub. I prefer flakes to crystals, since they are easier to incorporate into dishes that are not cooked.
  4. Lime. My secret weapon. I use lime juice in nearly everything I cook. It seems to add an extra flavour dimension to food, whether savoury or sweet. And it’s good for you—no sugar, no fat, no salt, and packed with vitamin C! The more lime juice you use, the less salt you need.
  5. Palm sugar. The sugar made from a number of members of the palm family, including the Palmyra palm, the sugar palm, and the coconut palm. The abundant sap from these trees is boiled down into a thick syrup, or further into crystallized blocks. Most the big supermarkets now sell it in a granulated form in jars. Unlike the cane and beet sugars we use as a rule in the west, palm sugar has a distinct and delicious nutty, winey flavour.
  6. White aubergines. These are delicious eaten raw. They are hard and crunchy, not at all like the standard purple aubergines which we are more familiar with. They were though probably the first variety known in the west, and make sense of the American name for aubergine: egg plant. For where to buy them, see below “Where to find ingredients”. On Amazon they’re called “fresh Thai round eggplant”. Since this recipe calls for them to remain uncooked I wouldn’t recommend substituting the softer common aubergine.
  7. Chinese long beans; also called yard-long beans, and asparagus beans. They look like big French beans—but they’re not. They are crunchier, with a similar flavour, but stronger. They are in fact more closely related to the mung bean and black-eyed pea. See “Where to find ingredients”—the Asian supermarkets usually have them, and at the time of writing so does Thai Food Online.

Where to find ingredients

It has become so much easier to find Asian ingredients in the UK since I started cooking in this country over 30 years ago. Back then I was always giving my husband long shopping lists for him to get me in London’s Chinatown. He’d struggle home on the train with as many overflowing carrier bags as he could carry, smelling like—well, an Asian supermarket! Now most small towns have a shop selling at least some fresh Asian ingredients, and the big supermarket chains stock an ever-growing selection. You can also buy most things on Amazon. Just bear in mind that the supermarkets and Amazon do tend to use ‘Thai’ as the generic description for any ingredients from South-East Asia, including Indonesia. There is also a website called Thai Food Online that sells most things. Personally I get the majority of my Asian supplies from Sun Hung Chang a wonderful supermarket that has been going for 20 years at the top end of Commercial Road in Portsmouth. There’s are some photos in my last blog. Everything for this sambal recipe can be bought there. For those living near my home town of Haslemere, Surrey there is a newer, smaller, but closer place in Bordon. They don’t have anything like the range of Sun Hung Chang though.

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Terasi: the secret ingredient

Terasi: the secret ingredient

Months—well actually years!—ago I wrote a blog introducing one of the key ingredients of Indonesian cookery: the chilli. I said that I was planning a series on sambal, the range of sauces, relishes, and dishes that chillies are made into. My apologies for the laughable delay to all those who said they were looking forward to it.

How to make a sambal is most definitely in the pipeline—promise! But first, since as well as chillies nearly every sambal includes it also, I think terasi deserves its own little blog. Terasi (the ‘e’ is hardly pronounced, so it sounds like ‘t’rasi’) is another hugely important ingredient in much South-East Asian cuisine. Amongst its many other names are belacan (Malaysia) and kapi (Thailand). I am Javanese, and my Indonesian cooking roots are Javanese. In Java terasi is used in practically everything! It works in much the same way as a stock cube, or MSG, in adding umami to a dish, and magically working in synergy with other flavours to enhance them.

Shrimp drying in sun

Block of raw terasi

So what is it? It doesn’t actually sound (or smell!) very attractive. It’s fermented shrimp paste. Basically small shrimp are harvested, rinsed, and mixed with sea salt, then laid out in the sun for a few days until the shrimp have broken down and become a dark brown pulp. This is drained and pounded into a paste before being compressed into blocks, wrapped, and sold.

Serious foil wrap

Unwrapped after baking

Cooked block & crumbled

Before you can eat it terasi has to be cooked. You can fry or grill or bake a batch of it for adding to dishes that aren’t themselves going to be cooked—like many sambal recipes. My preferred method is to wrap a block with several layers of aluminium foil and bake it for 30 to 45 minutes, at 180º. After it’s cooked the cake becomes friable: you can crumble it into a coarse powder, which makes it easier to spoon out into whatever you’re making. You can keep it almost indefinitely. Mine lives in the fridge, but that’s not strictly necessary, any more than it is with Marmite. What is definitely a good idea is to keep it in an airtight container. It smells a lot stronger than Marmite!

If you are going to add terasi to a fried dish you just add a little of the raw paste to the other spices and flavour ingredients—garlic, chilli, etc—and cook it with them.

Asian supermarket P’mouth

Malaysian belacan (terasi)

Malayasian terasi (belacan)

Blocks & jars of shrimp paste

Shelves-full of shrimp paste

 

More jars of shrimp paste

Tesco shrimp paste

Sainsbury’s shrimp paste

Waitrose shrimp paste

Where to buy it

I buy a lot of my supplies from a fantastic Asian supermarket in Portsmouth. They sell several different types of raw terasi in blocks. They also sell dozens of different brands of shrimp paste in jars (which is how they tend to be sold in countries other than Indonesia and Malaysia). You can also buy jars of Thai or Filipino shrimp paste in virtually any supermarket these days—though I don’t know how the flavour compares with the more artisanal products. I can tell you that the brands they sell in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose contain just shrimp and salt. So that’s all good! I’ll be honest, I also don’t know whether you can treat these jar products as cooked, and just add them to a raw sambal recipe: there’s no harm in frying however much you need before using it in this way.

Further reading 

For an interesting account of the history and making of terasi I recommend an article by Su-Mei Yu in the University of California journal Gastronomica. Her story is set in modern-day Thailand. The first recorded use of terasi was when  southern Thailand and Java were part of the same Indonesian empire of Srivijaya.

If you have any questions, or are interested to know more about terasi, or sambal, or Indonesian cooking in general, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Selamat makan!

Chilli sambal! A new project.

Chilli sambal! A new project.

It’s been a couple of years since I started this blog, and I have to admit I’ve been less than diligent in keeping it up to date. I’ve decided that I need a project to encourage me to publish more regularly. After a certain amount of cajoling from Kevan, my husband, I’m going to attempt to write a series of articles about Indonesian food.

Indonesia is a big country, and Indonesian food a big subject — albeit one that hasn’t been written about quite so much as some other cuisines. Let’s be honest — and I know I’m a little biased — given how delicious and varied Indonesian food is, it really is not terribly well known abroad — except perhaps in The Netherlands, which colonised Indonesia for nearly 350 years.

Sambal telor — chilli with boiled eggs and fresh basil

I thought a good theme for my first series (getting carried away already!) was — sambal. Sambal, for those of you who haven’t come across the word, is a sauce or relish, whose principal ingredient is chilli. It is the absolute essence of Indonesian cuisine, forming the foundation of many dishes. It can be simply an accompaniment, like a spicy equivalent of cranberry sauce, say, or plum chutney. Or it can be the main course itself, served with rice, and maybe some vegetables.

Don’t be put off by the idea of chillies. They don’t have to be man-boastingly hot, as any visit to the average Indian restaurant will have taught you (unless of course you’ve only ever ordered a jalfrezi or a vindaloo — in which case you’re unlikely to be intimidated by chillies!) Before I get on to the first sambal recipe I just want to digress for a moment about this marvelous, life-enhancing, appetite-stimulating berry — which, botanically, is what a chilli is.

Columbus landing on Hispaniola

Like so many other plants, including tomatoes, potatoes, and maize, the chilli came originally from the Americas — specifically Central America. There it was possibly the first plant to be domesticated. It was discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean in the late 15th century. He was struck by its pungency, which reminded him of black pepper, popular as a flavouring in Europe since Roman times. As a result he called it “pepper”, while the native, Aztec, name was “chilli”. To this day Americans use the name “chili pepper”.

After Columbus and crew bought chilli plants back to Europe, the Portuguese seized the opportunity of taking them to be cultivated in the tropical parts of their trading empire, in Africa, India and South-East Asia, where they soon began to represent a culinary, and economic, alternative to pepper. Not least in Indonesia, where the chilli has long supplanted pepper as the national spice of choice. (Though ironically a recent article in the Jakarta Post suggested that the soaring price of chillies might lead some Indonesians to switch, after 400 years, back to pepper!)

Sweet bell peppersPepperoncini from Calabria, Italy

Sweet peppers + Italian pepperoncini

Poblano chilliJalapeño chillies

Poblano + Jalapeño

Thai bird's eye chilliesCarolina reaper, the world's hottest chilli

Thai bird’s eye + Carolina reaper

You probably know that chilli comes in all shapes, sizes, colours — and of course pungency. Less well known is the fact that all these varieties — including the innocent sweet or bell pepper sold in their millions by our supermarkets, and from there through Italian pepperoncino, poblano, pimento, jalapeño, cayenne, Thai bird’s eye, right up to the hottest chilli in the world (currently the Carolina Reaper) — are all cultivars of just one species, Capsicum annuum. (There is disagreement about this in academic circles: some claim that some super-hot varieties, including habanero, naga, and Scotch bonnet, constitute a separate species, Capsicum chinense; others that Tabasco, and piri piri are in a third species, Capsicum frutescens.) The general rule of thumb is “the smaller, the hotter” but one thing is certain: when you buy a packet of chillies you never really know how hot they are going to be, because so much depends on their growing conditions. So if it’s important how spicy a dish is going to turn out (either too hot, or not hot enough!) always try out one or two chillies first.

One of the beauties of sambal is that it is not complicated to make. Despite the many sambal dishes that have been created, none of them requires advanced cooking techniques, and few of them call for ingredients that cannot be found in a good supermarket.

In the next post I’ll introduce you to the most basic of all, sambal ulek.