75 g dried red chilli (stem removed and deseeded, and soaked in hot water for 20-30 minutes, until soft)
100 g fresh red chili (stem removed)
350 g shallots (peeled)
8 - 10 cloves garlic (peeled)
25 g belacan (fermented shrimp paste), cut into cubes
240 ml vegetable oil
20 g assam (tamarind) pulp (dissolved in 100ml warm water and strained)
40 g - 50 g gula melaka (roughly chopped)
Season with some salt if necessary. Set aside to cool before serving.
Hey guys, it's Sarah. I'm back in the kitchen with an all new series where we're going to be testing rules that we've set for ourselves in Asian cooking. Today, I am going to be testing one of those questions I've always asked myself. Does this stinky but delicious ingredient really need to be toasted before cooking? If at this point you're wondering, "What on earth is belacan?" I have the answer. Basically, belacan is a traditional Malay ingredient. It's tiny shrimp or krill that goes through this process of being salted, then dried, then salted, then dried, and then fermented traditionally in earthenware pots. This is what gives Malay cooking and Peranakan cooking that beautiful hum of umami and just deliciousness all around. The sacrifice you make when you're cooking with it is that it smells, it really smells, but it's worth it.
Let's cut this block of belacan in half. I'm going to toast half of it in a frying pan on a medium heat. That's what you're supposed to do. And the other half I'm going to rebel and blend it straight into my sambal. So here are my two batches of belacan. Straight away, just from looking at the color, you can see how different they look. Let's have a poke. They feel really different. This is kind of moist. This is the untoasted belacan, and it's sticky. Whereas the toasted one is nice and hard and if you kind of apply even a little bit of pressure, it disintegrates really easily. Oh no, my hands are covered in belacan.
Here's my recipe for a really simple sambal tumis. Sambal tumis is basically fried sambal. It's a great accompaniment for rice, noodles. It is an extremely important condiment in Malay cooking. First of all, shallots, peeled. I've got fresh red chilies, they're de-seeded, and then dried red chilies, which are soaked. Some garlic. I've got two other ingredients here. There's gula melaka, which is palm sugar, and assam pulp, which is tamarind. Those get added later on. Now, the star of the show, I am going to go with the toasted one first. So just put it straight in. Some oil and then we blend. Here we go. This is the sambal tumis made with the toasted belacan. It smells really good. It smells raw. It needs cooking. Now I'll do the exact same thing but with the untoasted belacan. It looks very similar in texture. So far they're looking basically identical.
Now all that's left to do is to fry up these two batches of sambal in some oil over a low to medium heat. It takes 20 to 30 minutes because you want to caramelize all those shallots, and then when it's almost cooked through, we will season with the assam, the tamarind, the gula melaka, which is the sugar, and if it needs, some salt. In my left hand is the one made with toasted belacan. This is the untoasted belacan. To be completely scientific and fair, I'm going to do a blind taste test. Swap it.
Good to go? Let's do this. First, I'll try the one on the left. Again, I have no idea which one this is. Ooh, that has a kick. It's nice and jammy. It's very spicy, but that would be a beautiful accompaniment for a fried rice or fried eggs. I'm going to try the other one on the right. Honestly, I think the one on the right has that stronger saltiness that I would associate with belacan. It's almost slightly fishier and I'm not complaining because I love that punchy savoriness of belacan anyway. Give me a plate of belacan fried rice, belacan fried chicken, I will eat it up. This one on the left is a bit more rounded. I would say it's almost slightly milder flavor. To be clear, I'm picking apart minute differences. They are almost exactly the same, but if I had to choose, I would maybe go for the one on the right just for that punchier flavor.
So, time for the big reveal. Which one is our shortcut untoasted belacan sambal? I was so surprised that my little shortcut untoasted belacan has actually produced the sambal that I prefer slightly. I've proven that you can break the rule that you have to toast belacan before using it to fry sambal up. It's going to get cooked anyway. Whether or not you're taking a shortcut, this is delicious.
And if you have any other kitchen rules in Asian cooking that you want to test, let me know in the comments. I'll be reading and I cannot wait to try more experiments in the kitchen. See you next time.