Perfecting Malaysia’s national dish takes practice
Making delicious sambal, or chili gravy, isn’t difficult, but it’s important to know the technique for preparing it right. When I was still living in Malaysia, I would visit my Nenek (which means grandma in Malay) every weekend and learn how to cook my favorite dishes.
I remember the tips I learned from her on how to make thick, deep red sambal and fluffy fragrant rice, back when I was about 3 feet tall. I had to stand up on a stool to be able to use her old stove. I helped her with cooking rice, noodles, curries and stews to serve the family when we would gather for a holiday or weekend visit.
Nasi lemak, Malaysia’s national dish, depends on the sambal. There are actually many different ways to prepare it. You can put anchovies, beef, chicken and even quail eggs in your sambal. Different chilies can be used to make it hotter or milder. Some people prefer to cook the rice with pandan, which is an aromatic tropical plant widely used in Southeast Asian cooking as a flavoring. The juice extracted from the leaves gives it a sweet fragrance and turns the rice green.
To make delicious Malaysian cuisine requires a lot of practice. It’s not enough to just have the knowledge. I have prepared nasi lemak so many times that I don’t have to look at the recipe anymore. To improve the dish, I compared my cooking to other cooks and eventually changed the ingredients slightly to suit my own taste.
Yields: 4 plates
4 eggs, hard-boiled
1 cucumber, sliced
1 cup Spanish nuts
For the sambal:
1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
4 ounces of dried red chilies
1⁄2 red onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves
1 inch of fresh ginger
4 ounces (1 pack) dried anchovies
1 cup water
1 cup brown sugar
1⁄2 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
1 tablespoon shrimp paste
For the rice:
11⁄2 cup jasmine rice
1⁄4 cup red onion, diced
Half a can of coconut milk
11⁄2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Spray a small skillet with a cooking spray and set on low heat. Add Spanish nuts and a pinch of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until the nuts look slightly roasted. Set aside.
For the rice, combine coconut milk, water, onion, sugar and salt in a bowl and stir until it’s mixed well.
Wash the rice in a separate bowl and drain, rinse and repeat three times. Pour the coconut milk mixture into the rice and let it cook in a rice cooker for 20 minutes or until done.
For the spice mix, combine water, brown sugar, white sugar, salt, tamarind concentrate and shrimp paste in a bowl, stir well and set aside.
Combine red onion, garlic, ginger and a 1⁄4 cup of water in a blender and blend until it turns into a paste. Set aside. Do the same on the dried red chilies and dried anchovies, separately and set aside.
Heat up oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Sauté the onion, garlic and ginger paste for 2 minutes or until fragrant. Add the red chilies and anchovies paste and stir well. Add the spice mix and keep stirring until the chilies turn darker.
If it looks too dry, add a 1⁄2 cup of water. Let it simmer on low heat for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.
Scoop a cup of the cooked rice on a plate with a dollop of sambal, a hard-boiled egg, a few slices of cucumber and some Spanish nuts on the side.