It’s been pretty cold here recently, and I’ve been dreaming of rich, warm, food that makes you feel like you are wrapped in a blanket. But comfort food doesn’t have to be bland – of course, I get nervous if there are no chilies in the fridge, so my idea of comfort may be biased. Still, Malaysian sambal offers the potential for a warming combination of coconut milk, ground nuts and a lively spice paste. I’ve been researching Malaysian and Indonesian food a lot recently, and have had some success with the kind of  strongly-flavoured sambal that you eat as a condiment. I’ll post about that type of sambal soon, but for this dish, I wanted a soupier, sweeter sambal that would work a little like a coconut curry.

Hitting the Asian grocery, I found some really fresh-looking morning glory, or water spinach. Kangkung belacan (morning glory stir fried with shrimp paste and chilies) has long been a favourite dish of mine at Malaysian restaurants, and while it can be hard to come by in the US, it’s quite often sold in Asian stores in the UK. (Apparently, it is actually illegal to possess or sell it in the United States, where it is considered a dangerous weed! Since they serve it in lots of restaurants, I’m guessing that law is not especially well enforced, but it might explain its relative rarity in stores.) In any case, I decided that morning glory would add some nice texture and greenery to the sambal.

Because the stems of morning glory are hollow, they have a slightly chewy texture, even when cooked. And because you cook the stalks whole, without chopping them up, they don’t disappear into a dish like regular spinach would. Thus, they retain their personality even when added to a soupy dish like this one. I like this combination of morning glory and chicken, but this dish is pretty adaptable. Made with shrimp or fish, I’d cut back the coconut milk to just a couple of spoonfuls and increase the fresh chilies and lemongrass. You could also swap the morning glory for long beans or chard.

Sambal ayam with morning glory

  • 4 shallots
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 stalks of lemongrass, tender insides only
  • 4 or 5 dried red chilies
  • 1 or 2 fresh red chilies
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • 1/4 cup candlenuts or peanuts
  • 1/2 a can of coconut milk
  • 6 boneless chicken thighs, cut into chunks
  • a bunch of morning glory
  • a glug of fish sauce to taste
  • cilantro

First make the spice paste. Pound the garlic and lemongrass in a mortar and pestle. Chop the fresh chilies into small pieces and then pound them too. Roughly chop the shallots and dried chilies and then put them in a small food processor and pulse till well chopped. Stop before they turn totally to liquid. Turn into a bowl and mix with the pounded ingredients. Add the shrimp paste and stir well to combine. (Note: lots of people think raw shrimp paste smells bad, so put it in at the very end and put the container straight back in the fridge. As soon as you cook it, it begins to smell delicious, so if you find the raw smell a bit off, just get it cooking asap.)

Heat a wok or large pot and add a good glug of oil. When it shimmers, fry the spice paste. You want it bubbling nicely but not burning or sticking to the pan. While it’s cooking, use the same processor to grind the nuts. You want a cornmeal texture, and some bigger bits are ok. Once the paste starts to smell deeply savoury, add the chicken and brown all over. Next add the coconut milk, the ground nuts and a quick glug of fish sauce.

Simmer gently till the chicken is cooked (you don’t want the coconut milk to overheat so keep the heat low). Trim the ends off the morning glory and pick through carefully for bad leaves. When the chicken is cooked, add in the greens and stir until wilted. Taste for salt and sweetness, and sprinkle cilantro leaves on top.