Sambal ikan, or fish sambal, is a subgenre of Malaysian dishes that includes both sambal ikan bilis (with the little anchovies that go into nasi lemak) and sambal ikan goreng, a popular dish of fried fish with sambal sauce. Of course, I am interested in anything that starts with funky dried shrimp sauce, but when I was recently told that I should eat more oily fish, I started thinking about how I might combine mackerel with sambal flavours. There is a Malaysian dish called sambal ikan tenggiri, which translates as mackerel sambal. However, the fish used is kingfish, which is in the mackerel family but much bigger than the kind we see usually in the UK. Thick steaks of kingfish are cooked in a sambal sauce, but that approach seemed like it would be fiddly with the smaller, bony mackerel of the south of England. So I came up with the idea of simplifying things by using smoked mackerel fillets and turning the dish into more of a deconstructed spicy salad: fish, lightly cooked greens, and fiery sambal to be mixed with rice as you eat. This approach made for an incredibly easy weeknight meal and also one that brings the richness of the fish and the deep umami pleasures of the sambal to the fore.

Smoked mackerel sambal

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 8 shallots
  • 3 stems of lemongrass
  • 6 fresh medium red chilies
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp tamarind water
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 fillets of smoked mackerel
  • small bunch of bok choy
  • 1/2 a red pepper

Roughly chop the garlic, shallots, chilies and lemongrass (using only the soft inside layers) and mix in a mini prep to a paste. Place the shrimp paste in an envelope of tinfoil, squash to a flat disk, and grill on a hot skillet for a minute on each side. Now add to the paste and mix well.

Heat a generous glug of oil in a non-stick pan and add the paste. It should sizzle nicely. Cook and stir for five minutes. Add the tamarind to taste, palm sugar and fish sauce. Cook for another minute.

Cut the bok choy in halves lengthwise and blanch in boiling water for a minute. Slice the red pepper thinly. Now arrange the fish and vegetables on a plate and serve with plenty of sambal and rice.

Serves 2