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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.
I don’t know London all that well yet. I can’t tell you how to get anywhere on the tube without a map and large swathes of the place are a complete mystery to me. Since I am mostly there for work or for films and theatre, I spend most of my time in the parts of central London that are not known for their chowhounding potential. Nonetheless, there are some things I consider to be a matter of basic pride. I can direct you to a very good Thai restaurant. I can take you for house-made pork dumplings. And I know where they make good nasi lemak.
Nasi lemak is real comfort food. Often considered to be a national dish of Malaysia, this combination of coconut rice, crispy anchovies, peanuts, cucumber, sambal and often chicken, egg or other proteins hits all the right spots of flavour and texture. Originally eaten for breakfast, it has become so popular that it’s now served all day. I haven’t yet made a thorough study of London’s more far-flung Malaysian restaurants (though obviously, this is an urgent goal) but if you’re near Soho, you can’t do better than C&R Cafe, located down the kind of alley I think of as highly promising and some of my friends view as mildly alarming. C&R is exactly the kind of Malaysian place I like – lacking in decor and general warmth, but more than making up for the formica atmosphere with reassuringly flavourful food. Their char kway teow is shrimpy and chewy, their Singapore laksa is rich and coconuty, and their Assam laksa is hot and sour. And their nasi lemak is the very definition of soul food for the hungry and out of sorts.
Yesterday, I had an early start at work and found myself in London at 4pm not having eaten all day. Obviously, I am not the kind of person that just forgets to eat, so I wasn’t feeling especially great about my situation. Luckily, while I had a plan to meet Thifty Gal in the evening to see Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, she couldn’t meet me beforehand and I had a couple of hours free. Much as I love the very generous Thrifty Gal, my idea of a promising alley is her idea of hell, so eating solo was just what the doctor ordered. I made a beeline for C&R and, since it was technically breakfast, couldn’t resist a plate of nasi lemak. Their version comes with a substantial portion of curry chicken, as well as achar, or pickled vegetables. Their home-made sambal is only moderately spicy but nicely oniony, and those crunchy anchovies are little nuggets of salty heaven.
As it turned out, we both hated the play (seriously, there’s a good reason the book’s not told from the monster’s perspective) and wished we’d gone to a bar instead, but I can’t complain. I got to see a good friend, watch the charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch on stage, and set my over-stressed self to rights with a restorative nasi lemak.
C&R Cafe, 3-4 Rupert Court, London W1D 6DY
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
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.