Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

There are hundreds of versions of sambal in Southeast Asia. The chile paste is flavored with various aromatics depending on the type, and can be served cooked or raw. The word “sambal” itself is Javanese in origin; it was borrowed by Indonesians at large and brought to Malaysia long before the complicated borders of Southeast Asia existed. There are hundreds of versions of sambal around the region, with sambal oelek from Indonesia being the most popular version available in the West.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

With the exception of sambal tumis, Malaysian-style sambals tend to be raw and are generally prepared by pounding together a small set of ingredients. The most famous and ubiquitous of all is sambal belacan, made with chiles, fermented shrimp paste, and a squeeze of lime, eaten as a spicy-savory condiment to amp up the heat of any meal. The spiciness of sambal belacan can range from tame to knock-your-socks-off, depending on the type and amount of chiles used. When I was a kid, my mother was mildly alarmed at my love for the condiment. Other kids would hoard candy or chips. Me? I’d sneak down at three in the morning to eat sambal belacan with rice. Now that I’m older, my obsession for it has cooled slightly—but if it’s rice for lunch, you’re almost never going to find me without sambal belacan on my plate.

Belacan is the Malaysian version of fermented shrimp paste, which leans a little saltier than other Southeast Asian versions and is firmer in texture. Sambal belacan is so popular in Malaysia that many non-native Malay speakers refer to it simply as “belacan,” and truly do not know that belacan is a component of sambal and not the paste itself.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Sambal belacan has also been adopted into many local cuisines, and is adaptable to a wide range of applications outside of Malay or Indonesian food. This is exciting to think about as there are endless possibilities of what to pair sambal belacan with, like a crisp, flaky beef wellington, some macaroni and cheese, or even as part of a chaser for a smoky whiskey or mezcal cocktail.

How to Serve and Eat Sambal Belacan

In many rice-eating cultures, especially in Southeast Asia, mealtimes often involve various dishes that accompany plain white rice. In a traditional Malay meal, there’s usually a curry, a fried protein, raw or blanched vegetables, and a small bowl of sambal. You pile these different dishes onto your plate, then use your hands to mix and match the different components as you make your way through the meal. Including a smidge of sambal belacan in every scoop of rice provides a fiery lift to each bite.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

How to Make Sambal Belacan

My formidable maternal grandmother was among the first generation of her Javanese family born on Malayan soil, and her parents brought with them their palates and cooking techniques. My mother and aunts have all made sambal belacan throughout their lives, and each have honed in on their own personal styles. One of my aunts makes a sambal belacan so powerfully spicy that her siblings refer to it affectionately as “racun,” or poison. Thankfully, my mother’s sambal belacan isn’t as potent—which means I can eat more of it—and is the version I’m introducing below as a starting point. 

You could make sambal belacan in a blender or food processor—and many do, since it’s a great way of preparing large batches—but most would agree that making the paste in a mortar and pestle is ideal. The chiles bruise and fray and their cells burst as you pound the belacan into them, which ensures a more unified, robust flavor and a smoother texture.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Experienced cooks know that the mechanics of the blades of blenders and food processors chop and mix the sambal in a way that is very different from pounding them in a mortar and pestle. With that said, using a mortar and pestle to make sambal belacan can be a pretty messy and exhausting affair for the uninitiated, and knowing how to properly hold the pestle is necessary to prevent wearing yourself out and splattering sambal everywhere.

Chile Options

Curiously, for all our love of sambal and chiles, there isn’t a large variety of chiles commercially available in Malaysia. Whether in cities or the rural interior, chile varieties are generally only known by color, like “cili merah” for red chile or “cili hijau” for green chile, and by size, like “cili besar” for big chile or “cili padi” for small chile. The smaller and/or redder the chile, the spicier it tends to be.

Arrange them on a matrix, if you will:

There are then two main criteria that decide what chiles you use: color and size. An all-red sambal belacan is not necessarily spicy as it could just be made with cili merah besar (big red chiles). At the same time, an all-green sambal belacan is usually made with just cili padi hijau (small green chiles), packing a pretty decent punch of heat.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Generally, you would use more of the less spicy chile to add bulk to the sambal, then add the spicier chile in small increments, tasting after every addition for spice levels. Anaheim or banana peppers do well for the larger, less spicy chiles, and Thai bird’s eye chiles are perfect for the smaller, spicier chiles. The belacan itself is usually toasted before it’s incorporated into the sambal, adding smokiness on top of its savory funk. A squeeze of citrus juice (preferably calamansi, but lime juice works) gives it a sweet-sour finish.

Optional Sambal Belacan Add-Ins

What else can go into a sambal belacan? A little bit of shallot, garlic, or ginger adds aromatic depth. Fresh tomatoes can also be used to stretch the chiles or to tamp down the heat. Some folks insist on mixing a teaspoon of sugar or so into their sambal to add sweetness and round out the heat. While I don’t personally mess with the basic formula much, feel free to make your own sambal belacan a choose-your-own adventure if you’d like.

The Best Mortar and Pestle Techniques for Sambal

There are different ways to hold the pestle. Whichever way you go, always use your dominant hand!

Tips

Don’t raise the pestle too high in between pounds; that’s the fastest way to get tired. With experience, you will be able to use the pestle to mix the sambal as you pound by angling it as you go, but as you’re starting out, keep a spoon handy to scrape the bits into a workable pile when necessary. Similar to tennis, the fulcrum should be the shoulder instead of the elbow. This too helps stave off fatigue.

Line an 8-inch stainless-steel skillet with aluminum foil, then place the belacan on the foil. Set the skillet over medium heat and toast, flipping the belacan every 30 seconds until darkened slightly, 2 to 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside to cool.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Meanwhile, if a less spicy final sambal is preferred, split chiles lengthways and discard the seeds and ribs. Cut the chiles into roughly 1-inch pieces, taking care to keep the two types of chile separate.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Place a few pieces of the larger mild red chiles and half the toasted belacan in the mortar (for a food processor or blender, see notes). While shielding the mortar with your non-dominant hand to contain mess and splatter, pound chiles and belacan into a paste. Once paste is formed, add the remaining larger mild red chiles, a few pieces at a time, until pounded into a smooth paste. The sambal at this point should be mildly spicy.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Taste the sambal and increase the spice level to your preference by adding the small hot red chiles, a few at a time and tasting as you go, and pound into a smooth paste. Pound in more of the remaining toasted belacan, a pinch at a time, until desired flavor is achieved.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Stir in calamansi or lime juice, then taste and add more juice and season with salt to taste. Serve as part of a family-style meal with other dishes and rice.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Special Equipment

Mortar and pestle

Notes

We recommend opening your windows and turning on your exhaust while toasting the belacan, otherwise your kitchen will smell like belacan for several days. Alternatively, you could also use a toaster oven and toast the belacan on high heat for the same amount of time.

Avoid adding all the chiles at once when pounding the sambal; it will be much messier and more difficult to pound them into a cohesive paste. 

To prepare this in a food processor or blender, add the preferred amount of chiles and the toasted belacan to the bowl, blitz into a paste, adding small amounts of water if needed to get things moving, and stir in the lime juice after. 

Make-Ahead and Storage

Sambal belacan can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, and can be frozen for up to 6 months; defrost in the refrigerator or at room temperature, do not use heat.

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