The chronicle of Sambal and Me


More and more people in western culture know about Sambal. Which is a chilly based sauce usually use as condiment or side dish or to marinate a produce (either protein or vegetable).

As a country that consist of wide variety of culture, Indonesia also have hundreds type of sambal from Aceh to Irian. Some of the most unusual sambal are Tempoyak, Terasi and Petis, Lado Ijo and Matah.
Here are stories about them.

Tempoyak is a fermented durian based sambal. I know i know, most of non asian culture can’t stand the odor and flavor of the considered king of fruit by it fans. Even though I like durian, the thinking of eating a fermented one shook me a little bit.

It was a potluck event at my previous job when one of my colleague bring a cooked tempoyak based fish stew. I looked and smell the dish first, secretly of course, I don’t want to offend the cook. I see one by one my friend take a piece of fish and the broth. I wait until they take a spoon or two of rice and tempoyak coated fish to their mouth. I wait again for a moment, waiting for their reaction. Frankly, I wait their face turning green that time. But everybody turns out to be just fine, some of them even go back for seconds.

So, I go to the bowl in the most nonchalant way, grab the spoon and take the smallest piece of fish and a little bit of tempoyak based broth. Then I move a side to the nearest wall and have the first taste of tempoyak in my live.

And It did shook me!

Shook me to tears, a happy tears of course. I’m so happy because it taste so delicious. The spiciness from the fresh chilies, shallots and garlic mixed beautifully with the creamy sweetness of durian. Oh my God, is what I’m saying to my self repeatedly that time. It taste even better than a similar fish stew but using coconut milk or even creme fresh.

Tempoyak does taste heavenly good. Adding creaminess as good as creme fresh or coconut milk, but it give additive distinct sweetness and savoriness better than anything I ever taste.

tempoyak based fish stew

After that, I got another opportunity having an original tempoyak from Palembang. I think, well maybe this will not taste as good as the first one. Maybe this one will get fermented more than before, or the spices mixture won’t be the same as the first one, ergo won’t be as good. I prepare for the worst ladies and gentlemen, I even prepare a special garbage bag to wrap it up tightly if I can’t handle the taste. Boy oh boy ….

I make another wrong assumption. It still taste good. Much more strong flavor than my first one, but still delicious. There is nothing like it. I will suggest

Tempoyak as one of 1000 things to eat before you die

It’s a must. Like caviar, you don’t have to like it, but you surely need to taste it at least once in a lifetime.

If your never knew what a terasi is, umm let me prepare you first.
Terasi and petis making culture came from fishermen communities throughout Indonesian long coastline beach. Javanese fishermen as one of the largest producer of terasi and petis didn’t like to waste anything they catch from the sea. They tried to preserve and use anything as much as they can using very traditional methods. Then Terasi and Petis came along.

Terasi (or Belacan as Malay call it) and Petis (or Hae Ko as Hokkien Chinese call it) are shrimp paste. Terasi made from dried ground shrimp in a form of small cakes and has a brick like consistency. While Petis looks like molasses but made from prawn. They both used as flavor enhancer in sambal due to its strong aromatic smell and, umm well, flavor.

Sambal terasi usually is a coarse paste made from chillies, tomatoes, shallots and a small piece of grilled or fried terasi. It can be cooked sambal or raw. Terasi gives the sambal strong savoriness and a little bit bitterness that combined with the spiciness of chillies makes you always ask for seconds, then thirds, fourths, etc. If you eat sambal terasi with warm steamed plain rice and any kind of protein or vegetable, the chance is you will eat the rice twice more than your usual portion. It’s almost addictive.

sambal terasi

Petis has milder flavor, due to the use of sugar, than terasi, but not less aromatic. East Javanese like using petis as compliment for their fruit and vegetable salads; as dipping sauce for fried tofu or as blackening agents for special dish called ‘telur petis’ (hard-boiled egg, simmered in petis based broth).

telur petis

I hope I don’t make you bore with odd sambal stories. The idea making a story on sambal came to me when I having lunch with my husband. I eat a deep-fried duck high with green chili sambal while he ate plain deep-fried chicken.

bebek kaleyo's dish

My green chili sambal this afternoon is a modern twist of Sambal Lado Ijo originated from Padang, West Sumatra. My first love to Padangnese cuisine and specially their full of flavor sambal is about the same time when I fall in love with my husband. Maybe that make me won’t be as objective telling you this story about Sambal Lado Ijo, but I want to share it with you.

The best sambal lado ijo for me came from one Warung Masakan Padang (Padangnese cuisine street food vendor) near my college. We usually have a lunch with plain steamed rice, a grilled chicken or fish plus prawn crackers. The owner put medium jam jar sized plastic container of sambal lado ijo on each table for the guest take as much as, or as little as they want.

Me and my husband (boyfriend at that time)? Oooh we love our sambal, so we take as much as we like. Everytime we ate there, a good one full jar will be emptied just by the two of us. We call the cook “ibu padang” (Padang Mom), and we think she has magical hands that can make such a heavenly sambal.

Ibu Padang’s sambal lado ijo is coarse enough that we can see the green chillies and green tomatoes with naked eyes. But also smooth enough that we don’t need to chew on it or taste the specific bitterness from undercooked green chili’s skin. The level of spiciness is very mild, but enough to make us sweating after eating.

Beside as a condiment, sambal lado ijo has a special place at west Sumatra’s people (not only the one from Padang city) heart. Bebek lado ijo (the original one) and dendeng lado mudo (crunchy beef jerky or sliced beef with sambal lado ijo) are two most popular dishes using these bright green color sambal.

Are your mouth watering already? Hold on, we aren’t finish yet.

Sambal matah is more popular than the other, due to its home town: Bali. Yeah, you must be knew Bali or at least have had heard about it before. Am I right?

Matah came from the word Mentah that means uncooked or raw. But the most fascinating side from sambal matah is not its rawness but the consistency and ingredients. Most of Indonesian sambal in the paste-like form ranging from coarse to baby smooth. Sambal matah is more like salsa, made from chopped shallots, lemongrass and chilies. Lemon grass is the unique ingredient from this type of condiment. It adds not only the crunchiness from raw shallots but also tanginess, but not as sharp as lemon.

When I was a little girl, I have unusual fear of shallots. It all begun when my grandma forbid me to play in the kitchen while she was chopping shallots. She said, shallots will burnt your eyes and make your body smell bad. It’s actually lame, I know. But as a child I truly believe her and since then I never ever want to touch any shallots, including in my food. There’s a phase when every time I finished my meal, I would make every bit of shallot I can identify stocked separately in the corner of my plate.

Then there’s the time when I attend one of my friend’s wedding reception. One of her parents is balinese, so there are a lot of balinese cuisine available for all guests. Including sambal matah as side dish for sate lilit (minced seafood satay on lemon grass stick). In my excitements to the party I didn’t realize when eating all sate lilt with sambal matah in my plate. And it taste good. Light, fresh and spicy.

sate lilit

You can guess what’s next?
I fall in love in the sambal matah concept, and regain my courage to eat all type of raw sambal.


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