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A pungent reminder of home and hardship
WHEN my mom cooked sambal from scratch, she moved with controlled haste. Her eyebrows would furrow as she used her index finger to mix belacan, a pungent shrimp paste, with water. "Open all the windows!" she would suddenly yell, her warning to my brother, father and me that fiery chillies would be hitting her oiled wok in a few minutes.
Even with windows opened wide, the fumes from sizzling capsaicin invoked coughing fits and heavy breathing.
My mother, Rosni, who can neither read nor write, never used a cookbook; her version of sambal, a spicy chilli paste that is a staple of South-east Asian households, was passed down to her through generations of our family when we lived in Singapore.
Since moving to New York, I'm more than 2,000 miles but just one phone call away from my mother, who now lives in West Texas. When I recently called to ask for her sambal recipe to satiate my intense pregnancy hankerings, she gave her usual obscure measurements, like "half a packet of chillies" and "you keep tasting and add until you know it's enough".
From about age five, I remember mixing sambal into white rice, fried fish, boiled eggs, stir-fried cabbage and a splash of kicap manis (sweet soya sauce), a meal my mom prepared often. At times, the heat levels of her sambal reduced me to tears, but I never shied away from adding a scoop.
Sambal is an essential ingredient in Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian cuisines. There are more than 300 varieties, and each household has its own version, depending on the dish, family palate and heat preference.
Sambal oelek, the most basic kind and the one most familiar to Americans, is typically made of red chillies, vinegar and salt. The word oelek derives from the Indonesian ulekan dan cobek, the stone mortar-and-pestle used to prepare sambal.
More elaborate versions can include shrimp paste, tamarind, ikan bilis (anchovies), garlic, lemongrass, ginger, shallots, scallions, palm sugar, coconut, rice vinegar or juice from the calamansi, a South-east Asian citrus fruit that's a cross between a kumquat and a mandarin orange.
In Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian cooking, sambal ikan bilis is a must-have condiment alongside nasi lemak, a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and served with spicy curry, crisp-fried anchovies, toasted peanuts, a hard-boiled egg and sliced fresh cucumbers.
In the United States, you can find jars of sambal oelek from Huy Fong Foods, the company that brought us sriracha, in the international or Asian aisle of your grocery store. Thanks to the sriracha and hot-sauce boom, sambal is becoming well-known to many American cooks. Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse and others have published recipes calling for a dollop or two of sambal oelek.
Sambal's new popularity in the US has made me both excited and territorial. In 1999, when I was eight, my family moved from Singapore to Alpine, Texas, a rural town of 5,000 where my father grew up. When you're living thousands of miles from your home country, craving your mother's or grandmother's sambal is like getting hit with a wave of nostalgia from a fond childhood memory you can't fully recreate.
Food, especially dishes that were made and shared communally, has a way of linking us back to our families' generational hardships and triumphs. There's a rich and labour-intensive history in the ritual of preparing sambal that should be remembered, and perhaps, even revered.
Ping Coombes, the author of Malaysia: Recipes From A Family Kitchen, moved to the United Kingdom in 2000 from Ipoh, Malaysia. She remembers a time when she didn't know how to boil an egg, much less re-create her mother's sambal belacan, a staple in her family's refrigerator that didn't exist in Britain.
"I didn't think sambal had that much of an impact in my life until I moved away. It was always so readily available," Ms Coombes said. "My mom is an amazing cook, so I thought the lavish dishes would make more of an impact." Instead, it was sambal that inspired her to experiment in her kitchen for the first time. Like most Southeast Asian home cooks, Ms Coombes' mother cooked from instinct and left little reference for anyone who wanted to replicate her recipes. Luckily, Ms Coombes had an old sambal cookbook that she had found in Malaysia.
"Sambal ikan bilis is the first sambal I ever made. It blew my head off because I put so much chillies in it because I didn't know how to judge it," she said. "Obviously, these recipes are not really tested, but it gave me an idea of what's inside."
After years of honing her craft as a home cook and focusing on the cuisine of her motherland, Ms Coombes in 2014 won "MasterChef UK," a competitive-cooking television series. Her winning main course? Nasi lemak with a heaping side of sambal ikan bilis. NYTIMES