Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sambal Serai--Lemongrass Sambal


Sambal is a part of just about every Indonesian meal.  Sambals can be cooked, raw, with vegetables or proteins, complex, or simple.  Some varieties can be found here.  Sambal ulek (usually seen in markets with the Dutch spelling, sambal oelek) is the most basic of sambals, simply freshly ground chilies and salt.  Sambals may be served alone as a snack, or as an accent to spark grilled fish or fried chicken.  You decide how much sambal your bowl of soto needs, but no soto is complete without it.

Sambal sereh is a cooked sambal that is a great accompaniment to grilled chicken, but also tastes great as a dip for rengginang or krupuk.  Although not for the faint-hearted, the level of heat can be adjusted by the types of chilies used.  Here in Sacramento, the Asian farmers market--a few blocks west of the official Sunday farmers market--finds the stalls overflowing with a variety of  chilies, some hot, others blistering.  Cabai rawit--bird chilies--are particularly hot and can be found throughout the year in local markets.  Cabai keriting--curly chilies--are hot, but not as hot as cabai rawit.  They are rarely found in local markets or at other farmers markets, but they do appear in late summer at the Asian farmers market. 

The Indonesian recipe that I adapted this from calls for 100 grams of cabai keriting.  I used about 80 grams and added a gypsy pepper, a mild red pepper.  This made for a very hot sambal, but one that I can still enjoy just eating with rengginang.  If you prefer a milder sambal, use fewer of the curly chilies and more of the gypsy chili or red bell pepper.  I suppose vegetarians could leave out the dried shrimp and terasi, but the sambal would be less complex.  Terasi (belacan) is an acquired taste, but once you've become accustomed to it, you will long for it.

80 grams (a good handful) chilies  (cabai keriting, but any hot red chili may be used), seeded
1 mild red pepper
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
2 tsp ebi (dried shrimp), soaked in 2 TBS warm water for a few minutes and drained
1 tsp salt
1--2 TBS gula jawa (palm sugar)
1 TBS terasi (fermented shrimp paste)
3  tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 TBS vegetable oil
3/4 cup of water
2 stalks of lemongrass, outer leaves removed, crushed with a pestle and tied into a knot

In a blender or food processor, process the chilies and red pepper until you have a fairly smooth paste. Reserve.  Grind the garlic and salt to a smooth paste in a mortar.  Add the drained ebi, gula jawa, and terasi and grind with a pestle until smooth.  Add the tomatoes and continue to grind until all the ingredients are well mixed.
Heat a frying pan.  Add the oil and then the tomato and garlic mixture.  Fry until fragrant, then stir in water.  Add the chili paste and lemongrass. While stirring, cook over low heat until the mixture thickens.  Ideally, you want a sambal that is moist but not too liquid.  Scrape as much of the sambal as you can from the lemongrass.  Suck what remains on the stalks and count your blessings.

Serve the sambal with grilled/fried fish or chicken.  Or add to an omelet.  Or use as a dip for crackers, chips, krupuk, or rengginang.  Any way you serve it, you will enjoy.

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