Friday, January 27, 2012

The New Go-To Condiment: Sambal Matah

Ingredients for Sambal Matah
Ketchup was so eighties.  Salsa so nineties.  Sriracha so aughts.  Just when I thought there could not possibly be a new go-to condiment worthy of this decade, sambal matah- an addictive mixture of fresh shallots and chilies- entered my life.  This vibrant side-dish-meets-chili-sauce is so vibrant, aromatic, and versatile I want to eat it with everything from scrambled eggs to steak.  Really, I would eat it with about everything but chocolate cake.

The good news is whipping up this potent dish at home takes little more than some elbow grease for chopping and a bit of market sleuthing to find a couple of less common ingredients. 

Sambal, broadly defined, is any chili based condiment coming out of Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Southern India.  These sauces and salads range from cooked to raw and might include garlic, coconut, palm sugar, ginger, tamarind, and kaffir lime, among other common regional ingredients. 

Sambal Matah Marinating
Throughout the island of Bali several forms of sambal prevail.  At Kafe Batan Waru in Ubud, a plate of three sambals is brought to the table on request, the level of hotness defined by three different sized slices of lime.  But among the mélanges of chilies, garlic, and spices I ate throughout that island, the one I kept asking for again and again was the strikingly different sambal matah.

Sambal matah is a sort of raw onion salad made of thinly sliced shallots, garlic, bird’s eye chilies, lemongrass, shrimp paste, sugar, salt, and kaffir lime.  When the flavors of this spicy salad mix and mingle the result is a harmonious, gripping burst of Southeast Asian flavors.  In Bali I ate this by the heaping spoon full alongside grilled turmeric chicken, fried tilapia, crispy duck, and banana leaf steamed fish.  I wouldn’t think to stop piling on the sambal until my lips had gone numb from the tingling spice. 

Grilled Tuna with Sambal Matah
Making this at home I made two important substitutions.  One: Balinese shrimp paste was going to be hard to find but I could still get the same umami affect from a hearty splash of Vietnamese fish sauce.  Two: fresh kaffir lime leaves (which every recipe I found called for) are also pretty difficult to source.  I bring dried kaffir lime slices and leaves back with me from South East Asia whenever I’m there.  They last forever and only need a little hydration from hot water and they are ready to go.  I found several sites available for shippingin the United States offering dried kaffir lime leaves at reasonable prices

Everything else- a pile of shallots, garlic, lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, salt- is all easy to find in most markets.  A little chop, chop, chop, some gentle mixing, and quick sit to let the flavors meld together and this condiment is ready to go. 
Beyond Asian food samal matah could pair well with smoked salmon, grilled sausages, or even a simple summer tomato salad.  Bye bye, ketchup.  Adios, salsa.  See ya, sriracha.  My new slather-on-everything condiment, sambal matah, is here to stay. 

Sambal Matah
Time: 30 minutes

5 slices dried Kaffir lime or 2 dehydrated leaves
8 shallots
3 cloves garlic
4-8 Bird’s eye chilies, depending on desired hotness
2 lemongrass stalks
1 ½ tsp. Vietnamese fish sauce
1 ½ limes
1 tsp. palm sugar, raw sugar, or brown sugar
½ tsp. Kosher salt
¼ cup vegetable oil

Pour hot water over Kaffir limes or leave and let sit for 10 minutes to rehydrate. 
Peel shallots and thinly slice crosswise.  Peel garlic and finely chop.  Discard stems on chilies and finely mince. Using the blunt edge of a chef’s knife, whack the lemongrass along the length of the stalk to bruise.  Remove tough outer layer.  Thinly slice white part of the lemongrass.  Finely mince the slices.  Into a large bowl mixt shallots, garlic, chilies, and lemongrass along with fish sauce, the juice of 1.5 limes, sugar, and salt. If using dried kaffir lime leaves, remove the woody spine then finely mince remaining leaves and add to the bowl.  If using dried slices, finely mince the whole slice and add to the bowl.  Stir in vegetable oil and gently mix the shallots with the rest of the ingredients so everything is well coated and evenly distributed.  Let the mixture sit for at least a half hour before using.  Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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