#AtoZChallenge – S is for Sambal

For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore. 


S is for Sambal

Before Rebecca left for college in the United States, her mother insisted on teaching her how to make sambal.

“Mum, I think most mothers teach their kids to make simple one-dish meals like fried rice and noodles. Sambal is something I don’t need to learn. I’ve got so many other things to prepare. I can just bring a jar over there what.”

Her mother persisted.

Sambal was the building block of many dishes, she explained. Sambal, that is, a really good authentic sambal, is something that is impossible to find in supermarkets, even Asian supermarkets in the US. She told her daughter that when she was in England for her undergrad studies, the one thing she missed was a real proper sambal.

“You can buy chili sauce from the supermarket, but it’s different! So when I came home for a visit after my first year, I made sure to ask Ah-Ma for her recipe. And that is what I want to teach you.”

She promised that it wouldn’t take too long, that she would help with some of the packing later.

Of course Rebecca later learnt, that was a bit of a lie, as the sambal took over an hour to make.

But as she sat in her new dorm room some days later, a stranger in a strange land, she pulled out her smuggled-in jar of sambal, which was wrapped in several layers of newspaper, plastic bags and then stuffed into a ziplock bag. Her mother had written on the bag ‘a small jar made just for you, to get you started and give you a taste of home’. When she saw her mother’s almost calligraphic handwriting, tears welled up. She quickly blinked them away. How silly. Here she finally was, in an American college dorm, something she had dreamed about for years, and worked hard at school to achieve. And here she was sitting alone, not daring to leave her room, and clutching this gift from her mother. God, she was pathetic.

Her brand new roommate had gone out for dinner. Caitlin had asked her to come along to the dining hall but she feigned exhaustion from her long flight. And that was true, it was a long flight, made extra long with delays in Hong Kong because of a typhoon. She just wanted to shower and sleep. But as she looked again at the ziplocked jar she clutched in her hands, she also wanted very much to open it, and smell it, and taste it. Was that weird? To be tasting cold sambal from a jar? Oh well, she didn’t really care. She peeled all the layers off her precious cargo and gingerly eased open the lid. Oh it was heavenly. It smelled gloriously spicy, full of chilies and belachan, that stinky shrimp paste. There was a hint of sourness from the limes. She looked to make sure the door was closed – she didn’t want her new dorm-mates to think of her as the crazy Singaporean girl – then dipped her index finger into the sambal and licked it. It was everything that she needed at that exact moment. She hated that her mother was right, but it also made her realize that she missed her mother, now halfway across the world and many time zones away. She put the lid back on the jar, wrapped it back in all its layers, then tucked it back into her bag. She would call her mother to let her know she had safely arrived. And she would try not to cry when doing so.

Sambal is more or less a hot sauce. The term ‘sambal’ is Javanese in origin but it is a popular condiment not just in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia and Singapore. Its main ingredients are chilies and shrimp paste or belachan. Other ingredients may include garlic, ginger, shallot, palm sugar, lime juice. There are many different types of sambal. Sambal oelek, sambal tumis, sambal belachan are the ones I know, but according to the Wikipedia page, there are even more varieties, especially in Indonesia. Sambal can be eaten like a chili sauce, to add flavour and heat to dishes, or cooked as an ingredient. One of my favourite Singapore-style vegetable dishes is sambal kangkong, or water spinach stirfried with sambal. Here is a recipe for sambal 


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