Anchovy Sambal (Sambal Ikan Bilis)

Warning! This recipe is not for the faint-hearted! Let me be frank – if I have access to decent anchovy sambal (i.e. if I’m in Malaysia), I will not be toiling over the stove for hours to produce this indescribable spicy deliciousness. :) Today, I will be making Nasi Lemak, Malaysia’s national dish, of which the sambal is an essential component, instead of the traditional turkey dinner (I’m postponing the intensive laboring for that till Christmas when our families converge here for the holiday, lol). Recipe for the fragrant, rich coconut rice can be found in a previously published post – Nasi Lemak (Coconut Rice). Alternatively, you can use a combination of jasmine brown rice (2 cups) and white rice (1½ cups) instead of all white as seen in the Grilled Turmeric Chicken and Nasi Lemak post. Will share photos of today’s Nasi Lemak dish later. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving! We are extremely grateful for family, our health, food on the table, and roof over our head and we wish the same for everyone. ❤️

7 ounces dried chilies (1/2 of a 14-ounce package that is widely available in Asian stores), softened
1 (3-pound) bag of onions, peeled – reserve 1 or 2 (if onions are smaller) and slice thinly, cut the rest into small chunks
1 head of garlic (about 3 ounces), peeled
4 (3.5-ounce) packages dried anchovies, rinsed (I usually just rinse once) and divided
5 cups peanut oil, divided
4 tablespoons tamarind concentrate/paste
1 cup water
3 teaspoons salt and more if needed
6 tablespoons sugar and more if needed

To soften chilies: Cut the top off of each chili (discard chili that are discolored) with a kitchen shear to remove the stem part. Then, cut a slit down the side to open it slightly and shake the seeds out or use the tip of the kitchen shear to scrap the seeds out (I would recommend using a food prep glove on the hand that is holding the chili to avoid “burning” your hand); the prepared chilies will weigh about 3-1/4 to 3-1/2 ounces total, set them aside until needed. In a large pot, bring about 12 cups of water to a boil over high heat. Then, remove pot from heat and add chilies. Use a spoon to push the chilies under the water (making sure they are fully submerged) and cover the pot. Steep chilies until they are soft, about 10 minutes.

To prepare the sambal: Place softened chilies, onion chunks, garlic, and one-fourth of the anchovies in the work bowl of food processor; process until finely minced (do it in 2 batches), stopping as necessary to scrape down sides of bowl. Heat 2 cups oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (I use a 6 quart size) over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the rest of the anchovies and fry until golden brown but not crisp. Remove anchovies to a plate and set aside until needed. Add the rest of the oil and heat until shimmering once again. Transfer processed mixture into the Dutch oven and cook, stirring constantly until the puréed ingredients are no longer raw and oil has separated from the mixture, about 10 minutes on medium-high heat and an additional 20 minutes on medium-low heat (mixture will splatter, holy-moly). Then, add the thinly sliced onion, fried anchovies, tamarind paste, water, salt, and sugar. Simmer on medium-low until mixture is reduced by half and color turns deep red, stirring occasionally but more frequently towards the end to prevent the sambal from sticking and burning, about 3 to 3-1/2 hours – do not rush this process and you will be greatly rewarded with a flavor that is out of this world! Taste and add more sugar and salt, if necessary (I did not add more). Let cool and store in jars/containers in the fridge or freezer for a longer shelf life.

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2 Replies to “Anchovy Sambal (Sambal Ikan Bilis)”

  1. Yikes! That is a lot of work! I’m going to put my turkey in the oven and not look at it for 3 and a half hours. Whew! I’m exhausted just thinking about it. ;-)
    If chilies (a food that may burn your hands, but not your mouth?) and dried fish take you “home” then good for you. Enjoy the day! Big Love, Cindy
    Ps: how about less fish and more beehive cake?!? :-D

    1. Lol, I was in a lot a of pain last night…much better this morning! Thankfully, it is not something that is consumed in one sitting. I have three jars in the freezer at the moment, which would hopefully last us a while because I’m not making more anytime soon, hahaha. Beehive cake? Got it! Enjoy the turkey! Love, Chris

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