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Sambal belacan

Recipe: Sambal Tumbuk with Salted Fish

By: Erna Dyanty

When I wrote my first food article for Latitudes, on masak lemak recipe, I had already planned to write a complimentary side dish as my second article. The best condiment to pair up with masak lemak has got to be the one and only sambal tumbuk.

Sambal is a chilli based sauce, which is made by either sautéing blended chilli or just consumed fresh by pounding it to a paste in a mortar. It is a local condiment that is usually an appetiser which is native to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and even Sri Lanka. In each country the sambal is never a like. Tumbuk means to pound.

Sambal belacan

Sambal belacan, the most common sambal tumbuk in Malaysia

Here in Malaysia the most common sambal tumbuk you can find will be sambal belacan, which is fresh chillis pounded into paste with fermented dried shrimp powder. The paste is usually a mix of red chilli, small green chilli, dried shrimp powder and sometimes the use of fresh lime juice or tomatoes. For that salty and rounded flavour in the sambal, it is common to add dried shrimp powder or freshly grounded, into the paste.

However, in this recipe I have chosen to use salted mackerel fish for a change. You can modify this by using any other salted fish you may have in your markets. I have friends who are allergic to prawns, so using salted fish instead makes a great difference in texture and taste.

Pairing the sambal tumbuk with cherry tomatoes, unripened mango or star fruit, gives it a sour taste that compliments the sweetness of the sugar. This condiment is very good with fresh raw vegetables like basil, ulam raja, cucumber and aubergine.

Preparation time: 10 minutes         Kitchen Skill Needed: 2/10

Must have: Apron – to avoid splatters of chilli on yourself.


4 large red chilli

3 birds eye chilli

5 cherry tomatoes

1 slice of fried salted fish

Salt and sugar to taste

3 slices of unripened mango *optional

1 lime *optional

Cooking Instruction

1.   Cut the large red chilli into ½ an inch in size, this helps to pound the chilli into paste. Be sure to remove the stems as well. The paste doesn’t have to be super fine, but do try to pound all the chilli.

2.  Next, remove bones from the salted fish if it is too big.

3.  Slice the cherry tomatoes and ass them in one at a time followed by the salted fish.

4. Add salt and sugar to taste. Squeeze in the lime at the end if preferred.

*Erna Dyanty is a maker of many things, she finds being in the kitchen to be very therapeutic. She has a small note book filled with Malaysian home cook recipes, passed down to her from her dad, mom and grandmother.

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