Nonya Rempah 101: Sambal Titek and the road to Sambal Buah Keluak
Sambal kangkong, sambal udang, sambal buah keluak — when it comes to Peranakan sambal, it all leads back to rempah titek. Think of rempah titek as the mother sauce of Nonya cooking, one that can be built upon to yield other bases for the cuisine’s aromatic, complex dishes.
Rempah titek comprises just a handful of ingredients: red chillies, shallots, belacan (fermented prawn paste) and sometimes, buah keras or candlenuts, which typically serve as a thickening agent. Blitzed to a fine paste, this forms the base for everything from simple stir-fries like sambal kangkong or more seemingly complex dishes like sambal buah keluak (more on that later).
Add lengkuas (galangal) and assam (tamarind), and you get rempah garam assam. Add turmeric, coriander powder and coconut milk, and you’ve created rempah lemak. Garam assam, which literally translates to “salt sour”, is the base of piquant dishes like ikan garam assam (a sour fish curry) and kuah lada (a sharp, peppery fish stew). Rempah lemak (“lemak” loosely translates to “rich”) is the essence of indulgent dishes like laksa, otak (spicy fish pate) and sayur lemak (“sayur” means vegetables, so it could refer to anything from tapioca leaves, cabbage and unripe jackfruit). I’ll cover these rempah in another post.
Rempah requires patience, which admittedly, is not one of my virtues. It has to be fried in more oil than you think is necessary in order for the ingredients to cook and gently caramelise over an extended period of time. A single batch of rempah titek takes about 10 to 15 minutes of stir-frying over heat that you must constantly adjust to prevent it all from burning. You’ll know when the rempah is ripe and ready when the oil that you put in at the start — which the mixture greedily absorbs — gets released and starts pooling in the pan.
Like Indian cooks and their garam marsala, every Nonya cook has his or her unique blend of rempah titek. This is mine:
1 scant tbsp belacan
4 red chillies
You can double or triple the recipe (though you might want to go easy on the belacan if you’re tripling it), blitz it all to a fine paste in a food processor and fry it with 6 tablespoons (or more) of cooking oil for every portion.
If you add minced dried prawns to the pan and a bit of salt, you get the base for a good vegetable stir-fry. You can do this with kang kong (water spinach), ladies fingers, long beans and four-angled beans (kacang botol, pictured above), all of which are readily available at the wet market.
Yet more impressive is sambal buah keluak. This isn’t the black curry that most Peranakans refer to as ayam buah keluak (in my family, it was never served with chicken but with pork instead, but that’s another story for another day). Sambal buah keluak is a drier concoction that modern Peranakans serve as a pate. It’s great slathered over roti Francais, and by that I mean the cottony baguettes that Indian men used to sell on bicycles, but a proper French baguette will suffice in a pinch.
Once you’ve made the sambal buah keluak base, you can also use it for buah keluak fried rice (you can find my recipe here).
These days, you can buy buah keluak flesh already cleaned and shelled, which is the only reason I even contemplated cooking with it in the first place. Just one encounter over a decade ago soaking, cleaning, chipping holes in the shells, removing the flesh and then spooning it back into said shells completely put me off cooking with this pungent black nut. Now that you can buy it cleaned and out of the shell, it’s easy-peasy and probably the reason why more restaurants are cooking with it too. It’s available from a very garrulous Mr Seah at #01-210 Tekka Market.
Sambal Buah Keluak
Makes about 2 cups
15 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tbsp belacan
4 red chillies
½ cup cooking oil
1 cup buah keluak meat
For sambal buah keluak pate:
100g minced pork
100g minced prawns
1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
¼ cup coconut milk
salt, to taste
- Blitz the shallots, belacan and chillies in a food processor to form a smooth paste.
- Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. Add rempah and stir-fry for about 10-15 minutes, until the mixture starts to release its oils.
- Crumble buah keluak into the pan and stir-fry for another 5 minutes. Add a spoonful or two of water if the mixture seems to be drying out.
- When the buak keluak meat is well incorporated into the rempah, transfer to a blender or use a stick blender to blitz the mixture to a fine paste.
- At this point, you can refrigerate or freeze the sambal buah keluak for later use or make buah keluak fried rice with it. Otherwise, return the sambal to the pan with another tablespoon of oil, along with the minced pork or prawns, or both, and light soy sauce.
- Stir-fry for about 5 minutes, or until the pork and prawns are cooked through.
- Add coconut milk and salt, and taste. Adjust seasoning and mix well.
- This pate can be served atop steamed white rice, slathered on toasted roti Francais or baguette, or eaten with dry instant noodles.