Most of us love torturing our taste buds with spicy foods. It’s literaly a love-hate relationship. The more a food burns, the more desensitized we become over time. This is especially the case along the Silk Road.
The pain associated with eating spicy food is so desired by individuals the world over because it is instantly replaced with pleasure as our body releases endorphins to cope with the assault on our senses. Good Sambal Tofu should be very spicy, but not overly spicy that it blanks out all the other great flavours in the dish. It’s a precarious balance between the spicy overtones of the dried red chilies and the delicately running undercurrent of flavours provided by the fish sauce, the tamarind pulp and the sugar.
Also, this version uses far less oil than most restaurant versions you’ll find, which may contain anywhere from ¼ cup to ½ cup of oil! I will not use that much oil if I can help it in any dish. You can add a couple of Tbsp. oil at the end if you want, but it’s not necessary. With that kind of play up, you know this dish has to be good.
‘Sambal’ is a Javanese loan word, but you’ll find this tasty condiment/paste all over South-East Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand), the coastal regions of India and all over Sri Lanka. While each version varies – with additions of onions, coconut, anchovies, garlic, etc. – it continues to be popular along much of the Silk Road and some variety or other of dried chilies and shallots will be used extensively in Silk Route Cuisine. Let’s get ready for a taste explosion.
Sambal Tofu – Recipe
For Sambal Tumis:
- 15 – 20 dry red chilies (torn in half to remove seeds, stems discarded and soaked in ½ cup of warm water for ½ hour)*
- 1/8 cup of the water the dried red chilies have been soaking in
- 10 shallots (peeled and roughly chopped)
- ½ inch piece of balacan (shrimp paste) or 10 small dried shrimps for flavour (you can omit for purely vegetarian version)
*This is meant to be spicy enough to make your eyes water so use as many dried red chilies as it takes.
- 2 Tbsp. chili oil (use canola or other oil of choice if you don’t have)
- 1 block tofu, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 2 Tbsp. oil, for cooking
- Small ball of tamarind, soaked in ¼ cup of warm water, seeds discarded
- 2 cups water
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (or zest of one lime)
- ½ to 1 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 1 tsp. sugar or enough to taste
- Combine all sambal tumis ingredients in a blender and blend until fairly smooth, you may have little bits of the dried chili let, but that’s alright.*
- Heat chili oil in a heavy bottom, non-stick pan, add cubed tofu and stir fry until lightly golden on all sides. Spoon out and set aside.
- Heat cooking oil the same pan and add in all the sambal tumis (you can use only half and store the rest in the fridge for later if you want a milder, less saucy curry).
- Stir fry the sambal tumis for a few minutes until the balacan has cooked out (if using) or until fragrant.
- Add the prepared tofu and continue to stir fry for another 2 minutes.
- Add the tamarind mix, fish sauce and enough water to get your desired consistency and bring to a boil.
- Add sugar and taste test to make sure that it is seasoned appropriately. The sauce should be very spicy with a balancing undertone of sweetness and saltiness. Remove from heat.
- Remove stem from kaffer lime leaf and slice into thin strips and garnish or graze lime zest over.
- Serve with roti canai or cooked white rice with lime wedges on the side and an small scoop of sambal tumis (optional).
*Turn away from the vessel when you open it once the sambal tumis has been blended. Otherwise, you’ll get a face full of the trapped chili oils and you do not want that. Close your eyes and waft the oils away before facing it.
Sambal tumis is a very versatile paste and has many delicious culinary applications. It can be used as a spread on toast, eaten with plain white rice and used in place of salad dressing. It can also be used to baste fish before baking. Sambal tumis can be used to make shrimp, chicken, calamari, fish and vegetarian curries. Just replace the tofu with your meat, seafood or vegetable of choice. For meat versions add garlic and ginger paste to the curry.