Recipe: Sweet Malay Sambal for Nasi Lemak

NASI Lemak was one of my favourite dishes to indulge in while we were exploring Singapore and Indonesia last year. A traditional Malay breakfast with lots of variations but in its simplest form it is made up of coconut rice, fried chicken, a boiled egg, ikan bilis (dried salted anchovies), redskin peanuts and a sweet mildly spiced sauce (the sambal) with tomato and cucumber on the side.

It is most prominent in Malaysia and can also be found across the Far East in places such as Brunei, Singapore, parts of Indonesia and the Bangsamoro region of Mindanao in the Philippines. In 2016, Nasi Lemak was recognised as one of the top 10 healthy breakfasts around the world by Time Magazine –  I don’t know if this is strictly true but in short, it’s flippin’ delicious!

Whilst most of the ingredients are readily available in the UK, I have never found a sauce to rival the sweet, sticky and ever so slightly spicy sambal that complements this dish. Thankfully, we are booked up for a trip to Malaysia later this year but I can’t wait that long so I played around with the ingredients that I could get my hands on (we are limited in NE England!) and knocked up my own variation of this sambal.

Sweet Malay Sambal

1 Ancho chilli* – can be found in spice section of most supermarkets, I got mine from Tesco

2 Fresh red chillis roughly chopped, seeds and all

3 Small onions – 2 roughly chopped and 1 finely diced

1 tbsp Fish sauce*

50g Light brown sugar

1 tsp Tamarind paste (replace with a sprtiz of lime juice if you can’t get hold of tamarind)

A pinch of seasalt

150ml Water

A little oil for frying


  1. Reconstitute the ancho chilli in freshly boiled water, soak for 5 minutes or so until it is soft, remove from the water and tear it up straight into a food processor. Keep the water aside.
  2. Into the food processor add the two roughly chopped onions, fresh chilli, fish sauce, tamarind paste, a generous pinch of seasalt, the sugar and some of the water from the ancho chilli and blend into a paste.
  3. The paste should have a little texture but make sure that it is not too chunky or too smooth.
  4. Finely dice your remaining onion and saute in a little oil over a medium heat. The aim is to caramelise the onion and melt it down rather than frying.
  5. Once the onions are soft and cooked through, turn up the heat slightly and add a touch more oil followed by the paste. Fry the paste for 5 – 10 minutes, stirring constantly and ensuring it doesn’t burn.
  6. Add 150ml of water to the pan and reduce until the sauce is thick and the raw onion flavour has gone. Keep adding water and reducing down until you get your desired flavour.
  7. Place into a sterilised jar and leave to cool before sealing. Stored in the fridge, it should last up to two weeks.
  8. Serve with Nasi Lemak or any dish of your choice!

Although typically served with Nasi Lemak, this sambal is great on the side of any rice dish. At the weekend, I served it up with a portion of Nasi Campur (basically a mix of different Balinese dishes with rice). I gave my mum some to try and she said that she used it as a dip for tortilla chips so really, you can pair it with anything you like!

This is my take on a sweet malay sambal and it is by no means the most authentic recipe out there but, in my opinion, it makes a worthy substitute. My aim was to make a recipe with ingredients that are easy to get a hold of so that we can try and replicate our favourite dishes at home.

*Fish sauce – From my research I gather that you should use shrimp paste (belacon) in this recipe. Living in a small town in the north east of England, sourcing certain ethnic foods can be a challenge and I was unable to get hold of any shrimp paste. If you have shrimp paste then use 1 level teaspoon in place of the fish sauce. Roast it in foil until crumbly before adding into the mix.

*Ancho chilli – Ideally you should use dried finger-length chillis. Again, difficult to get hold of where I live but I came across some ancho chillis in the spice section of my local supermarket. I chose ancho chilli because it is mild, sweet and slightly smoky. Although they are normally used in Mexican cuisine, I found that it helped enrich the sauce and added a deep chilli pepper flavour instead of an aggressive heat which is perfect in contrast to the spicy fresh chillis.

Have you tried this recipe? What did you serve it with? I’d love to hear all about it in the comment section below!


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