My second recipe of the week also comes from Southeast Asia, this time from Malaysia. Sambal Terung is a roasted eggplant dish, covered in sambal (a spicy chili-based condiment). Like Tuesday’s recipe, this is a dish that comes together easily and would allow me to focus on the main dish of the night (in this case, I was going to make Beef Rendang). I personally like this dish because it carries a deep, exotic flavor with minimal hands-on time; you’ll mostly spend your time soaking and roasting the eggplants.
Sambal has its origins on Java island in Indonesia, traditionally made with 75-90% chiles and a few other ingredients (shrimp paste, salt) added for depth of flavor. The sauce spread to other countries, most notably Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia (I have a theory that Sriracha is a product of sambal influence, but it’s hard to say for sure); it also made its way into Europe due to the Dutch colonization of Indonesia in the 17th century and beyond.
Eggplant was first grown in the Indian subcontinent, and spread both East and West from there. It reached China around 500AD, and was wildly popular in the Mediterranean starting in the Middle Ages and continuing today. It wasn’t accepted in Europe until later, around the 17th century, as it was originally considered by Europeans to be poisonous. Because of its widespread use in early history, the words for eggplant itself are all over the place, with no one single root spreading to each language (unlike something like “tomato”, whose origin is easier to trace). This is why you’ll see a myriad of names for eggplant; even English has several words for the vegetable (aubergine being the British variant, borrowed from Arabic, and the Caribbean often refers to eggplant as melongene, also of Arabic influence).
Traditionally, Chinese eggplant (sometimes called Japanese eggplant) are used in this dish, but regular eggplant will work just fine as well.
Sambal Terung (Malaysian Roasted Eggplant with Chili Sauce)
4 medium eggplants, sliced in half lengthwise
2 tbsp plus 1/2 tsp salt, divided
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 tbsp shrimp paste (see note below)
2 small red Thai chiles, tops (and seeds if desired, see note below) removed
2 large red chiles, tops (and seeds if desired, see note below) removed, chopped
2 red bell peppers, seeds removed, chopped
5 shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped, divided
1 tsp coconut palm sugar (honey okay)
1/2 tsp lime juice
1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp coconut oil
There are many variations of shrimp paste available at your local Asian market, from salty Chinese shrimp sauce, to Thai shrimp paste, the latter almost always containing soybean oil. I prefer the shrimp paste that’s sold in blocks, either labeled as Belacan (Malay) or Terasi (Indonesian). The blocks are easy to work with and usually only carry shrimp and salt as their ingredients.
1. Fill a large bowl or stockpot with water, then add 2 tbsp salt. Add the eggplants and weigh them down with a plate or other object; soak for 30 minutes to remove bitterness.
2. As the eggplants soak, let’s make your Sambal Terasi. In a skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium heat, then add the shrimp paste. Cook until toasted, about 3 minutes, then add the chiles, bell peppers, shallots, garlic, and half of the tomatoes. Sauté until softened, about 5 minutes, then transfer to a food processor or blender; add the remaining tomatoes and blend into a paste. Return the paste to the skillet, add the sugar, lime juice, and salt; continue to cook until slightly darkened, 2 more minutes. Season to taste then set aside.
3. Pre-heat oven to 400F. Remove the eggplants from the salted water and pat dry. Season with 1/2 tsp each salt and pepper. Over a baking sheet, spread 1 tbsp coconut oil. Place the eggplants on the sheets, cut-side-down, and bake for 5 minutes. Flip the eggplants over, spoon on some Sambal Terasi onto each eggplant, then return to the oven; bake until soft, about 20 more minutes.
** Removing the seeds and inner ribs from the chiles will reduce their spiciness. If handling the Thai chiles, be sure to use gloves.
While traditional sambal is made with mostly small, spicy Thai (or “Bird’s Eye”) chiles, you can use larger chiles that are not as spicy. These large red chiles are common in Maryland, sold equally for Korean and Indian dishes. You could really use any combination of fresh chiles you have available to you, and offset their spiciness with bell peppers.
Sambal is a very popular condiment in Southeast Asia, and used in many dishes, from adding it to soups to dipping it with vegetables or fried foods. There are hundreds of different variations; the one in this recipe, Sambal Terasi, is a very standard version of the sauce.