Malaysians love their sambal. It goes well with everything, from curry mee (for added heat) to toasted bread for a comforting snack. And of course, no nasi lemak deserves to be called such if sambal is missing from the plate. Sambal, without a doubt, has found its way into every kitchen and pantry in Malaysia.
It is because of the country's close relationship with this humble condiment that caused Chef Kelvin Lee, the executive sous chef of One&Only Desaru Coast, to think of it immediately whenever he thinks of a quintessential Malaysian ingredient.
"Sambal is so beloved by Malaysians. Though its roots are Malay, you can sit down in a Chinese restaurant and order a plate of sambal kangkong, or have roti canai with dhal and a spoonful of sambal at your local mamak. It has featured in ice creams, burgers, waffles, cocktails... I honestly cannot think of anything more representative of our beautifully multicultural country," he declares.
The funny thing is Lee, a Malaysian who grew up in Australia, can't bear spicy food. "My tolerance for spice is pretty low," he admits. "Even a dollop of bottled chilli sauce is enough to make me sweat. This dampens my enjoyment of sambal, unable to appreciate the complex balance of flavours."
No problem, he can make his own sambal. Lee, who oversees the resort's Mediterranean restaurant Ambara, sets out to create a paste that would have a broader appeal without sacrificing sambal's multifaceted character.
"Sambal is really a masterclass in balance. Every ingredient has a role to play from the pungency of the aromatics, the sour notes of tamarind, the sweetness from palm sugar, the deep saltiness of belacan and of course, the heat from chillies."
To turn down the heat, he used "dried chillies that has been carefully selected for their flavour, colour and mild heat. Even then, there is a wonderful complexity of flavours that can—and should—be enjoyed by everyone regardless of their tolerance for spice."