Taste of home: Sambal tumis

I’ve been slacking on this one, because contrary to popular belief, a damn good sambal takes effort and time. And honestly I didn’t want to rush the job, because the real question was which sambal recipe to make.

Sambal is a chilli sauce that can include a variety of other ingredients, such as ginger, shallots, lime juice, shrimp and/or garlic. Depending on the country and region, sambal can be coyingly sweet, pinchingly sour, garlicky or just burns all the way down your gut. It is served alongside a multitude of dishes, such as fried chicken, barbequed squid, stir-fried noodles or even simple sliced cucumbers.

Sambal belacan is probably the most common sambal in Singapore and Malaysia. The paste is traditionally made with pounded fresh chillis with toasted shrimp paste (belacan) in a stone mortar, with sugar and lime juice. It can be used to stir-fry vegetables and it is very similar to sambal tumis, which is the same concoction stir-fried until the bright red colour has turned a darker ochre shade and the oils have leached out. My mother would always make a huge batch of sambal tumis when she made mee siam, as she used the same sambal to stir fry the bee hoon and make the gravy.

Unfortunately any dreams I’ve had of making homemade sambal with my own harvested chilli died alongside the dozen or so chilli plants I’ve tried to cultivate on our balcony. Packets of fresh chillies can be pricey at the market, but a friend apparently has a monster of a birds’ eye chilli plant and gifted me a whole ziplock bag of chillies. This was as good a time as any to make a batch to share amongst friends!

So here’s an adaptation of my mum’s recipe for sambal tumis, which uses belachan and I use as a condiment. It works really great with fried chicken, omelettes and fried rice/vermicelli. This stored in an airtight container will last at least 2 weeks (longer if you pour oil over the top) or months in the freezer.

Sambal Tumis


Sambal Tumis



Sambal tumis

Sambal tumis


  • 1 large handful of large red chillis
  • 1 small handful of chilli padis (less and/or deseeded if you don’t want too much heat)
  • 10 cloves of garlic
  • 1 large red onion (or at least 6 shallots)
  • 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind puree
  • 2 tablespoons gula melaka or palm sugar
  • 250ml boiling water
  • Salt to taste


  1. Mix the tamarind puree and palm sugar in the boiling water, and set aside until it cools.
  2. Blend the chillis, garlic and onions in a blender until you get a smooth paste. If you want to be traditional about it, you can use a mortar and pestle, but I’m lazy and prefer to whizz everything up in a blender.
  3. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan or wok on medium heat and add the pureed chilli mixture. Fry for at least 15 minutes until the mixture has lost most of its moisture. At this stage, it should be quite fragrant and the oil has been mixed well into the paste.
  4. Add the tamarind puree and sugar liquid to the pan, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and continue to stir occasionally for at least 15 minutes. Continue to fry until the paste has again lost most of its moisture, changed to a deep red and the oil begins to separate from the paste.
  5. Add salt to taste.
  6. Distribute the mixture in prepared containers (preferably airtight and glass) and allow to cool. You can freeze the sambal into small ice-cubes for longer term storage, but remember to wash the ice-tray well if you intend to reuse to make ice.