I was in the mood for some flavorful fiery Southeast Asian food the other day. Normally when that happens I go for Thai or Vietnamese but this time I decided to “travel” further south, closer to the waters of the Mallaca Strait, Java Sea, Sulu Sea and so on. That’s where Sambal originates.

calamari and tiger prawns in Sambal sauce

calamari and tiger prawns in Sambal sauce

Sambal is a spicy sauce basically made with crushed chili peppers, garlic, ginger, sugar, onions, shallots, some sour agent such as tamarind or lime juice, anchovies, shrimp paste (belacan), etc. Enfin, this sauce is bold.

I’ve never used belacan before. It is famous for being quite stinky, so I was a bit nervous about it. Steven always complains that my nose is too sensitive. Would this kill me to smell? Well, I survived. Surprisingly, I can’t decide which stinks the most: fish sauce or belacan. And I didn’t think that fish sauce is really that bad. What do you think? All I can say with certainty is that these ancient condiments impart a wonderful and unique umami flavor to food. They’re really quite popular and are widely used in Southeast Asia, and with good reason. Never be discouraged by their smell in the “fresh” state. Once cooked, they are the best!

The recipe is quite easy to make, but you need a food processor to grind the paste conveniently.

key ingredients for calamari and tiger prawns in Sambal sauce

key ingredients for calamari and tiger prawns in Sambal sauce

calamari and tiger prawns in Sambal sauce

1 lb calamari bodies, cleaned and cut into ¼ inch thick rings
6 medium tiger prawns, tail on, shelled and deveined
1 inch cube dried tamarind, soaked in 1¼ cup warm water for 45 minutes
½ medium white or Vidalia onion, cut into thin slivers
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp shrimp paste (belacan)
4 ripe Roma tomatoes
1 tbsp sugar
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Cilantro leaves

Sambal paste:

1 inch thick piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
8 dried chili peppers (I used chile de arbol)
3 shallots
2 cloves of garlic

Place Sambal ingredients in a food processor and process into a paste. Use a spatula to push down bits that stick to the edges.

Squish tamarind with your fingers until dissolved. Juice will be a bit thick. Pass it through a strainer. Discard solid parts.

Heat olive oil in a heavy bottom pan. Add Sambal paste and stir until raw aromas are gone and you see paste separating from oil. Add calamari and shrimp and cook for just a minute. Remove shellfish to a warm bowl and reserve, leaving as much Sambal sauce in the pan as possible. Add tomato, salt, onion and belacan and cook until onion has softened. Add tamarind juice, sugar, black pepper and salt, then simmer for about 8 minutes. Remove from heat, add calamari and prawns back to pan and allow them to warm through for a couple of minutes. Adjust salt. Serve over fragrant jasmine rice. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves.

This recipe has been adapted from here


Delfina is my favorite restaurant in San Francisco. I really love other places, like The Slanted Door and Gary Danko, but to me Delfina reigns supreme. They make Italian food with a California influence, or perhaps it’s vice-versa? We’ve been going there for years now to celebrate special occasions. The reason we enjoy Delfina sparingly is not because of the price as it’s affordable. Rather, it’s because it’s small and very popular. Thus you need a reservation well in advance unless you’re willing to wait interminably. And it’s only for special occasions that we ever get around to planning things. I keep wishing that they’d expand their business so it would be easy and convenient to get in last minute. But at the same time perhaps it’s better this way: small and of consistently high quality. Well enough free advertisement for Delfina!

warm white bean frisée salad with grilled calamari

Last week, I was channeling Delfina and decided to try reproducing what for me is one of their signature dishes: warm bean salad and frisée topped with grilled baby calamari. I love the creamy texture, the earthy flavor of the beans, the tanginess/bitterness of the greens and the yummy umami flavor of the grilled baby squid. The restaurant serves this as an appetizer, but at home I made it into an entrée. I’ve no idea what their recipe is so I improvised. Nevertheless, it turned out marvelously!

warm white bean frisée salad with grilled calamari

1 cup great northern beans, picked over then soaked in water for 3 hours
8 baby calamari and tentacles, cleaned and drained
3 pressed cloves fresh garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of half lemon
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of dried savory (less than 1/3 tsp)
Pinch of dried sage (less than 1/3 tsp)
4 tbsp olive oil plus more for finishing
½ head of frisée, cleaned and cut into bite size pieces
1tsp water
1 tsp sherry vinegar

Drain soaked beans then transfer to a pot and fill with water to about 1 inch above level of beans. Bring to a boil then reduce temperature to medium/low and simmer till soft but not mushy. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Add more water if needed.

Once beans reach the texture that you like, add salt, olive oil, 2 cloves of garlic, dried savory and sage. Continue to simmer. Transfer about 2 cups of beans to a bowl and blend with a stick blender (or in a food processor) for few seconds. Return blended beans to pot, and simmer on low heat.

Meanwhile, fire up the grill and bring temp to high (450F). Season your baby calamari with salt, a clove of crushed garlic, pepper, some lemon juice and zest. Grill baby calamari for no longer than 4 minutes total, two minutes on each side. Cooking it longer will make it rubbery.

To make the salad, mix frisée with salt, pepper, lemon juice, sherry vinegar, water, olive oil and toss with your hands to coat the leaves completely with dressing.

To assemble the dish, place salad in the center, add a ladle or two of bean around it followed by calamari on top. Drizzle a bit more of olive oil and another squirt of lemon and voilà!

Note: It did take time to make, but that’s part of the inventing process. Sun Fat had two types of fresh squid, clean ones from China and whole wild ones from the Monterrey Bay, near here. I decided to go local. The disadvantage is that I had to clean them. It is a bit gruesome, but now I know how so I’ll be mentally prepared for next time.

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