I’m sure most, if not all, of the people looking at the title of this post are thinking “Huh?” or ” What on Earth is a sambal kecap?”, and unless you are from Indonesia or someone who loves to search for weird recipes to recreate, that is probably the correct reaction.
I first ran across sambal kecap in the issue of Saveur magazine that inspired my recipe for pollo en mole verde that was posted a while back. The issue was dedicated to Mexican cooking, but tucked in the back was a feature that focused on satay – skewers of meat from all around the world. One of the pictures in that article was of a bowl of a black, chile-laced sauce that immediately grabbed my attention and held it in capsaicin-laced bliss. That picture was of sambal kecap.
Prior to this recipe, the extent of my experience with sambal was limited to sambal oelek – a wickedly spicy condiment sold in Asian markets that is made up of fiery Thai chiles, vinegar, and salt. I had purchased this stuff many time for use in stir fry recipes and such, but I had no idea that there was an entirely world of other sambals out there. After a little research, I discovered that sambals are like every other condiment in the world – everyone has a version of it, and the ingredients vary widely.
Sambal kecap gets its name from the primary ingredient in the sauce – kecap manis. As I mentioned in my last post, kecap manis is a thick, sweet, molasses-like variant of soy sauce from Indonesia that is often referred to as sweet soy sauce, kecap manis makes a good condiment on its own, and is also a key ingredient in many Indonesian recipes. When mixed with chiles, garlic, and other intensely flavored ingredients however, it truly begins to shine.
After locating a couple bottles of kecap manis at my local Asian market, I started dabbling with the ingredients in the sambal, and ended up with three different versions of it, each of which had something different enough about it to warrant mention. Two of the sauces were shared with a few taste testers at the animal shelter where I volunteer, along with some unseasoned grilled chicken breasts for dipping, and both received great reviews. The third version was one I made just for me, cranking up the heat to inhuman levels just because that’s how I like things.
The basic, traditional recipe I started with was a simple mix of kecap manis, garlic, Thai chiles, lime zest, lime juice, a shallot, and some regular soy sauce. I helped the flavors along by mashing the solid ingredients into a paste with my massive granite mortar (since I rarely get to use it), and let it sit for an hour to allow the flavors to mix properly. The results were good, but there was room for improvement.
Round 2 added two ingredients commonly found in Asian foods, both with flavors as intense or more so than the ingredients in the original recipe – ginger and lemongrass. This was the most popular version of the sauce among my taste testers, as the ginger added a very noticeable flavor boost to the sauce.
For version three, I decided that the Asian flavors of version two would be an ideal base for the fruity, scorchingly hot flavors of the habanero pepper. I was right on both the flavor part and the heat part – it was intense, but the flavors were amazing. It was my favorite of the three, but your mileage may vary.
It isn’t often that a condiment so catches my eye that I decide to make it a full-on kitchen experiment, but this one was worthy of that kind of effort. Give it a try the next time you grill chicken – you won’t regret it.
Ingredients for the base sauce:
- 1/2 cup kecap manis
- zest of 1 lime
- juice of 1 lime
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 shallot, minced
- 2-3 Thai chiles, diced
Ingredients for version 2:
- Ingredients from above version, plus
- 1/2 inch piece of peeled ginger, finely chopped
- 2 inch piece of lemongrass, thinly sliced
- Ingredients from version 2 plus,
- 2 habanero chiles, seeded
Optional step if you have a mortar and pestle : Add all the ingredients except the soy sauce and kecap manis to the mortar and crush into a chunky paste.
Step 1 : Add the ingredients to a bowl and stir to combine. Allow the flavors to mix for at least an hour before serving.
Step 2 : Serve the sambal kecap with sliced or skewered chicken, pork, or beef.
- As I mentioned in the recipe for the Thai lettuce wraps, kecap manis is available in most Asian groceries. Unlike the wrap recipe, you cannot substitute anything for the kecap in this one – it is the key ingredient.
- The longer ahead of time you make the sambal, the more complex the flavors will be in the final product. An hour is a bare minimum, and overnight is optimal.
- If you do not have access to Thai chiles, you can substitute serrano, cayenne, or habanero peppers. I would not recommend using jalapenos in this, because they have a very grassy flavor that would not work well here.
- For anyone who sampled the sauces and chicken at Animal House who might be looking for the missing recipe for the peanut butter sauce I had there, it can be found HERE.
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