I have an unusual relationship with my Amah (grandma). To start off with she's my step-grandma, and since I lived abroad for 16 years while growing up I never really got close to her. Distance contributed to the fact that my current relationship with Amah is awkward at best. We do the usual greetings and goodbyes at family gatherings but never really talk. And it has been like this for the past 27 years until I recently took an interest in her cooking and recipes.
Amah has a set repertoire when it comes to the dishes she serves when we visit her. One specialty we always look forward to is her sambal udang petai and when I asked her to teach me the recipe I had no idea that I would be on my way to building a better relationship with her. I spent an afternoon learning her dishes and for the first time in my life we bonded. She was so excited to teach me and I was just as eager to learn. She could not stop talking proudly about how she learnt this specific sambal from a Malay friend of hers in Penang and how in her cooking she loves adding twists here and there to make unique dishes.
Have wok, will cook sambal udang
I observed as she deftly prepared the sambal with an expertise that only comes from years of experience in the kitchen. She could practically cook with her eyes closed. Amah was so quick that I had to watch closely to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. And her way of giving me the recipe was through quantities and how much things cost. “50 cents worth of grated coconut”… “tamarind you only need like this much” as she shows me a little glob the size of a golf ball… “and belacan no need, but can also”. Cooking done this way by look and feel rather than reducing it down to cups and spoons is the type of cooking our mothers and grandmothers have always gotten by with. And judging by the taste of their food, they’ve probably got it right!
If you had seen us in that kitchen you would have thought we had always been very close. I suppose it's true when they say food brings people closer together.
"Learning this sambal udang brought us closer together"
Sambal Udang Petai
1kg Prawns (cleaned, shelled and deveined)
5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
10 shallots, roughly chopped
2 handfuls of dried chili
3 stalks of lemongrass, pounded
1/2 cup santan (preferably fresh)
3 Tbs oil
3 Tbs asam jawa, soaked
1 inch belacan
Handful of Petai
Salt to taste
Boil the dried chili in water for 10 minutes then rinse it with cold water and get rid of the seeds. This will ensure that the sambal is not too spicy. Blend the chili in a blender to make it into a paste and set aside.
In a large wok heat the oil and sauté the shallots, garlic, lemongrass and belacan till fragrant and brown. Add the blended chili paste and keep stirring. Wait till the oil rises and add a splash of the asam jawa. Stir, then add a splash of santan.
Turn the heat down and let it simmer and stir occasionally. Add the rest of the tamarind water and another splash of santan. Keep stirring and let the sauce thicken. Once the sauce is thick you can add the prawns just for a few minutes till they are cooked through.
Take out the prawns once they are cooked so you don't overcook them. You can now choose to add the petai and cook for another 10minutes adding more santan to taste. Once the sambal is done you can add the prawns and serve with rice.