On the Trail of the Phoenix – Sambal Udang Belimbing
Peranakans love cooking with fruits, spanning from the usual tropical varieties like pineapple in Sambal Nanas to durian in Apam Balik and banana in Pengat, to using more exotic varieties in lesser prepared dishes like young jackfruit in Sayur Nangka Masak Lemak, banana blossom in Kerabu Jantung Pisang and unripe papaya in Buah Paya Masak Titek. Some fruits are used almost exclusively in culinary cuisines from this region, and buah belimbing is one such fruit.
Buah belimbing, also known as berlimbing buluh in Malay look like little cucumbers packed with so much sourness, it’s taken to an almost extreme level of acridity. It is commonly used in seafood curries in place of tamarind and thus earned for itself the name “berlimbing asam”.
We have two belimbing trees in our neighbourhood and I didn’t even know they existed until fairly recently! I was waiting for a cab one afternoon when I saw a makcik and her domestic helper armed with plastic bags and bamboo poles probing at the the branches heavily laden with fruits and flowers which sprout from every possible crevice. A bounty harvest for them but thankfully, the two trees have more than enough to spare for quite a few pots of curries!
Stalks of inflorescence sprouting from the main trunk, with maroonish hue, carrying a very very faint scent.
Small fruits beginning to develop…
While those high up in the branches have ripen considerably, becoming quite sizeable. Generally, smaller ones which are just a tad unripe are used for cooking. The firmer pulp allows the kuah to be cooked over a longer period of time for the flavours to develop and mature. Very riped ones would easily soften and macerate into oblivion leaving nothing left for texture and crunch.
We harvested them in small quantities periodically over the last few weeks and adding to Ikan Gerang Asam as well as experimenting with some other recipes which uses tamarind traditionally, e.g. Assam Babi. Instead of completely replacing assam with belimbing, a mixture of the two was incorporated whenever possible. Despite being both highly highly tart, the flavours are still somewhat different, at least to me. :p
Sambal Udang Belimbing is a fairly easy dish to whip up, without very complicated rempah ingredients or complex steps. There are many versions out there and here’s mine.
Sambal Udang Belimbing
Main Ingredients & Seasoning
300g buah belimbing (belimbing buluh)
1 generous pinch of salt
300g of prawns, shell removed and deveined Do not discard the shell! (See below)
3 tbsp of cooking coil
6 tbsp of coconut cream (I used Kara)
salt and sugar to taste
Ingredients for Rempah
A handful of buah keras, presoaked to soften slightly
12-15 bulbs of shallots or 2 medium-sized red onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
12 stalks of dried red chill, presoaked, with stalks and seeds removed
4 stalks of fresh red chilli, stalks and seeds removed
Rinse belimbing, remove stalks and cut diagonally
Transfer to a large bowl, add a pinch of salt and rub the fruit slices gently to ensure even coating of salt. This allows osmosis to occur, causing the fruit slices to release excess sap and juice, thus reducing the acidity slightly. Leave to sit for about 30 min.
Prepare rempah by pounding or blending coarsely all the ingredients, in the order of the hardest (buah keras) to the softest (red chilli) until a smooth paste is formed.
Drain the sap which leached out from the fruit, giving the belimbing slices a gentle squeeze along the way.
Heat wok until smoking and add cooking oil.
Turn to low flame and proceed to stir-fry the rempah paste until the oil once again separates and floats on top. This needs to be done with patience to prevent the rampah from burning.
Incorporate belimbing slices, coconut cream and give it a good stir until evenly coated. Add water until it just covers the belimbing slices. Let the mixture simmer at low heat until fruit begins to soften. I like to add some assam water (a tbsp of assam pulp meshed with a small amount of water) for that extra oomph! This is potent and entirely optional!
Turn up to medium flame and add prawns and stir-fry quickly until the prawns are JUST cooked. This is when they have completely curled into a tight spiral. Add more water to adjust the consistency of the kuah to one’s personal preference. Some prefer a more fluid concoction while some like it to have an almost rendang-like viscosity.
Add sugar and salt to adjust the taste if necessary.
Unlike some other peranakan dishes, this dish has quite a fair bit of flexibility in terms of taste, texture and consistency. Even the level of “santan jelakness” can be adjusted by varying the amount of coconut cream added. If freshly pressed coconut milk is used, less water is added. But I am too lazy and Kara serves me well.
Some recipes advocate removing the seeds of the berlimbing before sitting the slices in salt. I found this rather painstaking and somewhat uncalled for as I did not find the seeds obstrusive or jarring. But if one deems it necessary, do what one deems fit!
Do not overcook the prawns as they would rapidly lose their succulence and toughen considerably. It should take no more than 2 min from adding the prawns to turning off the flame and serving the dish.
And for the big question on which comes first
chicken or egg prawn or belimbing. Well, its a matter of personal choice. If you prefer a more fruity crunch, then it would be prawn first and belimbing later. But there is an inherent problem with this sequence. Adding the berlimbing slices earlier and cooking them for a fair bit of time “encourages” the fruit morsels to continue leach its juices during the short period of simmer and contribute to the kuah. It thus allows one to control the volume of water to add subsequently. If the belimbing slices are added after prawns, i.e. just moments before plating and serving, they might continue to ooze sap in the plate, and thus affect the consistency of the dish.
Go easy on the salt during the last step as it was used to macerate the belimbing slices earlier during preparation. But sugar is absolutely necessary to balance the tart flavours. Then again, that really depends on one’s taste buds.
Please please please save the shell and heads of the crustaceans. They would make very decent prawn broth for other recipes like Buah Paya Masak Titek or Bawan Ketiping! I usually consolidate and freeze several batches to be used at once for one of the above soups. Very sedap!
Traditionally, Sambal Udang Belimbing is served with rice amidst other dishes like Nyonya Chap Chai or Babi Ponteng, but my favorite way of eating this is to add more chopped red chili and toss into cooked pasta! The thick kuah thoroughly coats freshly cooked strands of noodles making the dish so yummy! And its a very good option as a simple one-course meal!