On the Trail of the Phoenix – Sambal Timun
When we were young, we met up a lot with our other relatives at my grandparents’ place. My parents moved out after they got married but always made it a point to go back and visit whenever we could. It was the same with our uncles and aunts who had moved out. Gatherings were a noisy, but also joyous affair, playing with cousins and also neighbours’ children whom we all grew up with. Apart from the regular weekend visits, what was particularly worth looking forward to were the “important days”. Usually it was the numerous marked Chinese-related festivals and celebrations, from Chinese New Year, and Chap Goh Meh at the beginning of the lunar calendar year, through Cheng Beng and dumpling festival right up to “bulan tujoh“, mooncake festival and finally Tang Chek. Apart from my own grandparents’ birthday celebrations, there were the birthdays of deities and of course the “ari see kee”, i.e. death anniversaries of our ancestors. Most of these “ari besair” were marked with an elaborated prayer session in the late morning or early afternoon and of course a pig out session that followed, enjoying the laok semayang that were prepared to honour the gods or ancestors first before being devoured by us. Many of the dishes were eaten as it is, but some were “transformed” into other delectables, and sambal timun was one of them.
Apart from the usual chap chye and pongteh, the most important of the laok semayang was the sam seng, which included a large slab of pork belly, a chicken or duck and a fish or cuttlefish, to representative of elements of the sky, the land and the sea. The chicken was either a roast chicken from the hawker stall just downstairs which my grandma pre-ordered a couple of days ahead, or ayam pek sak, which is just a whole chicken cooked plainly in boiling water. After prayers were over, the ayam pek sak was either chopped and eaten as it is with cili chukka, or transformed into ayam char halia or simply chopped and dumped into the pot of kari ayam. The fish, usually ikan kurau or ikan parang, was flaked and transformed into sambal lengkong. The pork belly was either storebought babi panggang from the same hawker stall as the roast chicken, or simply a large piece of babi pek sak that was after that cooked into either tau yew bak, babi satay, babi assam or simply made into sambal timun.
Sambal timun is a simple appetiser which goes really well with the nyonya mah mee aka mee semayang which was cooked specifically for the prayers as well. The contrasting flavours in these two dishes compliment one another perfectly, as if one was evolved for the other. The ingredients are quite a handful yes but the results are highly gratifying making the prep work worth every bit of effort put in. Sambal Timun, resembles a “kerabu” more commonly associated with the Penang Peranakans. This, with Sambal Jantong Pisang are the two signature dishes in Peranakan cooking.
Apart from cucumber and pork belly, we love to put ati ayam, i.e. chicken liver in our sambal timun. I absolutely love chicken liver, especially when it is just cooked, or even very slightly undercooked, still pinkish and very soft. I akin this to the French loving their foie gras but of course, in a much less cruel fashion. In the past, chicken liver was readily available and given free by the poultry sellers which grandma would always request from whenever she did her marketing. Nowadays they are sold separate from the bird itself and it is not easy to find good and fresh ones anymore.
The aromatics are highly played by a group of small but very important condiments. Daon ketumbair (coriander leaves), bunga kantan (torch ginger bud), bawang merah (shallots) and of course daon limoh purot (kaffir lime leaves) collectively form the indispensable four which lends support to the sambal belacan that is used as the base for the seasoning. Umami is derived not only from the fermented shrimp paste in the belacan used, but amplified and made more potent with flossed dried shrimp. In short, this dish is made to created a lasting culinary impression forever etched into the minds and stomachs of those who had tried it. Enough said…
Sambal Timun Recipe (serves 4)
A medium cucumber, about 20 cm long, seeded core removed and cut into narrow strips
250g pork belly, poached until thoroughly cooked through, drained and set aside to cool down before cutting into strips the same size as the cucumber
3-4 sets of fresh chicken liver (optional), poached until just cooked and is still slightly pink, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup of dried shrimp, rinsed thoroughly, pounded or blended into floss
4-6 fresh red chilies (can be partially replaced with bird’s eye chili for more heat)
3 cm piece of toasted belacan (fermented shrimp paste)
Juice from 4-6 large calamansi limes
1 bunga kantan, bud only, julienned finely
2-3 fresh kaffir lime leaves, julinned finely with thick vein in the middle discarded
3-4 shallots, peeled and julienned finely
2-3 sprigs of coriander leaves only, torn into smaller pieces
1 tbsp fine grained sugar
salt, if needed
Pound or blend chilies with toasted belacan until a coarse paste is obtained.
Add flossed dried shrimp, kaffir lime leaves and sugar and continue pounding or blending to homogenise.
Add calamansi lime juice and mix well to form sambal belacan.
In a large mixing bowl, place pork belly strips, cucumber strips, chicken liver pieces and half of the sliced bunga kantan, coriander leaves, shallots.
Pour into the mixing bowl the prepared sambal belacan paste and toss everything well with either a fork or clean hands. Adjust the taste with more salt if required.
Pour into a serving bowl or dish and sprinkle the remaining sliced bunga kantan, shallots, coriander leaves.
Serve with Nyonya Mah Mee or with other dishes.