Sambal Lengkong – Peranakan Spicy Fish Floss
For some folks, preparations for Chinese New year starts as early as a month back right after Tang Chek. It marks the beginning of spring cleaning as well as cooking and baking to usher the new year. Folks like give an assortment of kuehs and snacks to friends and family during this period of time. The all-time favorite would be kueh tair, i.e. Peranakan Pineapple Tarts, with kueh belanda and kueh bangket etc following closely behind. Another top on the list is acheir, the Peranakan achar and Sambal Lengkong too is given away as a token of appreciation as well for some.
Many people like me take the opportunity to clear out the fridge so that there is space to pack more goodies and food prepared specially for friends and family to enjoy during this time. I too indulge in such a fridge clearing exercise and churned out quite a few meals already using whatever leftover ingredients there are which have hibernated deep in the freezer for the last few months. I found some fish which I’d bought a while back but didn’t really have time to cook, and Sambal Lengkong seems the perfect snack to make with them!
The first thing to making Sambal Lengkong is to prepare rempah. I took the chance to stock up on my “generic rempah” which I use a lot for cooking actually. All that peeling, cutting and chopping is really quite time-consuming actually so might as well cook a large batch to save myself the hassle of continuing having to make it over and over again. The generic rempah can be packaged and frozen, and taken out to use as and when needed.
The ingredients for cooking Sambal Lengkong are actually very simple. Only four basic things actually, i.e. steamed fish, fresh coconut milk, rempah mixture and kaffir lime leaves. The devil is in the making process. Apart from preparing the rempah which is time consuming, the processing of the fish is also equally if not even more nerve-wrecking.
Ikan Parang is the fish of choice for making Sambal Lengkong, owing much to the sweetness of the meat. But this much coveted fish amongst the Peranakans is also notoriously known to be one of the most bony varieties around. The fish is first steamed before deboning and it is the latter which is very very time-consuming, One has to pick out the fish bones meticulously for it would mean disaster should one accidentally gets choked by them. But my aunt has also made Sambal Lengkong with other fish before like red and white snapper, greasy garoupa and yellowtail fusilier is one of her favorites. Favoured much by the Teochews who call them 番薯鱼 han tze hu which means “sweet potato fish” literally, they are also very tasty and thus used to make Teochew fishballs. The good thing about yellowtail fusilier is they are so much easier to debone compared to ikan parang! That said, any meaty fish is good, so one doesn’t really have to feel compelled to “die die must use” ikan parang in order to stay authentic. My family most certainly doesn’t prescribe to such a doctrine.
The rempah mixture is first sauted slightly in some cooking oil until it is aromatic. There is no need to fry it until the rempah pecah minyak i.e. when the oil separates and floats on top. After which, the flaked fish meat is added followed by santan, i.e. fresh coconut milk. The mixture is then salted amply and stirred continously to accelerate the cooking process. It is fine to use medium high heat at this juncture but as the concoction begins to cook down and dry up, one needs to be more careful with the cooking process to prevent the base from charring!
This is yet another very long cooking process which cannot be rushed out. And this is precisely the thing that makes homemade Sambal Lengkong all the more precious and thus an excellent gift to loved ones as a mark of sincerity and appreciation as one had to endure long hours in front of the stove stirring and stirring to get it right. And thus, all the more should one who receives a bottle of Sambal Lengkong savour it slowly and carefully.
As the mixture dries up considerably, julienned daon lemo purot i.e. kaffir lime leaves are added. They impart an additional boost of aromas to the final product and should not be added too early into the cooking process. Sugar is also added at this stage and not earlier or risk the sugar caramelising in the heat which can cause the Sambal Lengkong to darken too much. As such the sequence is important in making good Sambal Lengkong.
And this is what the final product would look like. The Sambal Lengkong should be light and fluffy when most of the moisture gone. Some like to go the extra mile and add a bit of oil at this moment to crisp up the floss. It is all a matter of personal preference. It takes a long while to finally reach this stage. The stirring process for Sambal Lengkong is most peculiar. It is easiest at the beginning when there is a lot of liquids from the coconut milk in the wok. And then it gets progressively difficult to stir as the mixture begins to dry up, building up on the resistance against the spatula. And finally it becomes easy again when the floss has completely dried up leaving behind the floss which is really fluffy. Almost 2 hours of continual stirring and mixing. And this is does not include the time needed to prepare the rempah and debone the steamed fish. In short, homemade Sambal Lengkong is truly a product of much labour, effort, time and love…
The simplest and I must say most gratifying way of enjoy Sambal Lengkong is as a sandwich filling between pieces of bread lightly spread with some butter and if you prefer some thinly sliced cucumber as well. Otherwise, we have also used it before as an inti to be wrapped within steamed glutinous rice in coconut milk much like how rempah udang is made. Otherwise, it goes well as a topping for lightly blanched okra, stir-fried with long beans or even eaten on its own with hot steamed rice. As for me, I am gonna transform it into another CNY snack! Akan datang!
Sambal Lengkong – Peranakan Spicy Fish Floss Recipe
1 kg of fish, ikan parang is preferred but other sweet and meaty fish like red and white snapper, yellowtail fusilier can also be used
500 g fresh coconut milk
200g fresh generic rempah, recipe please click here make more because the rempah can also be used for other dishes like rendang ayam and laksa lemak
2 tsp salt (yes it has to be salted amply!)
6 tbsp sugar
8 kaffir lime leaves, julienned without thick middle vascular spine
3-4 tbsp cooking oil and a bit more to crisp up at the end
Steam fish over high heat until just cooked. Take out from steamer and set aside to cool slightly before deboning. With the bones, head and tail removed, it should finally yield around 700-800gh of fish meat.
Using a food blender, pulse the fish meat for a short while until it is coarsely flaked. Do not blend it continually or the meat will become too finely minced.
In a heated wok, add cooking oil and saute the generic rempah until it is aromatic. Do not have to wait for the oil to separate.
Add flaked fish meat, followed by santan and mix everything well to homogenise.
Add salt to taste.
Cook the mixture under medium high heat for about 45 minutes, stirring periodically.
When the liquids have reduced greatly, add sugar and julienned kaffir lime leaves.
Lower flame to medium low and stir continuously to prevent the base from charring until the fish floss completely dries up.
If crispy version is desired, add another couple tablespoons of oil at this point after the floss and dried up and pan fry it crisps up.
Leave the Sambal Lengkong to cool down completely before storing in bottles.