Condiments and Flavorings

Sambal Belacan

Sambal belacan is one of the most popular condiments in Malaysian (Malay) cuisine often served as an accompaniment to rice, which is a staple food for Malaysians.

In its simplest form, the basic ingredients for sambal belacan are fresh chilies (usually red while green is also used though to a considerably lesser extent), belacan (a fermented shrimp paste) and kalamansi lime juice.

More often however, Malaysians opt to jazz up the simple version with a variety of ingredients such as shallots, garlic, lemongrass, tomatoes, tamarind juice and fermented durian paste (known locally as “tempoyak”) to name a few. This has resulted in an endless array of sambal belacan “varieties”. There are no fixed ingredients for sambal belacan with different families having their own sambal belacan recipes.

Regardless of ingredient variations, fresh red chilies and belacan are key ingredients, without which, the condiment would no longer be “sambal belacan”. Malaysia offers a wide variety of chilies, and for sambal belacan, most often it is ripe fresh red chilies (not green) that are used.

These ripe, fresh red chilies are known as “cili merah” in Malay (“cili” = “chili”, “merah” = “red) and in elsewhere in the world, these chilies could be identified as red cayenne peppers. They are soft to the touch, a vibrant red in color, about 3 ½ to 4 inches in length and about ½ to ¾ of an inch in diameter at their thickest section.

Since this particular red chili variety does not rank too high on the Scoville scale for the average Malaysian, it is common for some fresh bird’s eye chilies (known locally as “cili padi”) to be thrown in as well for extra heat. Although bird’s eye chilies are considerably smaller than “cili merah”, these seemingly-innocent chilies pack substantially more heat.

Belacan is a paste of fermented shrimp and salt. A good belacan is imperative for a quality sambal belacan.

To make sambal belacan, traditionally, belacan is first lightly toasted over a charcoal fire until it turns aromatic and powdery. Next, this is combined with fresh chilies and other ingredients in a traditional pestle and mortar, known as a “lesong” or “lesung” which may be made of wood or granite. The ingredients are pounded and then the sambal is ready to serve.

For convenience and efficiency, modern day households may opt for modern electric appliances such as food processors instead of Malaysia’s traditional kitchen tool, the “lesung”. However, good things take time and usage of these modern equipment may come at the expense of quality, nutrition and authenticity.

Pounding the ingredients in the traditional pestle and mortar is believed to better extract the flavors as well as mix the flavors together which results in a far more authentic outcome than when modern kitchen tools are used.

Consequently, sambal belacan produced according to the traditional method is generally accepted to be more flavorful and wholesome compared to those produced in a haste.

Version 1 (classic, traditional)

Yield: ¼ cup

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 fresh red chilies – discard stalks
  • 1-2 fresh bird’s eye chilies (add more for extra heat) – discard stalks
  • 1 – 1 ½ tablespoons belacan
  • 1 fresh kalamansi lime – juiced

Method:

Over a low flame, toast the belacan until it dries, turns powdery and is aromatic. Do not burn.

Combine the toasted belacan with the chilies in a stone pestle and mortar. Pound until fine.

When ready to serve, add kalamansi lime juice and mix thoroughly.

Taste and make adjustments if necessary (usually this involves adding salt or kalamansi lime juice).

Serve immediately.

Version 2 (“Sambal Belacan Tomato”)

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 fresh red chilies – discard stalks
  • 1-2 fresh bird’s eye chilies (add more for extra heat) – discard stalks
  • 1 ½ – 2 tablespoons belacan
  • 2 shallots
  • 1 semi-ripe fresh tomato – roughly chopped
  • 1 kalamansi lime – juiced

Method:

Over a low flame, toast the belacan until it dries, turns powdery and is aromatic.  Do not burn.

Combine the toasted belacan with the chilies and shallots in a stone pestle and mortar. Pound until fine.

When well pounded, add roughly chopped tomato and pound again. The tomatoes should retain some bite, not be too mushy.

When ready to serve, add kalamansi lime juice and mix thoroughly.

Taste and make adjustments if necessary (usually this involves adding salt or kalamansi lime juice).

Serve immediately.

 

Indian Mango Chutney आम की चटनी (“Aam Ki Chatni”)

Indian mango chutney आम की चटनी is a fine accompaniment to rice and pappodums.

Indian mango chutney आम की चटनी is a fine accompaniment to rice and pappodums

Chutney is a general term for spicy relishes and condiments in Indian cuisine. The word “chutney” is derived from the Hindi word “chatni” चटनी which in turn was derived from the Sanskrit word “chatni” which literally means “to lick”. Chutneys originated in India and was used as a method to preserve fruits and vegetables that were in season.

Mango chutney (known as “aam ki chatni” आम की चटनी in Hindi) is a popular type of Indian chutney featuring a harmonious medley of sweet, sour, hot and spicy flavors to tempt the palate. The chutney is served as an accompaniment to rice, roti, chapati, paratha etc.

Traditionally, Indian chutneys are made with jaggery which is an unrefined form of sugar known as “gur” गुड़ in Hindi. Jaggery imparts a distinct flavor that refined sugars cannot match and because of its unrefined nature, jaggery contains micro-nutrients and minerals which refined sugars lack as they have been stripped off during the refining process.
Furthermore, jaggery’s deep brown color lends a richer hue than refined sugar. Consequently, the addition of jaggery yields a better finished product in terms of nutrition, appearance and flavor. Some modern recipes replace jaggery with refined sugar. However, for a more authentic and wholesome mango chutney, use jaggery.

Adjust the quantity of jaggery as required; a good mango chutney should have a good balance of sweet and sour. If it is too sweet it would feel too heavy on the palate (akin to a “sickly sweet” jam) and if it is too sour it would be too unappetizing and neither extremes of tastes are desirable; the sweet and sour tastes balance each other. The more raw and sour the mangoes, the more jaggery may be necessary to balance the sourness. The spices should complement rather than overpower the mangoes.

The mangoes themselves can be cut to wedges, chunks or grated. Wedges and chunks give the chutney body and bite whereas grated mangoes result in a more pulpy and soft chutney. Whether the mangoes should be cut to wedges, chunks or grated is a personal preference. Prepare the mangoes as desired.

Panch phoron পাঁচ ফোরন (also known as panch phoran) literally means “five spices” in Bengali a language spoken in West Bengal (a state in eastern India) as well as in Bangladesh. “Panch” পাঁচ means “five” and “phoron” ফোরন means “condiment” or “spice” in Bengali.
This exotic whole spice mixture which is often featured in Bengali and Bangladeshi cuisines
is comprised of equal portions of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds (also called black cumin or kalonji) and wild celery seeds.

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium-sized sour unripe mangoes – washed, peeled and sliced to 1 cm wedges or cut to 1 cm cubes or grated
  • Grated jaggery as required (adjust quantity depending on how sour the mangoes are – it could range from a 1/2 cup to more than 1 cup)
  • 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoon oil
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon panch phoron – a mix of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella, and wild celery seeds in equal ratios
  • 1/2 – 3/4 inch piece of fresh ginger – very finely crushed in a pestle and mortar
  • 1 –  1 1/2 tablespoons red chili powder
  • Pinch of garam masala powder
  • Pinch of black salt
  • Salt as required
  • Half a lime – juiced – adjust quantity depending on sourness of mangoes

Method:

Over low flame, heat oil in a non-reactive pot such as an unglazed clay pot.

Roast panch phoron spices until fragrant. Do not burn.

Add crushed ginger and fry till aromatic.

Add chopped mango.

Add red chili powder, garam masala and black salt.

Stir with a wooden spoon to coat the mixture around the mangoes.

Add jaggery, salt and a bit of water if needed. Stir and cook for a short while.

Add lime juice.

Cover with a lid and allow to simmer until the mangoes soften. As the mangoes cook, juices will be released. If the mangoes release very little juices and are too dry, add some water. As it cooks, taste the sauce and make any adjustments as needed. Adjustments should not be made after the chutney is done as that could affect the taste and shelf life of the chutney.

Cook until the sauce thickens slightly and the flavors have melded together.

Take off heat and allow to cool. As it cools, the sauce will thicken further.

Serve at room temperature. Keep refrigerated.

Cubed Korean Radish Kimchi (Kkakdugi 깍두기)

Cubed Korean radish kimchi (Kkakdugi 깍두기) in a white square dish, with a pair of silver chopsticks.

Cubed Korean radish kimchi (Kkakdugi 깍두기)

Cubed Korean radish kimchi, known as kkakdugi 깍두기 in Korean, is a popular type of kimchi made with Korean radish, which is a variety of radish native to Korea known as “mu” 무or “joseonmu” 조선무 in Korean. Korean radish is often mistakenly referred to as daikon radish which is native to Japan (hence the Japanese name “daikon” 大根). Korean radish and daikon radish are both white color, however, Korean radish is shorter and rounder whereas daikon is distinctively long and cylindrical. Additionally, the upper portion of a Korean radish tends to have an unmistakable pale green tint whereas a daikon radish tends to be white all over. Korean radishes have a stronger taste and denser texture compared to daikon. While daikon radish can be used in place of Korean radish to make kkakdugi, for the more authentic outcome, stick to Korean radish.

There are no fixed recipes for kkakdugi; different families in Korea have different family recipes passed down from generation to generation and hence the taste of kkakdugi varies from family to family. Some families include fresh fruits such as apples and pears (instead of sugar), some add in fresh julienned red chilies, some add in sweet rice flour while some leave it out.

Good quality coarse sea salt (known as “gulg-eun sogeum” 굵은 소금) and good quality Korean red pepper flakes (known as “gochugaru” 고추가루 in Korean) are critical for a good quality radish kimchi. The brining process takes longer using coarse sea salt compared to fine particle salt and this results in a crunchier and more flavorful radish kimchi. Iodized table salt or salt with additives such as anti-caking agents are not recommended as the additives may interfere with the fermentation process. Korean red pepper flakes are milder than regular red pepper flakes. Adjust the quantity of chili flakes according to personal taste.

Since ancient times, the gochugaru along with other seasoning ingredients would be finely crushed in a Korean pestle and mortar known as “hakdok” 학독. For over two centuries, this organic, kitchen utensil has been used by the ancient Koreans to make their kimchi seasoning pastes. Nowadays, modern cooks turn to a food processor, however the traditional method of crushing the ingredients in a “hakdok” yields better results taste-wise and nutrition-wise, as the sheer speed of the food processor blades destroys the nutrients and flavor of the ingredients.

Traditionally, Koreans would make radish kimchi during the fall (October to November) since Koreans consider radishes harvested during this time as the most flavorful.

Large quantities of radish kimchi would be prepared in the fall and stored in traditional breathable earthen pottery known as “ong-gi” 옹기 which were then buried underground, thus maintaining the ong-gi and the contents inside it at a temperature that was higher than the freezing winter temperatures that prevailed during the winter months. This provided the optimal temperature for the fermentation and preservation of the radish kimchi thus providing a reliable supply of food during winter. Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration systems, this was the method Koreans depended on for food preservation.

It is accepted among Koreans that kimchi fermented according to this ancient and traditional method is the most flavoful and wholesome. Modern day recipes may accelerate the kimchi fermentation process by placing the kimchi at room temperature for a few days before transferring it to the fridge. However, a slower fermentation at the optimum temperature of around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C, as was practised in the olden days would yield a tastier and healthier kimchi. A minimum of 20 days would be needed for the kimchi to fully ferment and the longer it ferments in this constant temperature the more flavorful it becomes.

Nowadays, households have switched from these traditional vessels to modern-day kitchen containers made with materials such as ceramic, glass and plastic. While these containers are functionally adequate, it is generally accepted that kimchi produced in an ong-gi is superior taste-wise and health-wise than those produced in such modern containers.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb Korean radish
  • 1 tablespoon sun dried coarse sea salt
  • 1/2 of a medium-sized Asian pear – skin peeled, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 inch piece ginger
  • 4 stalks scallions (aka green onions) – chopped
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1/2 – 2/3 cup or as desired Korean hot pepper flakes

Method:

Wash the radish with water thoroughly and pat dry. Peel the radish if desired, however some Koreans leave the skin intact for its texture and nutrients.

Slice Korean radish into 3/4 inch discs.

Then cut the slices into 1/2 – 3/4 cubes. Be wary of cutting the cubes too small as the radish cubes shrink as they ferment.

Place the radish cubes into a glass bowl.

Sprinkle coarse sea salt and mix well using hands or wooden spoon.

Set aside for about 2-3 hours. Every 30 minutes or so, toss the radish cubes to ensure they are evenly salted.

After an hour, the radish will be sitting in a puddle of its own juice. Taste the radish, it should taste slightly saltier than acceptable. As the radish ferments, the saltiness will decrease while the sourness increases.

Drain this juice into a cup or small bowl.

Into a Korean pestle (“hakdok” 학독), finely crush ginger and garlic.

Add fish sauce and mix well.

Add Korean hot pepper flakes and mix thoroughly.

Add chopped Asian pear. Crush finely.

The mixture would resemble a thick paste. If it is too dry, add just enough of the radish juice drained earlier into this finely ground seasoning ingredients to form a thick, rich paste.

Mix thoroughly.

Add this thick seasoning paste to the radish cubes. Add chopped scallions.

Mix thoroughly preferably with hands (use gloves) or with a wooden spoon. Ensure all radish cubes are well coated with the seasoning, giving the radish cubes a juicy, rich and appetizing appearance.

Transfer the contents into an ong-gi or fermenting jar. Press down as tightly as possible to remove any air pockets between the radish cubes. Cover the lid.

It can be eaten fresh or fermented. To ferment, place the ong-gi in the fridge, ideally at a temperature of 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C. Allow to ferment for at least one week.

Serve cold as a side dish.

Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut in a white bowl with a silver serving spoon.

Sauerkraut, which means “sour cabbage” in German has been consumed for generations in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Although sauerkraut is often thought to be of German or Eastern European descent, this popular preserved cabbage and the process of vegetable fermentation itself are actually theorized to be of Chinese origin.

The Chinese fermented Chinese cabbage (also known as “napa cabbage”) with rice wine and the resulting sour cabbage was known as “suan cai” 酸菜 which literally translates into “sour vegetable”. The earliest known history of sauerkraut dates back 2,000 years ago, about the same time the Great Wall of China was being built; Chinese laborers consumed rice together with suan cai and various other pickled vegetables.

Genghis Khan introduced the fermented cabbage dish to Europe about a 1,000 years later. The Germans, called it “sauerkraut” (which literally translates into “sour cabbage” in German)  and adapted the recipe to use locally available green cabbage (instead of Chinese cabbage), resulting in the sauerkraut popularly known today.

Prized by the ancient Romans for its taste and healthful properties, large quantites of the sour cabbage were carried by Roman troops in barrels during long journeys and were consumed in an effort to ward off intestinal infections.

Christopher Columbus nourished his sailors with sauerkraut to build their immunity against scurvy and other diseases.

The freshest possible green cabbage, good quality salt and the right quantity of salt are imperative to produce quality sauerkraut. Table salt and salt with any additives such as anti-caking agents are not recommended as they may affect the fermentation process. The quantity of salt should be mixed with the cabbage at a ratio of about 1.5% to 2.5% of the weight of cabbage. A ratio higher than that could stunt the fermentation process as the lactic-acid bacteria are unable to survive. One tablespoon of salt per two pounds of cabbage is a good rule of thumb.

Fresh cabbage heads are first shredded, mixed with salt and then squeezed by hand to release the juices in the cabbage which contain fermentable sugars and other nutrients that encourage microbial activity. The kneaded cabbage is then transferred to a crock, (traditionally stoneware fermentation crocks were used) and allowed to ferment undisturbed.

As the cabbage ferments, lactic acid-producing bacteria (LABs), primarily Lactobacilli, produce lactic acid along with other acids and a combination of gases (principally carbon dioxide). It is this acidity that serves as a preservative, helping to control the growth of harmful organisms which lead to food spoilage.

LABs thrive in anaerobic environments i.e., environments with no oxygen. For this reason, it is imperative to minimize oxygen exposure to the shredded cabbage; oxygen exposure affects the fermentation process and could result in the growth of harmful mold and yeast. Brine is an anaerobic environment, and ensuring the cabbage is submerged in brine at all times helps to avoid such undesirable outcomes. Do not stir the brine as this introduces oxygen.
Traditionally, water-sealed fermentation crocks were used to make sauerkraut and the water seal gives these crocks an advantage over modern day mason jars; the water seal prevents oxygen from entering the crock while allowing the carbon dioxide gases to bubble out.

Temperature control is a very important factor for a successful fermentation. The optimum temperature for sauerkraut fermentation is 18ºC – 21ºC (65ºF – 70ºF).

Ingredients:

  • 2 heads of fresh green cabbage
  • Sea salt as required (usually 1.5% – 2.5% of the weight of cabbage)

Method:

Ensure all utensils and hands are thoroughly cleaned.

Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage heads. Reserve one or two outer leaves.

Cut the cabbage into quarters and remove the core.

Shred the cabbage into fine strips.

Sprinkle salt evenly over the shredded cabbage.

Using hands, squeeze and knead the shredded cabbage thoroughly to ensure the cabbage and the salt are well mixed and to draw out the juices. It is important to ensure that every single shred of cabbage is salted. Uneven salting of cabbage can be attacked by undesirable bacteria and organisms which could result in spoilage thereby rendering the entire batch unfit for consumption.

Continue squeezing and kneading until the cabbage turns limp and releases its juice.

Transfer the cabbage into a clean and dry crock. Press down as tightly as possible to encourage juice formation and remove any air bubbles.

Don’t fill the crock, leave some air space between the cabbage and the opening of the crock.

Pour the cabbage liquids. Ensure the cabbage is completely submerged in liquid. This step is absolutely critical. Lactobacillus cultures need an anaerobic environment to thrive and this brine is an anaerobic environment. If any of the cabbage is exposed to air, the fermentation process could be affected resulting in spoilage.

Take one or two of the outer leaves and cover the top of the shredded cabbage. Press down.

Place a stone weight on top of the cabbage. This prevents the shredded cabbage from floating up thereby ensuring the cabbage remains completely submerged in the brine at all times.
Both the cabbage and the stone weight should be immersed in the brine. This ensures that any scum or froth that forms on top of the brine does not reach the cabbage below the stone weights and could be easily skimmed off.

Cover the fermentation crock with the lid and seal it by filling the groove around the crock with water.

Set the crock aside undisturbed for at least 2 weeks to allow the fermentation process to take effect.

The sauerkraut is usually ready in 4-6 weeks, after which time it could be transferred to the fridge.

Refrigeration would not stop fermentation, but rather its slows down the process. Thus, the sauerkraut would continue to ferment and its ‘sourness’ will increase with time.

When spooning out sauerkraut from the crock, ideally, use a wooden spoon.

Napa Cabbage Kimchi 배추 김치 (“Baechu Kimchi”)

The Korean term “Kimchi” 김치 is a general term for pickled vegetables, however when Koreans mention “kimchi” they usually refer to napa cabbage kimchi since napa cabbage (“baechu ” 배추) is the most common vegetable used to make kimchi.

There are no fixed recipes for kimchi, each family in Korea has their own recipe which may include additional ingredients apart from the primary ingredients i.e., napa cabbage, radish, chili flakes, garlic, ginger, scallions, salt and fish sauce. For instance, some families include green apples while some families leave out carrots.

Ancient Korean kitchens featured a “hakdok” 학독 – Korea’s version of a pestle and mortar in which the kimchi seasoning ingredients were ground into a fine paste. This clay-based, organic kitchen utensil has been used for centuries, however, modern cooks turn to a food processor. While food processors are considerably faster, easier and require less elbow grease, it is generally accepted that the traditional method of producing the kimchi seasoning pastes in a “hakdok” yields better results taste-wise and nutrition-wise, as the sheer speed of the food processor blades upsets the nutritional and flavor profile of the ingredients.

For centuries, Koreans made kimchi in “breathing pottery” known as “ong-gi” 옹기, which is a traditional earthen urn, made with clay and is porous, hence the description “breathing pottery”. Although used for a variety of purposes, ong-gi are primarily used for fermenting and storing bean pastes, pepper pastes, soy sauces and pickled vegetables (such as kimchi).

After the harvest, towards the end of autumn, large quantities of kimchi would be prepared in a communal tradition dating as far back as the 13th century known as “gimjang” 김장 in Korean. The ong-gi would be filled with the freshly-made kimchi and then buried underground, preserving the kimchi throughout the winter months. This process of burying the ong-gi underground maintains the ong-gi (and thus its contents) at a temperature that is higher than outside where temperatures often drop below freezing during winter. This underground temperature (around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C) proved to be the optimal temperature to ferment kimchi over a long period of time (over a year or two is not uncommon) and thereby providing a reliable supply of food during winter. Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration systems, this was the method Koreans depended on for food preservation.

It is generally accepted among Koreans that kimchi fermented according to this ancient and traditional method is the most flavorful and wholesome. Modern day recipes may accelerate the kimchi fermentation process by placing the kimchi at room temperature for a few days before transferring it to the fridge. However, a slower fermentation at the optimum temperature of around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C, as was practised in the olden days would yield a tastier and healthier kimchi. A minimum of 20 days would be needed for the kimchi to fully ferment and the longer it ferments in this constant temperature the more flavorful it becomes.

Nowadays, households have switched from these traditional vessels to modern-day kitchen containers made with materials such as ceramic, glass and plastic. While these containers are functionally adequate, it is generally accepted that kimchi produced in an ong-gi is superior taste-wise and health-wise than those produced in such modern containers.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 kilograms (about 6 pounds) napa cabbage
  • 3/4 – 1 cup coarse sun dried sea salt
  • 2 cups Korean radish – julienned
  • 1/4 Asian pear – julienned
  • 7 – 9 scallions (aka green onions) – cut to 2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup carrots – julienned (optional)
  • 1 cup water dropwort (optional)

For glutinous rice flour mixture:

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons sweet rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour)

For kimchi seasoning paste:

  • 24 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ginger
  • 1 medium sized onion
  • ½ cup fish sauce
  • 4 tablespoons fermented salted shrimp (saeujeot 새우젓) with the salty brine – roughly  chopped
  • 1 3/4 – 2 cups hot pepper flakes

Method:

First, using a knife, cut a 3-inch slit at the base of the cabbage.

Using your hands, gently break open the cabbage to two halves.

Cut a 2-inch slit at the base of each half.

Repeat with all cabbages.

Immerse the napa cabbage halves in water for a while and then drain the water.

Apply salt onto every leaf of the cabbage, particularly to the portions closer to the root.

Set aside the cabbage leaves. The timing of this brining process varies depending on factors such as the temperature of the air and the size of the salt crystals; the colder the air, the longer the time required. Coarse salt crystals requires more time than fine salt crystals. The time could vary from as little as 6 hours to over 12 hours. The key is to check the cabbage leaves every now and then – if the leaves have wilted and can be bent backwards without snapping, the brining process is complete.

Every half an hour, turn the cabbages to allow a thorough and even salting.

In the meantime prepare the porridge. Combine the water and glutinous rice flour in a heavy bottom pot. Cook over medium heat until it starts to bubble and forms a thin paste, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.

Stop heat and set aside to cool completely.

In a hakdok, finely crush the ginger, garlic and onion.

Add fermented salted shrimp. Mash it well.

Add fish sauce. Mix well.

Add hot pepper flakes and mix thoroughly with the pestle.

Pour the cooled sweet rice porridge. Mash and mix thoroughly into a fine, well homogenized paste.

Add the radish, Asian pear, green onions, carrots, and dropwort (if using). Combine well and set this mixture aside to allow the flavors to develop.

Check the cabbage leaves – they will have shrunk and turned limp. Bend one of the leaves backwards and if it doesn’t snap and is very pliable, the cabbage is ready. If it does snap or is not very pliable, let it sit for several hours more.

When the cabbage leaves are ready, wash the cabbage leaves thoroughly under cold running water. Tear off a piece from the cabbage leaf and taste it. It should taste saltier than what one would normally find acceptable. Similar to sauerkraut, as the kimchi ferments, this saltiness tends to decrease.

Tear apart the halves into quarters making use of the 2-inch slit cut at the base of cabbage.

Apply the paste into each and every cabbage leaf, this is best done with hands (use gloves to prevent hands from stinging from the salt and chili).

Fold the cabbage quarters to form individual pieces.

Place the folded cabbage leaves into the ong-gi that has been cleaned and dried. It is critical to ensure there is not a drop of water in the ong-gi.

Press down the kimchi to ensure the cabbage leaves are submerged in the liquid.

The kimchi can be eaten right away but tastes better if fermented slowly in a cool environment like the ancient Koreans did. Place it in the fridge and let it ferment slowly. Similar to the ancient Koreans’ underground fermentation method, once in the fridge the kimchi could last for months (about 6 months), but will get more sour (and more flavorful) the longer it sits.

 

Sri Lankan Raw Five Spice Powder / Sri Lankan Raw Curry Powder (තුන පහ “Thuna Paha”)

Sri Lankan raw curry powder or "thuna paha", in a traditional Sri Lankan coconut shell spoon, surrounded by green cardamom pods, cloves, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, Ceylon cinnamon, a sprig of fresh curry leaves on a white plate.

Sri Lankan raw curry powder or “thuna paha” is an aromatic and flavorful concoction of finely ground local spices

Sri Lankan Raw Five Spice Powder / Sri Lankan Raw Curry Powder (තුන පහ “Thuna Paha”)
Sri Lankan raw curry powder, also known as “five spice powder” (known as තුන පහ “thuna paha” in Singhalese) is a staple ingredient in all Singhalese households, used to lend aroma, color and flavor to various Sri Lankan dishes. “Thuna” තුන means three and “paha” පහ means “five, and so taken together it literally means “three-five” referring to the three to five spices used to make the curry powder though nowadays many more spices are used.

The spices are traditionally ground in a මිරිස් ගල “miris gala” which literally means “chili stone” – a laborious labor of love in which the spices are painstakingly ground by hand into a curry paste, using a heavy, cylindrical granite rolling stone and lots of elbow grease. The cylindrical stone is dragged over the spices which have been placed over a separate rectangular slab of granite stone. This chili stone has given way to the modern day grinder which indeed saves considerable time to prepare the curry powder but this convenience comes at the expense of quality; manual grinding retains the flavor, aroma and nutritional benefits of the spices whereas when pulsed in a mechanical blender, some of the aroma, flavor and nutrients are lost.

Usually, Sri Lankans use raw curry powder to make vegetable dishes while the stronger roasted curry powder (known as “badapu thuna paha” බැදපු තුන පහ – “badapu” means “roasted”) is used for making fish and meat dishes.

Like most Sri Lankan dishes, there are no fixed recipes for curry powder; different families in different provinces have different recipes containing different spices in varying ratios.
The freshness of the spices is critical for a good quality curry powder. Spices tend to lose their strength as they age, particularly certain spices such as cloves and cardamoms and hence if stale they would not make for a good curry powder. Similarly, the curry powder too is best used fresh, the longer it sits on the shelf, the lower the quality.

The cardamom used is green cardamom (known as එනසාල් “enasaal” in Singhalese), an aromatic spice native to India but is now cultivated in Sri Lanka as well. The cinnamon used is Ceylon cinnamon – a delicate and fragrant spice grown in Sri Lanka. Ceylon cinnamon (known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු in Singhalese) is not as widely available worldwide compared to the cheaper cassia variety which is largely cultivated in and exported by Indonesia. Cassia is not recommended when making Sri Lankan curry powder as it would fail to produce the right taste and aroma.

Version 1 (the following traditional recipe is from my Sri Lankan (Kandyan) grandmother born in the 1930s):
Ingredients:

  • 100 grams cumin
  • 25 grams fennel seeds
  • 150 grams coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 inch piece Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon green cardamom cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 sprig fresh curry leaves

Method:

Lightly roast curry leaves on a pan over medium heat.

Add the rest of the ingredients and roast till fragrant and lightly browned, taking care not to burn or over-roast the spices. The idea of roasting the spices is to bring out its aroma and flavor as well as to prolong the shelf life of the curry powder by removing the moisture contained in the spices. The curry leaves should be crispy by now.

Stop heat and let cool.

Once thoroughly cooled, grind spices finely.

Store in an airtight container. Best used within 2 weeks.

Version 2:
Ingredients:

  • 50 grams cumin seeds
  • 25 grams fennel seeds
  • 25 grams coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon green cardamom pods
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 2 inch piece Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1-2 sprigs fresh curry leaves

Method:
Place the curry leaves in a pan and lightly roast over medium heat till dried.

Add the rest of the spices into the pan and lightly roast over medium heat, taking care not to burn or over-roast the spices. The idea of roasting the spices is to bring out its aroma and flavor as well as to prolong the shelf life of the curry powder by removing the moisture contained in the spices. The curry leaves should be crispy by now.

Set aside to cool.

Once thoroughly cooled, grind the spices finely.

Store in an airtight container. Best used within 2 weeks.

Lunu Miris Sambola (Chili Onion Sambola) ලුනු මිරිස් සම්බෝල

Hot, sour and salty, Sri Lanka’s lunu miris sambola ලුනු මිරිස් සම්බෝල, often abbreviated to “lunu miris” is a well-known and loved chili condiment among Singhalese and is often served together with hoppers (aapa) ආප්ප, coconut roti (pol roti) පොල් රොටි, mung bean milk rice (mung ata kiri bath) මුං ඇට කිරි බත්  and milk rice (kiri bath) කිරි බත්. “Lunu” means “onion” in Singhalese and “miris” means “chili”, hence “lunu miris” translates into “onion-chili”. Apart from giving a hot kick of flavor, lunu miris also serves as an aid in the digestion of “rich and heavy” foods like milk rice and mung bean milk rice; this could be due to the acidity of the lime juice as well as the hot chilies which stimulates the Singhalese’ chili-loving tastebuds.

Similar to Pol Sambola පොල් සම්බෝල (coconut sambol), lunu miris is traditionally made with a “miris gala” මිරිස් ගල which literally translates into “chili stone”. Whole dried red chilies are combined with salt, a few drops of water and ground into a hot chili paste which is combined with fresh shallots and a dash of lime juice. Today pre-ground red chili powder and red chili flakes are used instead of this freshly ground chili paste. As a result, laboriously time consuming as it is, the traditional method of making lunu miris produces a far superior condiment, both in terms of taste and nutrition compared to the lunu miris appearing on the tables of modern households today. As the saying goes “good things take time”.

Shallots, rather than red onions (known as “Bombay onions” among Sri Lankans) are traditionally used to make lunu miris; shallots are believed to be healthier and red onions impart a slightly sweet taste which is out of the flavor profile of hot, sour and salty that this condiment traditionally offers.

Except for the addition of black pepper, the ingredients for lunu miris are generally constant throughout Sri Lanka i.e., shallots, dried red chilies, salt and lime. Black peppercorns are added for extra heat and for an extra burst of flavor but traditional lunu miris does not call for black pepper. The ratios of the base ingredients vary depending on personal taste; some may up the ratio of dried red chilies for a spicier lunu miris for instance.

Modern lunu miris sambolas sometimes feature Maldive fish known as “umbalakada” උම්බලකඩ  in Singhalese. However Maldive fish is not traditionally added to lunu miris. In fact, the addition of Maldive fish would technically render it a “kata sambola” කට්ට සම්බෝල and is no longer a lunu miris per se. Katta sambola is made with the same ingredients as lunu miris together with a generous quantity of Maldive fish.

Below is a recipe that tries to illustrate as close as possible the traditional method of preparing an authentic lunu miris. Since the Sri Lankan miris gala is a rare kitchen item nowadays, a pestle and mortar is used in this recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 whole dried red chilies
  • 3-4 fresh shallots – peeled
  • ½ lime – juiced
  • Salt as required

Method:

Place the whole dried red chilies, salt and a few drops of water to a pestle and mortar and pound till it becomes a thick paste. Add water if the chilies are too dry but be wary of adding too much as the condiment could end up too wet. Grind the chilies by rubbing the pestle.

Next add the shallots. Give a big bang to break down the shallots to smaller pieces then continue to pound till it is a coarsely mashed mixture. The shallots should not be pulpy and should retain some crunch and texture.

Add the lime juice and continue mixing in the pestle and mortar to allow the flavors to meld. It should be well mixed to produce a well-combined lunu miris but not so mixed that its ends up as too mushy.

Dish out to a serving bowl and serve.

Sichuan Chili Oil 四川辣椒 油 (Sìchuān Làjiāo Yóu)

Sichuan Chili Oil 四川辣椒 油  (sìchuān làjiāo yóu) is a ruby-red colored, aromatic and flavorful chili oil widely used in Sichuan cuisine. This oil forms the base for a number of Sichuan specialties such as Kung Pao Chicken 宫保鸡丁 and Dandan noodles  担担面  and this key ingredient wields the power to make or break a dish.

The type of chilies used is extremely important to make a good quality chili oil. Sichuan grows a wide variety of chilies. The most common and relatively cheaper grade is generally known in China as “la jiao” 辣椒  which means “hot pepper” while outside China it is widely known as “tien tsin” chili. Other varieties grown in the region include the Facing Heaven Chili  朝 天 椒 , Seven Star Chili 七星 椒  and the Yidu Chili 益 都 辣 椒 . These home-grown chili varieties are the better choices to make Sichuan chili oil; any other types of chilies will not deliver the same result. The tien tsin chili, which is probably the hottest type of Chinese chili, is a better choice among the Chinese varieties due to its extra spiciness.

Traditionally, sun-dried chilies were used to make Sichuan chili oil. Sun-dried chilies retain their flavor considerably better than machine-dried chilies and hence contribute greatly to a better-tasting chili oil.

Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 (Huājiāo) are essential when making Sichuan chili oil. Sichuan peppercorn is not actually pepper but is a reddish-brown berry grown in China’s Sichuan Province. When consumed this spice creates the classic tingling and numbing feeling typical of many Sichuan dishes. Sichuan pepper combined with red chili produces the numbingly spicy flavor profile that Chinese call “mala” 麻辣  which means “numbing and spicy” (“ma” meaning “numbing” and “la” meaning “spicy”).

The ginger should be old/mature ginger root, not fresh/young ginger root; old ginger is more potent than fresh ginger and hence has a stronger effect in flavoring the oil. A Chinese saying sums it up – “old ginger is spicier than fresh ginger” 姜还是老的辣    (jiāng háishì lǎo de là). Take note that traditionally the old ginger root is sliced with the peel.

Chinese cassia is substantially different from cinnamon such as the ones from Sri Lanka. Cassia is hard almost like a piece of wood whereas cinnamon bark is fragile and easily flakes off.

Tsao kuo 草果 is a variety of black cardamom grown in China. Green cardamoms such as those from India, are not an appropriate substitute since Chinese tsao kuo have distinct smoky aromas whereas green cardamoms have sweet overtones.

The oil used in this recipe is rapeseed oil. Peanut oil could be used but other types of oils such as olive oil or coconut oil are not suitable since their strong flavors results in an inescapable difference in the final taste of the chili oil. Chinese rapeseed oil is vastly different from the rapeseed oil of the West which is essentially a flavor-neutral canola oil. China’s rapeseed oil has a strong smell and flavor which contributes significantly towards imparting the characteristic aroma and flavor to authentic Chinese food.

The method of preparation is also fundamentally crucial for best results. For instance as a first step, traditionally the dried red chilies are fried till crispy and slightly burnt; this sets the foundation for a distinctively flavorful and aromatic chili oil. However, in today’s fast-paced world, this critical step is often omitted, inevitably resulting in a chili oil that is sub-par in these two respects. Additionally, the temperature of the oil is critical; the oil should be sufficiently hot for maximum absorption of the flavors and aromas of the spices but not too hot that the spices burn resulting in an undesirable bitter taste.

The following recipe tries to illustrate as close as possible the authentic and traditional method of preparing Sichuan chili oil.

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups of Chinese rapeseed oil
  • 120-170 grams dried Sichuan tien tsin chilies
  • 8-9 slices old ginger root
  • 8-9 Chinese onion – roots only, cut to segments, roots slightly bruised
  • 3 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp dried Sichuan peppercorns – slightly crushed
  • 2 tbsp rapeseed oil – for frying the dried chilies
  • 2-4 dried bay leaves
  • 2-3 star anise
  • ½ stick Chinese cassia
  • 1 tsao kuo
  • ¼ tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 clove

Method:

Cut the dried red chilies to 1 cm slices.

Heat a wok slightly over low heat and pour about 2 tbsp of oil.

Add the dried red chilies and stir fry them, taking the wok off the heat every now and then to prevent it from getting too hot (if the heat is too high, the dried red chilies will burn). Continuously stir the chilies to ensure the chilies are evenly fried.

Fry the chilies till they are crispy and slightly burnt (but not burnt) at which point the color turns a rich dark red (not black) and the chilies have a slightly caramelized smell (this indicates the chilies are crispy).

Take out the chilies into a sieve and filter out some of the seeds.

Keep chilies aside to cool.

Once cooled, transfer the chilies into a pestle and mortar and grind the chilies to a powder. The powder should be neither too fine nor too course.  Oil made from overly fine chili powder ends up cloudy and will be too dark colored.

Separate the red chili powder into three portions.

Next, pour rapeseed oil into a wok.

Heat up the oil to 160 degrees Celsius.

Add the Chinese onion and old ginger slices.

Fry the Chinese onion and ginger slices until fairly browned and fragrant.

Remove the wok from the heat and add the rest of the spices (except the ground chili).

Fry these aromatics for a while to allow the oil to absorb the flavors.

Stop flame and allow oil to cool a bit and pour the oil through a metal strainer to remove the aromatics.

Turn on the heat and bring oil to about 120 degrees Celsius after which stop the heat.

Add the chili powder from one of the three portions. The powder will begin to crackle and splutter. The fried chilies should have a slightly burnt smell but it should not be burnt (black). This slightly burnt smell contributes greatly to bringing out the aroma of the chili oil.

When the oil cools to below 100 Celsius add the second portion of chili powder. Stir the oil (helps to bring out the aroma).

As the oil cools further, add the remaining portion of chili powder.

Set it aside overnight at room temperature. The oil will taste better, turn clearer and have a richer red hue the next day.

The oil could be used as is, or filtered to remove the solid particles.

This oil is best consumed within a week.

Pol Sambola (Coconut Sambol) පොල් සම්බෝල

A very popular accompaniment for string hoppers, rice and bread, “Pol Sambola” පොල් සම්බෝල is a ubiquitous and “truly Sri Lankan” condiment featuring a harmonious blend of freshly shredded coconut and local spices. “Pol” පොල් means coconut in Singhalese while “sambola” සම්බෝල refers to a condiment/relish.

Ingredient combinations and their ratios vary widely within Sri Lanka. For instance, families down south tend to favor a tongue-searing pol sambola so they bump up the ratio of dried red chili and black pepper while folks in Sri Lanka’s hill capital (Kandy) tend to favor a relatively milder version. Some families add tomatoes and garlic while some others leave out pepper. The commonality among all pol sambolas is that they contain fresh shredded coconut, salt, lime juice and dried red chilies; any absence of these key ingredients means it is no longer a pol sambola.

Like most Sri Lankan relishes such as lunu miris and amu miris sambola, traditionally, pol sambola was made using a granite grinding stone known in Singhalese as a “miris gala” මිරිස් ගල which literally translates into “chili stone”. The grinding stone is used to first grind the whole dried red chilies with salt (and a few drops of water) into a rich, fiery paste which is then combined with the rest of the ingredients. Today pre-ground red chili powder is often used in place of this freshly ground chili paste to make pol sambola. However, unless freshly ground, red chili powder (store-bought ones in particular) is not as fresh as this freshly-made chili paste. Consequently, pol sambolas made nowadays are noticeably inferior taste-wise and nutrition-wise compared to the olden days. Red chili powder was almost unheard of in the olden days and only began to appear in modern day households as the grinding stone began to disappear.

The recipe below serves only as a guide. Shallots are traditionally favored over red onions not only because shallots are perceived to be healthier but also because red onions tend to impart a subtle sweetness which deviates from the authentic taste of this relish which predominantly offers a fusion of spicy, salty and sour flavors melded together. This recipe is an effort to replicate as close as possible the traditional method of preparing pol sambola, where whole dried red chilies are used (instead of red chili powder) and the relish is prepared in a pestle and mortar (since grinding stones are quite difficult to find nowadays).

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cups packed freshly shredded coconut
  • 12 dried red chilies
  • 2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 4 fresh green chilies
  • 3 tsp Maldive fish or as desired (optional)
  • 2-3 sprigs curry leaves or as desired – retain leaves and discard stem
  • 4-5 shallots – peeled
  • 1 medium-sized lime – juiced
  • Salt as required

Method:

Place the dried red chilies and a few pinches of salt in a pestle and mortar and mash till it becomes a fine paste; use the pestle to rub the chilies against the wall of the mortar. Add a few drops of water if the chilies are too dry to facilitate the mashing process but be very careful of adding too much lest the condiment ends up too salty and too wet.

Add the peppercorns, green chilies and Maldive fish.

Pound well and ensure the mixture is nicely combined.

Add the curry leaves and mash the mixture till the curry leaves are broken into smaller pieces; use the pestle to rub and grind the curry leaves.

 Add the shredded coconut and mix.

Mash well till the coconut is well mixed with the paste. As you mix, the coconut will gradually turn a vibrant orange hue and an appetizing aroma of the freshly ground chilies, peppercorns, curry leaves and fresh shredded coconut begins to rise.

Add the shallots.

Pound the shallots till fine but not so fine that the shallots end up as a paste. It should retain some crunch and texture.

Add the lime juice.

Continue mixing and gently rubbing the sambola in the pestle and mortar, to allow the flavors of the ingredients to meld together. The more you mix, the better the final result.

Taste the sambola and make any final adjustments as desired.

Serve immediately with steamed rice.