I spent several years in Indonesia and it was there that I learned how to eat food with chili. Serious chili. Considering that Southeast Asia probably didnâ€™t have chilies before the Spaniards brought them from Central America 500 odd years ago, itâ€™s amazing how quickly and intensely certain cuisines have adopted them and made them an essential ingredient. Can you imagine Thai food without chili? It must help that the things are considered to be addictive and once bitten by the spicy bug, one craves more and more. When I first moved back to Asia, I lived in Singapore, then moved to Indonesia and worked in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and elsewhere in the region. I was always too busy to see much of these countries but I did get to try some spectacular food. During my first year I started to dabble in chilies and by my second year in the region, I sought them nearly every meal I had. For a while, I was eating my fried chicken with chili. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the most common way to experience the chili was in the form of sambalâ€¦
Sambal refers to several kinds of chili dipping sauces, condiments, additions to soups and stews that are made with chilies, tomatoes, salt, lime, shrimp paste, etc. Every home makes their preferred version and almost all of them are wickedly hot and spicy. Some sambals are cooked, others are fresh. Here is a very easy fresh sambal that we do here at home in Manila, typically served with an Indonesian chicken sotanghon soup. In a mini blender or more traditionally, a mortar and pestle, blitz or mash several red siling labuyo, tomatoes, salt, a touch of sugar and lime juice. It should have a thick-ish consistency and not be overly watery. Remove tomato seeds and watery portions to reduce moisture content. This dipping sauce has serious zing, but once you get used to it, you will keep coming back for moreâ€¦
It is incredibly curious to me why The Philippines has veered away from a more spicy cuisine and instead, in recent years, seems to have focused on sweeter and sweeter food. I understand that “less fortunate” or “economically challenged” economies tend to have rather spicy or sweet or salty food, probably to make up for the lack of abundance or quality of food; however, I often wonder why we seem to have gone the sweet rather than spicy route (the salty route is a no-brainer as it is used to preserve foods for the long haul) … With the exception of some regional food (Bicolano, Ilocano), the use of chilis locally is rare and there are whole legions of folks who find them downright impossible to eat. Siling Labuyo as part of a dipping sauce is relatively common, but serious chilli use in stews, stir-fries, etc. is generally not. You can definitely count me in with the camp of folks who like serious spice every once in a while!