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On The Multifarious Food Trail

Passport & Plate - Sarawak Black Pepper Sauce

Malaysia | Wednesday, March 12, 2014 | 5 photos

1 full tbsp coarsely pounded black peppercorns
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp chopped red chilies (more or less to taste)
1 tbsp Belacan (or any other dried shrimp paste)
1/3 cup sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
1/3 cup light soy sauce
1/3 cup oyster sauce
1 tbs oil


How to prepare this recipe
Pound onion, ginger, garlic, and chilies into a paste using mortar and pestle. Add the belacan and pound some more. Heat the oil in a wok or shallow pan. Add the pounded paste and stir-fry until soft and fragrant. Add both sweet and salty soy sauce, as well as the oyster sauce. Reduce over low heat until thick and syrupy. Add a few drops of water if the sauce gets too thick. Add the black pepper, stir in well and simmer for another 2-3 minutes, until all the aromas and flavors have blended. You can use it immediately, but it is even better if you leave it be overnight. You can use this sauce with just about anything. From fried shrimp to braised beef. Toss these ingredients in the sauce, heat and serve. I made it many times with caramelized eggplant: fried slowly until soft and naturally sweet.


The story behind this recipe
On the coast of Sarawak, close to the border with Brunei, is a town called Miri. It is where I lived for a couple of years. We lived 200 meters from the beach, in a bungalow in tropical surroundings, where hornbills woke us up in the morning with their piercing cries, and bullfrogs kept us up all night croaking loudly after a rainstorm. It wasn’t your seaside-resort beach, but one often littered with dead fish and debris from the logging industry. In season, the sea turned pink from the tiny shrimp that fed in the shallow water. Knee-deep in water, local fishermen dragged their nets to catch them. For weeks, the shrimp dried out in the open, filling the air with their rotting smell. It is hard to believe something so putrid gives such a delicious depth to the local food. For a foodie, life in Miri was one big food adventure. From the malodorous durian to the delicate slipper lobster, I loved going to the local market. I attempted to chat with local vendors, learning that food connects, even if language fails. I watched a pineapple expertly cleaned with a machete, bought whole duck, pale head dangling on the long, curled neck, its webbed feet tucked under, every bit considered a delicacy. Despite the assault on the senses, the rats scurrying near, stray dogs and cats hoping for scraps, and the humid heat of the tropics, it also opened the mind to the abundance of flavors and smells. It is what this black pepper sauce represents for me. An abundance of flavors and smells that goes from sweet to pungent, spicy and comforting at the same time. When you taste it, close your eyes and dream of a tropical coast, fishermen dragging nets, local women pounding spices, open kitchens flaming up with hot woks and an overall aroma that is sweet, seductive and stinking at the same time.

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