A blender—that’s the only piece of equipment you need to make rempah, the intriguing Malaysian spice paste that’s the basis of the terrific shrimp dish shown here. To make a rempah, you just purée a combination of aromatic, spicy ingredients, fry the purée in oil to draw out and marry the flavors, and add the paste to whatever dish you’re making. In the recipe at right, the rempah’s ginger, shallots, chiles, fish sauce, garlic, and lemongrass supply all the interesting flavor notes to what would otherwise be basic wok-cooked shrimp. Rempahs are an indispensable part of Malaysian cuisine, used in everything from marinades and sauces to braises and sautés. In this way, a rempah is similar to a Thai curry paste (Malaysia and Thailand are on the same peninsula in Southeast Asia), with variations just as infinite.
There’s nothing exotic or difficult about making a rempah at home. Sure, Malaysian home cooks work in an outdoor kitchen, pounding the ingredients first in a mortar and then on a granite slab (called a batu giling) with a stone rolling pin, and putting all their weight into the effort. But the fact is that a blender does the job just as well and takes far less time and muscle. I’ve chosen this shrimp dish as an introduction to the rempah technique precisely because it’s so easy.
For an authentic touch, seek out these ingredients
Usually this dish (called a sambal udang) would include a few hard-to-find ingredients, but I’ve made some substitutions so you’ll be able to get everything in a well-stocked supermarket. If you want to make the dish with the traditional ingredients, all the better; they are listed below. Either way, it will be alluringly rich and spicy, with an indefinable something that keeps you coming back for more.
Fresh galangal is related to ginger (which is what I’ve substituted in this recipe). It’s hot and pungent like ginger, but in a different way. Galangal has a faint mustardy aroma and some say a medicinal quality. In this recipe, you can replace the ginger with an equal amount of chopped fresh or frozen peeled galangal (if frozen, let it thaw before chopping). For fresh galangal (and lemongrass), go to TempleofThai.com.
Candlenuts are very hard, high-fat nuts similar in size to hazelnuts. In Malaysia, they’re used to thicken and add texture to a rempah, but they’re never eaten raw as they’re mildly toxic. In this recipe, you can replace the almonds with 2 candlenuts, soaked first in lukewarm water for 10 minutes. Kalustyans.com sells candlenuts in 4-oz. packages.
Dried shrimp paste, called blachan, adds a savory depth to Malaysian food. In this recipe, you can replace the fish sauce with a very thin slice or about 1/2 tsp. of shrimp paste (it comes in small blocks). You will find Malaysian- and Singaporean-style blachan at Chefshop.com.