Sambal chicken is a classic Malaysian dish made of tenderly cooked meat bathed in a thick red sauce. The aromatic fragrance of different spices elevates the glossy, spicy sauce. Sambal is made of an aromatic mix of chillies, spices and seasonings.
This spicy dish has stood the test of time, captivating the hearts of spicy food lovers in Singapore and Indonesia for many years. While you can find different versions of sambal used in Southeast Asian cuisine, Malaysian sambal chicken is, hands down, one of the most delicious.
You can use chicken thighs or breast for our Malaysian recipe. Through further research, we also bring you the best way to marinate the different cuts of meat without losing freshness. Furthermore, we will show how this versatile dish can be served in various ways. So, for a fiery taste of Malaysia, you should master how to make sambal chicken with our recipe.
What Is Malaysian Sambal Chicken?
This dish is made of juicy chicken bathed in a spicy red sauce called sambal. The meat is thoroughly soaked in a spice marinade, creating a flavourful and tender product. Meanwhile, the sambal is a thick, oily paste made from a mix of spices and aromatic ingredients. This spicy sauce is cooked until fragrant, rendering a sweet, tangy, spicy taste with a fragrant aroma.
Although this simple dish is famous in Malaysia and Singapore, it has an Indonesian origin. Historically, the word sambal was adopted from the Javanese word 'sambel'.
Indonesian Sambal Chicken
The main difference between Malaysian-style sambal chicken and the Indonesian style lies in the sambal used to make this spicy dish. The former uses a paste made from fresh or dried red chillies. In contrast, the Indonesian version uses ripe and unripe bird's eye chillies (cabe rawit). Therefore, the Indonesian style has a bolder and more spicy flavour than its Malaysian counterpart.
The Malaysian style also has a thicker, paste-like consistency, whereas the Indonesian version is slightly dry with a thinner texture. Furthermore, the tamarind in the Malaysian sambal chicken recipe tastes sour and bitter. Meanwhile, the Indonesian version uses tamarind that tastes mildly bitter and sweet.
There are also other variations from different cultures and ethnicities. For instance, Thai-style sambal chicken has a sweet, sour flavour with a zesty aroma. The Indian take has a peppery, sweet, and woody taste from the use of cinnamon. And the Chinese sambal chicken aims for a delicate balance between sweet and spicy.
Here are the Chicken Sambal ingredients you will need to make this Malaysian dish:
- Other ingredients:
A perfect spice blend is the key to flavourful chicken and a luscious sauce texture. This spicy sauce complements the meat with its aromatic fragrance while arousing your taste buds with heat and a tangy mouthfeel. Making a homemade paste is best because you can adjust its heat level by using different amounts of chillies.
However, if you want to use the store-bought version for our sambal chicken recipe, use the one with less oil. Sambal with less oil can undergo the "pecah minyak' or oil-splitting process quicker than the one with a lot of oil. Oil splitting is the process of stir-frying the sambal until the oil starts to emulsify and float above the spicy paste. This process helps make the paste thicker and improves the final flavours.
Alternatively, you can use a dry paste to make this spicy sauce. However, the paste is usually made entirely from a red chilli blend. So, you would need to add garlic, onions, and other aromatics to make up for the sauce.
The best cut of meat to use in this sambal chicken recipe is a boneless breast. It has a tender texture with a large surface area to absorb the flavour of the other ingredients. Many chefs prefer this meat cut, especially when making famous Asian takeout dishes like Szechuan chicken. Alternatively, you can also use thighs or wings.
The ideal time to marinate a boneless chicken breast and get the juiciest taste out of it is between 20 minutes and 2 hours. Meanwhile, bone-in chicken thighs must be marinated for at least 3 to 5 hours. However, if you opt for chicken wings, which tend to have more bones than other cuts, you should marinate them between 6 to 12 hours.
Tamarind paste helps balance the spicy taste with sour, sweet, and mildly bitter notes. It also has a refreshing citrusy aroma with a caramel-like texture that can thicken your spicy dish.
You only need two tablespoons of tamarind paste for this sambal chicken recipe. Alternatively, you can use two tablespoons of tamarind juice if you prefer a slightly thinner sauce.
How to Make Sambal Chicken
- To make this spicy dish at home, start by marinating the meat. First, wash 700g of boneless chicken breast thoroughly and place them in a bowl. The meat can be cut into rough chunks. Then, add two tablespoons of turmeric powder, one tablespoon of ground black pepper and lime juice, and a pinch of salt on the meat.
- Mix and rub all these ingredients well until the meat is completely covered. Set the bowl aside for 20 minutes and cover the lid. Alternatively, you can marinate the meat for up to 12 hours in the fridge before cooking.
- In the meantime, add ten dried red chillies to a bowl of boiling water to make the sambal. Stir the chillies occasionally to ensure that they are fully rehydrated and soft. After 5 minutes, strain the chillies quickly to remove excess water. You can skip this step if you’re using fresh chillies.
- Mix the chillies in a blender with eight finely chopped red onions, eight shallots, 1-inch ginger, ten cloves of garlic, and two finely chopped lemongrass stalks. Blend these ingredients well until you get a smooth red mix with a paste-like consistency. Then, set the sambal paste aside.
- Pour two tablespoons of vegetable oil into a saucepan. Heat the oil for 2 minutes on medium heat before adding the marinated chicken. Stir-fry the meat for 5 minutes, making sure all sides turn light brown. After that, set the meat aside.
- Pour ¼ cup of vegetable oil into the hot saucepan. Once the oil is hot, add the sambal. On medium-low heat, stir and cook everything for 2 minutes. Then, mix two tablespoons of tamarind paste, one tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Stir everything for 15 minutes until the oil floats and separates from the sambal.
- Throw four cardamom pods into the mixture and stir for 2 minutes. Then, add the semi-fried chicken breasts and ½ cup of water into the saucepan. Switch to medium-high heat and stir thoroughly to ensure the meat is entirely covered by sauce.
- Once boiled, switch to low heat and add two tablespoons of kaffir lime leaves. Then, let everything cook for another 10 minutes until the sauce turns deep red and slightly thick. If you opt for wings or thighs in this sambal chicken recipe, you need to let these cuts of meat sit for at least 20 minutes to ensure they are thoroughly cooked.
- After 10 minutes, stir everything to ensure that the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat and serve this Malaysian dish alongside some rice.
Combining honey with the spice paste makes the sauce thicker. Furthermore, the sweetness of honey neutralises the heavy sting from the chilli. As a result, we produce a harmonious sauce with both spicy and sweet flavours.
To use honey in our sambal chicken recipe, pour this natural sweetener after the oil floats and separates from the sambal. Whisk and stir the mixture thoroughly until you get a thick red paste. We recommend reducing the amount of sugar if you choose to add honey.
If you have the guts and tongue for more heat, consider using a blend of dried red chillies and Thai bird-eye chillies (cili padi). Combining these two types of chillies gives this dish a jolt of spiciness and intense heat that numbs your taste buds. You would need to mix five dried red chillies with five Thai bird-eye chillies when making the spicy sauce.
Adding grated coconut can give this Malaysian dish a thicker consistency and a slightly chewy mouthfeel. It is also one of the key ingredients in our healthy nasi kerabu recipe, adding depth and a nutty tropical aroma to the dish.
To use grated coconut in this sambal chicken recipe, toast ¼ cup of this ingredient without oil until it turns golden brown. Then, add the toasted coconut after adding the meat, and the sauce has turned deep red and slightly thick. Stir this ingredient well until you get a thick and slightly chunky sauce.
- Cooking your sambal over high heat can cause the spices and aromatics to burn. This will give you a bitter spice taste. Therefore, stick to medium-low heat when you cook the spicy sauce. Only switch to higher heat once you add the meat.
- Consider using ½ cup of chopped tomato in this sambal chicken recipe if it’s too spicy. The acidic juice in tomatoes helps to reduce the heat from the chilli paste.
- If you prefer a drier version of sambal chicken, you can add the meat during cooking without including the water. With less moisture, this spicy dish will have a drier final texture.
As one of the popular dishes in Malaysia, this aromatic dish can be paired and served in different ways. You can make it with chicken wings and sprinkle on some sesame seeds and cilantro. Then, serve everything as party wings during dinner parties or family gatherings.
You can also make skewers similar to how satays are made. To make the sambal chicken skewers, the best meat cut to use with the most flesh is the breast. The best way to eat these spicy chicken skewers is by pairing them with nasi impit. Then, dip the meat in a thick peanut sauce (kuah kacang).
Instead of eating nasi lemak with chicken rendang, you can pair it with this easy chicken dish. Other delicious alternatives include sambal chicken rice, where you can pair it with fried or plain white rice.
Alternatively, you can stir-fry this spicy dish with noodles. However, you will need to make a thick, slightly oily paste to thoroughly coat the noodles with the sauce.
Sambal Chicken Recipe
- Wash the boneless breast well and cut into rough chunks. Then, mix the chunks with turmeric powder, lime juice, and ground black pepper and set aside for 20 minutes. While waiting, blend chillies, red onions, ginger, clove garlic, lemongrass stalks, and shallots into a red, thick paste. Then, add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to the wok and stir-fry the marinated meat for 5 minutes. Remove the chicken and set aside.
- Pour the remaining oil to the wok. Once its hot, add sambal into the wok. Stir and cook it over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Then, add tamarind paste, sugar and salt. Stir again until the oil splits and floats. Throw cardamom pods into the mix and stir for 2 minutes.
- Add the semi-fried chicken and water. Then, switch to medium-high heat and stir the mixture until it boils. Then, using low heat, add two tablespoons of kaffir lime leaves. Let everything simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce turns deep red and thick before serving.
Calories have been calculated using an online calculator. Nutritional information offered on Honest Food Talks is for general information purposes and are only rough estimations.
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