Malaysian Okra with Shrimp Paste
MALAYSIAN OKRA WITH SHRIMP PASTE SERVES 6 AS PART OF A LARGER MEAL
The major flavor component of this dish is belacan (fermented shrimp paste), which is perhaps Malaysia’s equivalent to Korea’s kimchi. My favorite version of this Malaysian staple, fancifully known as “lady fingers,” is made with okra, but the dish is also delicious with kang kung (water spinach, found in Chinatown markets) or yam leaves (which are now popping up in greenmarkets). Though the fundamentals for Malaysian cuisine are built on Thai, Chinese, and Indian flavors, dishes like this are still relatively unpopular in the United States, perhaps because of their funkiness. No surprise: this fermented shrimp paste becomes very stinky—as in sweaty-socks-stinky—when heated. It’s an acquired taste, but one that perfumes the night markets of Malaysia and Singapore—and, now, my kitchen.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons belacan shrimp paste
2 tablespoons Spicy Sambal Sauce
1 pound okra, sliced diagonally (see Note)
Fish sauce, to taste
Perfect Steamed Rice, for serving
Heat a large wok over high heat and swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the garlic and stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the belacan paste and sambal sauce, and fry until the wok is smoky and the pungency of the belacan paste is released, about 3 minutes.
Add the okra. Continue to stir quickly until it softens, about 8 minutes. Season with fish sauce, and serve with steamed rice.
Note: If you dislike the signature goop that comes with fresh okra, you can presoak the sliced vegetable in a quart of water mixed with a cup of cider vinegar for about an hour before draining and cooking (though the added texture helps thicken this dish).