SAMBAL STINGRAY SERVES 4
The first time I had this dish was at a joint in Singapore’s red-light district—the type of place with just plastic stools for seats, swarming mosquitos, outdoor bathrooms, and prostitutes lurking on the dark street corners, a perfect backdrop to fuel a tourist’s image of the seedier side of Singaporean street food culture. The stingray that we found there, with its toasted sambal and belacan sauce, stunk in the most appetizing way possible. Where stingray is not available, substitute its cousin, skate, whose wings taste and look very similar.
In its simplest form, sambal is just chile peppers and salt, the Southeast Asian equivalent of ketchup, but my version also contains shrimp paste to add to the funk. Though sambals can easily be made in a food processor, I prefer to make mine the traditional way with a mortar and pestle, which creates a coarser and more homemade texture. Sambal will keep in the refrigerator for about a month.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 fresh banana leaves, rinsed and patted dry
½ cup Spicy Sambal Sauce (recipe follows)
1 ½ pounds stingray or skate wing fillets (ask your fishmonger to bone and fillet the spiky fish)
Perfect Steamed Rice, for serving
Set a large dry skillet on high heat to preheat for 5 minutes. Then pour in the vegetable oil and swirl it to coat the pan. Lay a banana leaf in the pan. Spread half of the sambal sauce evenly over the fish and lay the fish, sambal side down, on the banana leaf. Cover the pan tightly, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes.
Remove the fish and the banana leaf from the pan, and place a fresh banana leaf in the pan. Spread the remaining sambal sauce over the fish and flip the fish onto the fresh banana leaf in the pan (with the uncooked side down). Cover the fish with the cooked banana leaf, then cover the pan with a lid. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes or so, until the fish is cooked and the sambal and banana leaves are fragrant.
Serve with hot steamed rice.
SPICY SAMBAL SAUCE MAKES ABOUT 2 CUPS
¼ pound dried red serrano chiles, stemmed, coarsely chopped, seeds discarded
1 2-inch knob fresh ginger, chopped 1 head garlic (about 20 cloves), chopped
1 lemongrass stalk (pale green and white parts), trimmed and chopped
10 fresh red Thai chiles, seeded
1 cup rice vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
¼ cup belacan shrimp paste
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan.
Heat a dry wok over high heat for 3 minutes, and then add the dried chiles. Toss or stir for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until they start to lighten slightly in color. Add the toasted chiles to the saucepan of boiling water, remove from heat, and soak for 20 minutes.
Using a mortar and pestle, grind the ginger, garlic, and lemongrass together until coarsely ground. Drain the soaked chiles and add the fresh and drained chiles to the mortar; continue to pound to make a coarse paste. Add the rice vinegar and salt and continue pounding. At this point you should have a smooth but fairly liquid slurry.
In a medium saucepan, heat the sambal slurry until it is just simmering. Stir in the sugar and belacan and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. The prepared sambal will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 month.