I mentioned this dish a long time ago but these past few months, readers of my microblog and twitter would have noticed how often sambal ikan bilis crops up in our meals. Last December my brother brought a batch over when he visited and I kept them in little packets in the freezer, they came in very handy for quick meals or whenever we wanted something very intensely spicy, savoury and sweet in a jiffy.
During my trip home in February, I finally had a chance to find out the recipe and watch my mother make it. My mother said also that she used the same sambal base to glaze fried chicken wings in a dish that my fourth sister named "the ear-twitching spicy chicken", because every time she ate it, the heat made her ears go all red and tingling.
The ikan bilis is important. Very fresh ones from a wholesaler whose turnover is fast, bring them home and pick off the heads and gut them. Nowadays it is possible to buy them already cleaned. Mother likes to rinse them briefly to render some saltiness out.
This is batch one. Ready for frying.
Fry the ikan bilis in small batches. Drain. Set aside. Repeat for batch 2. She did this in the kitchen at the back of the house, the smell of crisping fish hung in the still and humid air, driving the cats insane.
The other ingredients are onions, gula melaka and ground chilli. Dried chilli ground with a little water to make a wet paste, in this case it was slightly too wet. The sweetening ingredient is gula melaka, the local palm sugar lends a gentle caramel sweetness to offset the intense heat. The sugar should have been chopped up finer too, but she didn't remember to supervise the kitchen helper. Quantities unspecified, as Mother says, "it depends on how hot you like it".
At this stage, the ikan bilis would make a lovely snack with drinks, but I resisted from scoffing the lot.
The wok was cleaned and filled with a new batch of cooking oil. It is heated gently then she poured in a scary amount of the chilli paste.
The chilli is cooked slowly over a low fire, it got all bubbly and splutteringly hot so Mother put a plastic bag over her hand for protection. Excess oil was ladled out.
The sambal lava, after cooking for about 15 minutes and emanating pungent fumes, was then ready for coating the ikan bilis. Batch 1 went in, followed by the gula melaka. Stir to coat, breaking up any unsuitably large sugar pieces.
Ta-da! The sambal ikan bilis cooling on a large pan. It was then time for Mother & I to sit down and pack into little packets, ready for my plane journey the day after.