Stir-Fried Shrimp Sambal

This image courtesy of Christopher Hirsheimer

This Malaysian dish is my favorite shrimp dish from the region. It’s a fiery-hot, ruby red stir-fry that goes well with rice or nothing at all. In Malaysia, small, whole unshelled shrimp are traditionally used for this dish; after cooking, their thin shells and heads become tender enough to eat. Small squid, cleaned and cut into 1 1/2-inch (4-centimeter) pieces, can be substituted for the shrimp, but I find that squid is trickier to cook, as it toughens quickly. I got this recipe from Norsiah, the wife of Mad Zan, a Malaysian fisherman. Norsiah makes it with shrimp that her husband catches, and as the couple eats they can hear the Strait of Malacca lapping away just steps outside their front door.

Makes4 servings

Cooking Methodsauteeing, stir-frying


Total Timeunder 30 minutes

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Courseappetizer, main course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, soy free

Equipmentfood processor, wok


Taste and Texturegarlicky, hot & spicy, spiced


  • 1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste
  • 3 shallots (about 2 ½ ounces/70 grams total), peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 5 to 10 fresh red Holland chiles or other fresh long, red chiles such as Fresno or cayenne, stemmed and coarsely chopped
  • 3 candlenuts or unsalted macadamia nuts
  • 1 teaspoon palm sugar, thinly sliced, or dark brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 pound (455 grams) medium-sized shrimp in the shell, preferably with heads intact


  1. To make the flavoring paste, place the shrimp paste in the center of a 5-inch (13-centimeter) square of aluminum foil. Fold the edges of the foil over to form a small parcel, and press down with the heel of your hand to flatten the shrimp paste into a disk ¼ inch (6 millimeters) thick. Heat a gas burner to medium-low or an electric burner to medium-high. Using a pair of tongs or 2 forks, place the sealed parcel directly on the heat source. Toast until the paste begins to smoke and release a burning, shrimpy smell, about 1 ½ minutes. With the tongs or forks, turn the parcel over and toast the other side for another 1 ½ minutes, then turn off the burner. Again using the tongs or forks, remove the parcel and let cool for 20 seconds to 1 minute. Carefully unwrap the foil, the edges of the disk should be black-brown and toasty and the center should be golden with some black-brown patches. Using a spoon, scrape the toasted shrimp paste into a small bowl and allow it to cool for another 20 seconds. Discard the foil.

  2. Place the toasted shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, chiles, candlenuts, palm sugar, and salt in a small food processor. Pulse until you have a chunky-smooth paste the consistency of cooked oatmeal. Make sure not to overprocess this paste. Some bits and pieces of chile skin and slivers of shallot are fine. If the paste doesn’t puree properly and repeatedly creeps up the side of the food processor instead of grinding, add up to 2 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon at a time, periodically turning the processor off and scraping the ungrounded portions down toward the blade as you go.

  3. Heat the oil in a wok or 12-inch (30-centimeter) skillet (nonstick works best) over medium-low heat. Test to see if the oil is the right temperature by adding a pinch of the ground paste. The paste should sizzle slightly around the edge, not fry aggressively or sit motionless. When the oil is ready, add all the paste and sauté, stirring as needed to prevent scorching, until the shallots and garlic no longer smell raw and the paste begins to separate from the oil, 5 to 7 minutes. The aroma should be subtle sweet, not harsh and oniony, and the color should be a few shades darker than the raw paste.

  4. Add the shrimp, then raise the heat to medium-high. Stir-fry, stirring constantly to combine the shrimp with the flavoring paste and to prevent scorching, until the shrimp are pink and just cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste a bit of the flavoring paste, and add a punch more salt if needed.

  5. Transfer to a serving plate and serve immediately.


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