The Engineer’s Approach to Sambal Terung

Posted on July 5, 2008


Sambal terung has got to be one of our favorite Malaysian dishes, the savory smoky sambal piggybacking on the velvety creamy flesh of the eggplant. However, eggplants are notorious for their sponge-like ability to suck in oil. Sambal terung done the traditional way starts off with deep frying the eggplants, where more than half of the oil inevitably gets absorbed into the flesh. To this is added the sambal, fried in even more oil, and you end up with a vegetarian dish that gives more grease than fish ‘n chips.

The carefree use of oil, along with the labor intensive and time consuming process of deep frying the eggplants are inefficient remnants of cooking methods that belong to a bygone era, when food was solely prepared by stay-at-home mothers and obesity unheard of. To time-poor sedentary workers who are constantly anxious about putting on weight, sambal terung has become the culinary equivalent of asbestos. We could either abolish this dish from our diet (which for eggplant lovers like us is akin to gastronomic fundamentalism), or we could apply simple engineering solutions to minimize the financial, time and health costs associated with this much-maligned dish. The goal is to create a healthy and easy sambal terung dish without compromising its distinctively savory appeal.

Our definition of an “easy” dish is something that doesn’t demand more than 5 ingredients, and our sambal terung consists of

2 large eggplants
2 shallots
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoon blended red chilies

and basic stuff like vegetable oil and salt.

Engineers like to work with arbitrary numbers that, based on experience, seem to work. In the same spirit, “2” was chosen to quantify the ingredients because, from experience, that amount seems to work and it makes for easy memorizing. Who has the time to look up recipe books when we don’t even have time to say Hi to our loved ones?

Begin by slicing the eggplants into rather large cubes of around 2-cm in thickness (again, based on experience and for ease of memory). Instead of deep frying the hell out of them, we simply place them in a shallow rack and roast in an oven preheated to 220ºC (can you see the numerical pattern here?) for 30 minutes.

Roasting the eggplant in the oven not only minimizes oil and effort, it also frees up time to chop the shallots and garlic and blend the chilies. The Italian way of roasting eggplant involves brushing the surface with olive oil. We found this to be redundant – at least in the case of sambal terung – because the flavor comes from the sambal oil which is added later.

After the eggplants have been roasted, fry the aromatics in about 100 ml of oil. Bear in mind that no oil has been added prior to this process, so 100 ml (approx. 6 tablespoons) is not at all unreasonable. When the air is dancing with the unmistakable fragrance of the sautéed aromatics, add in the freshly blended red chilies and continue frying. I stir only occasionally, because I want some of the chilies to be left idle on the base of the wok until it chars a little to give it a smoky flavor, and also because I’m lazy.

After the chili is thoroughly cooked, add the still-hot roasted eggplant, season with salt and stir gently to exfoliate the eggplant with the sambal mix. You will end up with a dish perfect for the terung lover – smoky eggplant covered with savory aromatic sambal, with just a pleasantly meager trickling of oil.

Posted in: Food