Global unity through hot sauces


Sambal Hebi

The other day I was doing my favorite thing — making a hot sauce, in preparation for doing my other favorite thing — eating a meal with a hot sauce. And I started to think upon the unity of all humanity. While I have been known to have the occasional Deep Thought, I usually need some prodding to produce one. The prodding that produced this particular Deep Thought was the following.

Over the course of the past couple months I had occasion to make a few hot sauces. These were from different cuisines: we made burritos at home, so I made a Mexican hot sauce once; another time, for dosas, I made a tomato chutney; and then the other day, experimenting with Malaysian food, I tried making a chili paste called Sambal Hebi. I seem to be doing the same thing over and over, I thought. With just a couple twists each time to add some local flavor.

Tomato chutney

Tomato chutney

Well, given that they all use dried red chilies for heat, and perhaps some garlic or onions as aromatics, there certainly is commonality. Humans from these three rather disparate regions of the world really do seem to think alike — perhaps we are all the same under the skin?

So here is my global hot sauce template; if you are able to adapt this method to yet another hot sauce from another cuisine I’d love to hear about it.

Step 1: Soak the dried chilies in hot water.

Same for all the hot sauces. Choose a mix of large, not-so-hot dried red chilies, and small, hot dried red chilies, according to your heat tolerance. Bring a cup of water to a boil and soak chilies in it until softened, about 15 minutes. Pull off the stem and remove seeds and ribs if you like. They are ready for the sauce.

Soaking dried red chilies

Soaking dried red chilies

Step 2: Broil the vegetables.

Mexican hot sauce: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. South Indian tomato chutney: I used 2 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. Malaysian sambal: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic.

Leave the garlic, onion, tomato unpeeled. Rub some oil over and broil for about 6 minutes. At this point, the papery skin of garlic/onion will have darkened, and the tomato skin can simply be peeled off.

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Step 3: Blender

Vegetables and softened chilies go into the blender together. Along with salt to taste. If you need liquid to make the blender happy, pour in some of the oil and collected juices from broiling the vegetables; if you need more, add some of the chili soaking liquid.

Step 4: Cook

Empty out the blended hot sauce into a pot and bring to a boil. Then simmer. It only needs to cook for a few minutes. The color will change. Give it a preliminary taste to make sure the salt is right.

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Step 5: Finishing for the Mexican hot sauce:

If you are doing a Mexican hot sauce, add a teeny bit of vinegar or lime; that’s it, you are done. Slather it over some refried beans.

Step 5: Finishing for the South Indian tomato chutney:

You can let this chutney cook longer to dry it somewhat more than the Mexican hot sauce, as it doesn’t have to be of a pouring consistency.

Heat a tablespoon of coconut oil in a pan. When hot, put in a half teaspoon of split and dehusked urad dal (Vigna Mungo), when that reddens, half a teaspoon of black mustard seeds, when they pop a few curry leaves. When they shrivel turn off the flame and pour the coconut oil into the tomato chutney. Stir to combine.

Step 5: Finishing for the dried shrimp sambal (Sambal Hebi):

First, a bit about this chili paste, because it was new to me. ‘Sambal oelek’ is a simple chili paste used all over Singapore/Malaysia as a base for many of their dishes; while ‘Sambal Hebi’ has added dried shrimp, garlic and shallots. With the excellent umami additions, this paste can be had as a simple and delicious accompaniment for rice (that’s not how I used it, but the story of what I did with it will have to wait).

Bags of dried shrimp should be available at an Asian grocery store. Here is an online source of it: The Asian Cook Shop. While you are preparing the rest of the sauce, soak about half a cup of dried shrimp in hot simmering water to soften. In 15 minutes, that should be done; take the shrimp out and smash them in a mortar and pestle if you have patience, if not, whirl them in a blender.

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Now remember for the sambal we did not use any tomato, just the garlic, onion and chilies. So the paste will be drier to start with. When you cook the paste, use a bit of oil, and cook it longer than the above two until the oil separates. Also, I did not use any salt at all, preferring to add enough soy sauce to cover the needed saltiness.

Next put the dried shrimp into the pot: stir to have them cook and the entire paste dry up — about 10 minutes. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce, stir to combine, and you are done.

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Sambal Hebi is done, ready for use as a base for noodles, as a sauce for vegetables, or simply with rice. Recipe source: Indochine Kitchen.

Pounded shrimp added

Pounded shrimp added

Soy sauce added

Soy sauce added

Mexican hot sauce

  • 3 large tomatoes
  • Half a medium onion
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice or 1 teaspoon vinegar

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop for a few minutes. Add lime juice/vinegar.

South Indian tomato chutney

  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon urad dal (split and dehusked black gram)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • Few curry leaves

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop until reduced a bit. Heat coconut oil until shimmering. Add, in this order, the urad dal, when they redden the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Turn off and empty the coconut oil into the chutney and stir well.

Malaysian sambal hebi

  • Half a medium onion or couple shallots
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend to a paste.

Meanwhile prepare the shrimp: soak in hot water for 15 minutes until softened. Pound with a mortar and pestle.

Heat oil in a small pot. Empty the chili paste from the blender into it and cook until the oil separates. Add the shrimp to the pot, stir well to combine, and cook for 10 minutes until dry. Now add the soy sauce and stir nicely.

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Garlic-fenugreek gravy with absolutely anything


This is a Sindhi gravy that you can throw anything into, and make a wonderful meal, sort of like this gravy. And it is so simple to do, that you will be left wondering if you left out any steps. You didn’t!

Greenish in color from the fresh herbs, it also has the wonderful warm aroma of garlic. The herbs and the garlic together make an intense and unfamiliar aroma that most people are intrigued by.

As for what to put in it — some common Sindhi preparations use okra, or King mackarel fish, or zucchini; I have made a successful combination of paneer and peas in this gravy or potatoes and peas. You also have your choice about how wet or dry to make the result; and whether to have it with roti as a side, or over plain white rice. But use your imagination and let’s get started.

Thoom-methi gravy with potatoes and peas


  • Half a large red or yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 – 4 largish cloves garlic
  • 3 (or to taste) fresh chilies, jalapeno, serrano, bird’s eye or cayenne
  • half a bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dry fenugreek or half a cup fresh if you can find it
  • One large tomato
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • half teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups of chopped vegetables: I used 3 cubed red potatoes and half a cup of peas.
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons oil


Combine in a blender the following roughly chopped vegetables, with about a quarter cup of water: onion, garlic, cilantro, fenugreek and chilies. Blend to a paste consistency, as shown below.

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Heat oil in a thick-bottomed pot and when it shimmers, put in the paste and cook it on medium-high. In about ten minutes it will dry up and start to darken; keep stirring it once in a while. When it goes from looking like this:


to looking like this:


put in the chopped tomatoes. The tomatoes will first liquefy and then turn pasty and combine nicely with the rest of the spice. Stir for about 5 minutes; when they are more or less dry, put in the coriander and turmeric powders and stir. Now put in about a cup or cup and a half of water, bring to a boil.

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Now the gravy is ready, and it is time to put in whatever chopped vegetables you want. I put in cubed potatoes, and simmered them with the lid on for 15 minutes to cook; then I put in the frozen peas and only cooked them enough to heat through.

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Oh — I added the salt along with the vegetables so that they absorb the salinity properly.

Rustic ginger-garlic paste with optional green chili

I have a bone to pick with most ginger garlic pastes — one normally uses a blender to make them, so one needs a simply giant amount of ginger and garlic to make the blades go, and, one has to use water to make it slushy.

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But who wants slushy ginger-garlic paste while cooking? And, who wants a simply giant amount of paste situated in the fridge, week after week, slowly oxidizing, and stinking up the air each time you open the fridge?

I often resort to the blender method, but I do believe this method is way superior — here we use the mortar and pestle. Aside from looking decorative, you make only as much as you need, and seriously, it doesn’t take that long.

No precise ingredients in this one. Use as much as you think you will need.

Step 1: Peel, destem and chop ginger, garlic, and chili. No need to go super fine.

Step 2: Place all ingredients in the bowl of a mortar (or is it pestle? I can never remember).

Step 3: Sprinkle with a bit of salt and wait a few minutes. Salt has three functions here. If you use kosher or sea salt, it will add a bit of roughage, all the better to grind with. Second, salt draws out moisture, and once again, this helps the grinding. Third, salt actually starts to cook certain foods. You can notice this specially with garlic — raw garlic has a sharp and aggressive taste; but if you salt it for a few minutes, it mellows out considerably, just like it does with cooking.

Step 4: Pound away with the pestle (or the mortar, I can’t remember which is which). It will not be a super smooth paste, but that’s where the rustic charm comes in.

Malvan’s famous fish: part one, the spice paste



Malvan is a little town on the west coast of India. I have never been to it, nor do I know too much about it; but I can tell you that growing up, our nanny/cook (Bai) was Malvani, and she made the most amazing fish. It still haunts my dreams. The fame of her fried bangda (mackarel) spread among relatives and friends. People who worked two floors away from my mom who saw her once a month in the office canteen would phone her to be reminded of the ingredients.

This was not a quirk of our cook or our family. Malvani fish with its red spice paste is renowned all over the Internet. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, google ‘Malvani’ and come back and tell me what you find. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Satisfied? When I left for foreign lands one of the heirlooms I carried with me is a scribbled version of this recipe. In this post I will describe the method of making the paste. In two following posts, I will describe how to use it in a couple different fish recipes.

A warning note: family recipes in India are handed around with amounts like a fistful of this, a little bit of that. It is all andaaz se, as it is known. So the amounts here are not handed down from Mount Olympus, but just the proportions that I used for a successful rendition.

Malvani fish masala (spice paste)

This makes about 3/4 cup of the paste which will last in the fridge in an airtight container for some months. The vinegar has a preservative action.

Ingredients (dry spices):

  • 2 large not-hot dry red chilies (Kashmiri, Ancho, Pasilla, or other such)
  • 5 small hot dry red chilies (cayenne)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cinnamon stick or few small
  • 10 cloves
  • 2 big black cardamom
  • 1 tablespoon white poppy seeds
  • 2 teaspoons fennel
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper seeds

Ingredients (wet spices):

  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1 inch piece ginger, peeled
  • 1/4 cup coconut
  • half teaspoon tamarind paste
  • 1/3 cup white vinegar

Dry spices for Malvani fish masala

The dry spices are to be roasted on a griddle until an aroma starts to arise…but do be careful not to burn them. I did this in stages so I don’t mix the seeds that roast faster with the bigger, slower ones…so do the fennel seeds and the poppy seeds in one batch (they won’t take long) and the rest in the second batch.

Note about why spices are roasted before grinding them: I believe it dries them out a little, makes their skin papery, and easier to grind into a fine powder.

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Roasted dry spices for Malvani fish masala

Once the dry spices are roasted, wait a few minutes for them to cool and then grind them in a clean coffee grinder.

Now collect the wet spices in a small blender. In goes some ginger, some garlic, half a teaspoon of tamarind paste, a handful of grated coconut. Put in the dry spice powder. To lubricate the blades, add some white vinegar.

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Wet masala for Malvani fish masala

By the way, Do Not Add Any Water. Malvani Masala not like the H2O. A note about the usage of vinegar: this is not traditional in Indian cooking, but came in by way of the strong Portuguese influence in that region (Goa was colonized by the Portuguese right up until 1960).

Grind it up to a paste, and your red Malvani masala for fish is ready.

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