In the Malaysian language, “mee goreng” means fried noodles, and that’s what this dish is. Inspired by Chinese chow mien, Southeast Asia personalized the dish by adding sweetness with sweet soy sauce, heat from the chilis and seafood flavor with shrimp, anchovies and bottled fish sauce. Since most Southeast Asians live on or by the water, seafood is a very important part of their diet. The Republic of Indonesia alone has 17,508 officially listed islands, the Philippines has over 7,000 and Malaysia has 878. Indonesia and Malaysia also have majority Muslim populations who shun pork, so seafood is additionally important. The crunchy crown of this dish is the crispy fried shallots.
Although sambal tunis and Kecap manis are commercially available, in the name of being able to close my refrigerator door, I decided to try and make them out of what was locally available. Many of the ingredients are a common part of Mexican cooking so I bought the lemongrass stalks, dried and serrano chilis, and tamarind pods at D’La Colmena, 129 West Lake Ave. If you want a more authentic recipe, sambal tunis and Kecap manis might be available at the Oriental Store and Food To Go at 205 East Lake Ave. or order online.
Although the tamarind tree is native to tropical Africa, it is popular in Asia and in Mexico where it was brought by the Portuguese and Spanish explorers according to the World Bank article, “Technologies Related to Participatory Forestry in Tropical and Subtropical Countries.” To make tamarind paste from the pods, peel off the crackly brown shell. Remove the sticky brown paste, pull off the vein-like strings and take out the shiny seeds. Mash the paste and use.
Warning! If you don’t watch your ingredients, this dish can get too hot, so when making the sambal tunis, add chilis according to your eating audience. The original recipe calls for three small Thai bird chilis that measure 50,000-100,000 Scoville units, the scientific measurement of how hot peppers are. If you think jalapeños are hot, they rate at a weak 1,000 to 10,000 units.
10 anchovies from a can or jar
2-3 dried red chilis or 2-4 teaspoons dried chili flakes to taste
2 tablespoons fish sauce
6 cloves garlic
1 diced fresh tomato
2 tablespoons tamarind pulp or 2-3 tamarind pods
2 teaspoons sugar
2/3 cup sunflower or other cooking oil
2 stalks lemon grass with tough outer leaves removed
Salt to taste
Make the sambal tunis first by putting anchovies, chilies, fish sauce, shallots, garlic, tomato, tamarind paste, sugar and 1/3 cup of the cooking oil in a food processor or blender and puréeing until smooth.
Smash the inner parts of the lemongrass with the back of a knife to soften them. Heat the remaining 1/3 cup of oil in a wok or frying pan. Add the lemongrass to the pan with the puréed anchovy mixture. Cook over low heat for 20 minutes stirring often until oil starts to separate and the sambal has thickened and turned reddish brown. Add salt to taste. Remove the lemongrass when you use the sambal. You should have 1½ cups more or less.
1 pound fresh yellow egg noodles like yakisoba or lo mein
1 1/2 cups sambal tunis – see above
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup cubed fried tofu puffs from firm tofu
3 small bok choy, washed, dried and cut into diagonal slices
1 1/2 cups fresh bean sprouts, wash and drained
2 tomatoes, cut in wedges
Kecap manis – 2 tablespoons soy sauce with 2 teaspoons sugar
2 limes, cut in wedges
Dried or fried crispy shallots or onions – about 4-5 shallot
Serrano chili, finely sliced for serving, to taste
salt to taste
Prepare fried tofu and shallots first. Wash and dry the tofu. Cut into bite sized squares. In a small fry pan or sauce pan, fill ½ inch high with oil and put the pan over medium high heat. Fry the tofu squares in batches until you have one cup. Add more oil if necessary. Drain on a paper towels and sprinkle with a little salt. Use the same pan and oil for the fried shallots
Remove skin off of shallots and cut into thin slices. Heat 1/3 cup of high heat oil in a frying pan. Add the slices of shallots and fry until crisp over medium high heat. Watch so they don’t burn. Set aside on paper towels to drain.
Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the package.
Heat the sambal for 5 minutes over medium heat in a wok or big frying pan. Add the cooked noodles, tofu puffs and bok choy. Stir and cook just until everything is coated in the sambal. Add a little water if the mixture is getting to dry.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in another frying pan over medium heat. Add the shrimp, season with some salt and cook for about 5 minutes or until pink. Transfer shrimp and any juices to the sambal mixture. Add tomato wedges, bean sprouts, kecap manis and a little more soy sauce or salt to taste. Stir for 1 minute over medium heat and season with salt to taste.
Serve warm with lime wedges, sliced chilis and crispy shallots.
Sarah Ringler is a retired schoolteacher. She worked as a cook for 8 years before being a teacher, and also taught a cooking class at Pajaro Middle School for several years. She comes from a long line of serious cooks and passed the tradition on to her children, grandchildren, students and, hopefully, her readers.