Give your 'sambal petai' a Thai twist with 'pad sataw goong'

A Thai-style take on sambal petai prawns – pictures by CK Lim
A Thai-style take on sambal petai prawns – pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, May 23 – Every Malaysian has grown up with sambal petai though perhaps not everyone ends up loving it.

It’s one of those foods that you either love or hate (count me in the former category); there is no in between.

I’ve been a fan of Parkia speciosa (the scientific name for petai) since forever. What’s not to enjoy, be it in fried rice or as part of a healthy ulam salad?

In Indonesia, the stink beans are featured in nasi goreng kambing pete, which is a version of fried rice with spiced mutton. In Manipur, the almond-shaped beans are added to a local delicacy called eromba together with fermented fish, boiled potatoes and chillies.

It’s not just a gastronomic delight. Research has shown that stink beans can help reduce blood pressure and blood sugar.

Those who are feeling bloated might appreciate how a meal of sambal petai may help them to pass intestinal gas. (Their loved ones and those close to them might be less appreciative, however.)

If you ask me though, nothing quite compares to a spicy, tangy sambal petai. Pair it with prawns, and you have a dish made in heaven! When in Bangkok, it’s the one dish that reminded me of home – though it’s not exactly the same dish.

To be fair, it looks similar but closer inspection will reveal that it doesn’t quite taste or even smell the same. A Thai-style take on sambal petai prawns, the pad sataw goong has more layers of flavour.

Fish sauce adds umami (left) while aromatics and chillies are the base of a good 'sambal'
Fish sauce adds umami (left) while aromatics and chillies are the base of a good 'sambal'

Fish sauce, known as nam pla in Thai, adds pungent umami. The aromatics such as garlic and shallots are further buffered by turmeric, galangal and lemongrass. The chillies feel more fiery though I suspect it might just be a case of a greater quantity used.

Larger prawns will stay more succulent after cooking than smaller sizes
Larger prawns will stay more succulent after cooking than smaller sizes

Another key ingredient that is slightly different are the prawns, which always appear to have been supersized in Thailand. It makes sense: larger prawns are more likely to stay succulent after cooking than smaller sizes of shrimp.

Perhaps the best reason to make this dish is simply to embrace our differences and savour them. The realisation that both versions taste delicious in their own unique ways and they have more similarities than not – well, that’s a meal worth celebrating!

PAD SATAW GOONG: THAI STYLE PETAI PRAWNS

Known as petai in Malay and sataw in Thai, there’s no mistaking the pungent aroma of stink beans! To release more of their “fragrance”, try lightly pounding the petai halves without crushing them before cooking.

Known as 'petai' in Malay and 'sataw' in Thai, there’s no mistaking the pungent aroma of stink beans!
Known as 'petai' in Malay and 'sataw' in Thai, there’s no mistaking the pungent aroma of stink beans!

While there’s something to be said for buying them fresh directly from the pasar pagi and peeling the beans from the pods, those who are short on time can find packets of cleaned and shelled petai at most supermarkets nowadays.

Green limes lend a zesty zing to your final dish
Green limes lend a zesty zing to your final dish

Kaffir limes – the zest, the juice, the leaves – lend a zesty zing to your final dish. However, if you can’t find any kaffir limes – and produce isn’t exactly at its most varied and available right now – simply use normal limes.

That’s what I do most of the time; spending hours hunting down one extra ingredient hardly makes sense. The difference is there but it’s a decent substitute. Here I’ve only used the juice and zest to keep things simple and manageable.

For the rest of the seasoning, including the indispensable nam pla or Thai fish sauce, one omission here is sugar. Any true blue Thai would tell you no authentic Thai recipe would be missing this ingredient but I generally prefer my food less sweet.

The sugars in the oyster sauce are enough to balance the other flavours here, I find. If you must add sugar, a teaspoon of sugar when you add the seasoning (lime juice, oyster sauce and nam pla) towards the end of cooking will do.

My Thai friends tend not to make their curry paste from scratch, to be quite honest. They buy them ready-made from the supermarket; look for the Thai red curry paste.

The brilliant red of freshly-made 'sambal'
The brilliant red of freshly-made 'sambal'

For those of us with more time (and these days, we have more of that than before), there’s a certain beauty to the brilliant red of freshly made sambal, be it pounded in a mortar with a pestle or scooped up from a food processor.

Don’t see these as shortcuts but as sanity enablers. They bring you closer to the final dish you crave... just that little bit faster.

Ingredients: Thai red curry paste

10 dried chillies

20 fresh cili padi

2 teaspoons salt

10 cloves of garlic

5 shallots

1 piece of fresh turmeric

1 piece of galangal

2 stalks of lemongrass

Zest from 2 limes

1 teaspoon white pepper powder

1 teaspoon belacan (fermented shrimp paste)

Ingredients: Petai prawns

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste

200g petai, halved

3-4 cili padi, sliced

10 large prawns, shelled and deveined

Juice of 2 limes

½ tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon nam pla (Thai fish sauce)

Method

To make the Thai red curry paste, add the dried chilies, cili padi and salt to a mortar. Pound with a pestle until well combined into a thick paste. Alternatively, if using a food processor, blend on medium speed until well combined.

Add the garlic, shallots, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, lime zest and white pepper. Keep pounding or blend until the mixture becomes a uniform paste again.

Finally, add the belacan and blend until everything is well combined. This will be your final Thai curry paste. If using commercial Thai red curry paste, you can skip the aforementioned steps and just proceed with the following:

Warm the coconut oil in a wok over medium heat. You can use a more neutral oil if preferred, but coconut oil adds more of the Thai flavour than you realise.

Once the oil is hot, add the Thai red curry paste. Sauté the paste until it releases its aroma and the colour darkens. If it gets too dry, you can add a bit more oil but be careful not to have too much oil in the wok.

Next add the petai and cili padi. Continue sautéing until the petai is cooked to the doneness you like. (Raw petai is edible so how far you’d like to go here is entirely up to personal preference.)

Finally, add the prawns. Don’t add them too early otherwise they will end up overcooked. While the prawns change from translucent to a barely cooked pinkish hue, season with the lime juice, oyster sauce and nam pla.

Remove from the heat before the prawns become too opaque as they will continue to cook in the residual heat of the dish. Serve immediately with plenty of hot steamed white rice.

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