Nasi Lemak Recipe (Part 3) - Sambal Ikan Bilis

Malaysian Sambal Ikan Bilis recipe by

Mention anchovies in many places and you'll find it difficult to convince anyone over for dinner.

But mention anchovies in Turkey, and you'll have a line at your door. In Turkey, anchovies, or “Hamsi”, are often deep-fried and enjoyed in many local dishes. They're even more popular in Spain, where it is said to be the first thing Spaniards taste in life, after the baby bottle.

In Malaysia, the first thing after the baby bottle would probably be a cup of Milo or a bowl of maggi mee (instant noodles), but anchovies would show up on the kitchen table not long after.

You can find anchovies in many Malaysian dishes. Much smaller in size than your normal anchovy, and dried, “ikan bilis” is central to Malaysian cooking. They are sometimes eaten whole, as a snack, or more often used as a quick base for soup or fish stock, or fried with peanuts into a condiment for rice. The tiny, dried fish are also matched up with sambal to create a spicy classic Malaysian flavor.

Fry the fish up and then cook them with a spice paste, tamarind juice, and a dollop of belacan (fermented shrimp paste), and as simple as that, we get sambal ikan bilis - a beloved anchovy dish that is all about the light crispy browned bits and the addicting sauce with a kick.

malaysian ikan bilis recipe
Malaysian Sambal Ikan Bilis recipe by

Sambal ikan bilis is an important part of Nasi Lemak, but you can always enjoy it with just a bowl of white rice, or even on toast.

Would you believe me if I told you we sometimes have it for breakfast too?

Malaysian Sambal Ikan Bilis recipe by

Grandpa and Grandma's Nasi Lemak Recipe
Part 3 - Sambal Ikan Bilis  by Season with Spice

1 cup (appx. 300gm) dried anchovies, soaked, washed and drained
1 medium size red onion, diced
1 tbsp tamarind pulp (mix tamarind pulp with 1/2 cup of water, squeeze out the juice from the pulp and discard the seeds. Strain and set aside the liquid.)
1 cup chili paste*
1 tsp belacan (fermented shrimp paste)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt or to taste

*If you can't find chili paste at the grocery store or market, try making your own by grinding the following ingredients into a fine paste using a mortar and pestle or a food processor:

Chili spice paste:
5 fresh red chilies, deseeded
2 bird's eye chili, deseeded (optional)
3 cloves garlic
3 shallots
1 stalk of lemongrass, white part only
2 candlenuts

The process:
1. Heat 3 tbsp of cooking oil in a wok. Fry the anchovies until crisp and golden brown. Scoop out the anchovies and drain on paper towel, then set aside.
2. Heat wok with the remaining oil, and add chili paste and belacan. Fry the mixture on low-medium fire until fragrant, about half a minute.
3. Mix in tamarind juice, onions, salt, and sugar. Fry on medium heat for an additional 3-5 minutes until well mixed.
4. Finally, add back the fried anchovies and give it a good stir. Dish out and serve.

You can serve the ikan bilis (fried anchovies) and the sambal gravy together or separately. I like serving them in both styles, especially for Nasi Lemak.