Savoury, slightly spicy with a touch of sweet. These Sambal Dried Prawns make my absolute favourite tea sandwiches.  If I could only eat one tea sandwich for the rest of my life, this will be it!

Those who claim a dislike for prawns find themselves liking these very much. I have more than the usual number of people slipping in a food request for these during conversions, “Are you going to be making those Sambal Dried Prawns soon?”  They are popular not only because they are very good but also because it’s not a food item you can purchase off the shelves. And, if you do find them for sale, they are not very good.

This is one of the most tedious dishes to not only prepare but to cook. Noone is keen to make them as it involves a lot of time spent perspiring over a very large vessel frying away. Then there is the work of peeling the skins off a pound and a half (~600g) worth of those Asian tiny deep purple shallots. I make these Dried Prawn Sambal on the rare occasion and when I do, I always prepare over 3lbs (~1.3kg) worth as I have plenty of people who want to put them in their bags and take it home. They are special and very much coveted. I love, love my savoury Sambal Dried Prawns Sandwiches!

Sambal Dried Prawns As A Sandwich Filling

Prep: 30 minutes 
Cook: ~1.5  to 2 hours
Inactive:
Level: Difficult because it involves constant frying for ~ 1.5 – 2 hours and paying attention to exactly how long and how far to fry the ground aromatics before adding the dried prawns. I have provided images and highlighted indicators to look out for. So follow instructions and you should be fine.
Makes: ~(3 lbs)(1.3 kg)
Oven Temperature:
Can recipe be doubled? No
Make ahead? Keeps 3 months refrigerated and possibly longer.

Ingredients

1 kg dried prawns (shrimps)*
2 cups neutral tasting oil
1 and 3/4 cups sugar
3 Tablespoons fish sauce or to taste
1/2 – 1 cup soaking water (where dried prawns were soaked in)
Sambal ingredients
1.3 lbs (600g) peeled shallots (small purple ones)
3.5 oz (100g) peeled garlic
0.7 oz (20g) chilli padi (~2″(5cm) sized ones)
1 oz (30g) chillies (~5″ (13cm) sized ones)
0.3 oz (10g) dried whole chillies
~(0.4″ -0.6″)(1 – 1.5cm) knob fresh tumeric/~1/2 teaspoon dried tumeric
1 fat lemongrass
* These are very small dried prawns. Buy from Asian grocery stores. Use those from South-east Asia. Japanese or Korean dried prawns (or shrimps) will not work. Refer to image below.

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Left: South-east Asian variety of dried prawns. Right: Japanese and Korean variety of dried prawns.

Method

Before you start, be prepared to dedicate ~ 1.5 to 2 hours stirring the ingredients continuously.  These ingredients burn easily. Scroll down to my ‘Tips’ suggestions on how to ‘cut short’ your time by the stove.

Rehydrate the dried prawns and dried chillies
1. Pick out any impurities from the dried prawns. Rinse briefly. Cover with water and soak for 15 minutes and not any longer or the prawns will get too water logged. Moreover, it will loose too much of its salty savouriness.
2. Drain off the soaking liquid but save 1/2 – 1 cup of it just in case you should need it if the fried ingredients gets too dry. However, I hardly ever need it.
3. Whilst the dried prawns are soaking, soak the dried chillies for ~15 minutes to soften. Throw out the soaking liquid and dry off of the dried chillies.

Preparing and grinding the sambal ingredients
1. Cut up the fresh chillies and the dried chillies (now rehydrated) roughly for easier grinding.
2. Discard tough outer leaves of the lemongrass, use only the bottom ~2″(5cm) of it. Cut into three.
3. Scrape outer peel off the fresh tumeric with a spoon or knife.
4. Grind the onions, garlic, fresh chillies, dried chillies, lemongrass and fresh tumeric (or add in the dried tumeric) to a fine puree. Remove from food processor and set aside. Do not rinse the food processor.

Grinding the dried prawns
1. Without rinsing out the food processor, add some of the drained prawns. Grind in small batches so that there is space for the dried prawns to be ground into bits that look like fluffy cottonwool. However, do not grind all the dried prawns too finely. Leave about 1/2 of the dried prawns ground less finely as it provides some textural contrast. Set the dried prawns apart from the other ingredients.

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Let’s fry

Start with the ground sambal ingredients
1. You need a very wide frying vessel. I use my wok. In my cold wok, I add the oil and the all ground up sambal ingredients except the dried prawns. Do not stir the oil in.

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2. Set wok on burner turn on to medium-high heat. Let the oil and ingredients heat up without stirring. Wondering why you do not heat up the oil first? To avoid major splattering and spluttering.
3. Once you see little bubbles appearing on the oil, start stirring. Do not stop stirring for the next ~45 – 60 minutes or you risk the ingredients burning. That’s your arm work out for the day. If you do need to move away from the burner, turn off the burner and remove the frying vessel from the burner.

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Believe it or not, in this image, the ingredients have still not been fried long enough. Although the colour has darkened considerably, if you were to taste it, the onions will still taste raw. Continue stirring…

4. How to tell when you have fried the ground aromatics far enough?
Rely on your eyes, ears and tastebuds:
(1) look closely, the oil would have separated from the ingredients
(2) the sputtering and hissing would have died down
(3) the colour of the ingredients would have darkened further, it looks dangerously close to being burnt (be brave here)
(4) taste a little of the ingredients. It should not taste raw. The onions should taste faintly sweet.

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Ground aromatics have been fried long enough. Refer to the indicators I highlighted under Step 4. Don’t forget to do the taste test before adding the dried prawns.

Then, let’s add the dried prawns
1. Now, stir in the dried prawns and mix well. Fry for ~25 – 30 minutes.
Why do you need to stir continuously?
This continuous frying ensures:
(1) water content is drawn out of the dried prawns
(2) and is replaced by the flavour of the ground aromatics
(3) and it encourages even cooking and no risk of burning.
2. Once the mixture looks somewhat dry, taste to determine how much fish sauce is needed. Then, add all of the sugar and fish sauce to taste. Keep frying for ~15 – 30 minutes or until the sugar starts to caramelise and turn the dried prawns a darker shade which is what you want.

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At this stage, the dried prawns had been stir-fried for ~20 minutes (after it was added into the ground aromatics). Most of the moisture has been dried out and that’s when you can add the sugar and fish sauce.

3. When have you fried the mixture far enough?
(1) the dried prawns would look darker in shade
(2) upon closer inspection, you should be able to see that whatever oil that is visible would have separated from the dried prawns mixture
(3) the mixture would look mostly dry as all the ground aromatics would have bound onto the dried prawns
(4) Taste it. Texturally, there should be a nice bite to it. It should not feel too wet on the tongue. Refer to the image – notice that the mixture is pretty dry.

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4. When the mixture is ready to be taken off the burner, turn off the heat, remove the frying vessel from the burner. Adjust the salt and sugar level. More fish sauce or sugar? The residual heat should be sufficiently hot to work in the extra seasonings.
5. To prevent burning (remember there is sugar in the mix and it will burn quite easily), transfer Sambal Dried Prawns immediately to a baking tray to cool down completely before storing in sterilised jars. Keep refrigerated.
6. Bring to room temperature before eating. It can be stored in the refrigerator for easily 3 months and longer.

To serve
1. To eat, slice open a soft bun and toast the two cut sides lightly. Butter the slices and watch the butter soak in. Top generously with the dried prawn mix. Sandwich and eat. Do have a cup of tea nearby. No soft buns? Just use sandwich bread (it doesn’t have to be toasted) but remember the butter, not only does it add flavour, it helps the dried prawns mixture adhere to the bread.

Tips

(1) Make this only when and if you have the patience to stand by the stove for at least 1.5 to 2 hours. Alternatively, work on a relay system with 2 or 3 other persons then split the final product 3 ways. It is worth the effort!

(2) Be patient and don’t rush by either increasing the temperature of your burner or by adding the dried prawns before the ground aromatics have been fried well. Adding the dried prawns before the ground aromatics have been fried well enough will result in pretty flat tasting Sambal Dried Prawns.

(3) Sambal Dried Prawns can also be eaten with rice or rice porridge with a selection of other dishes. I like mine in a sandwich.

WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT?

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