Balinese Baked Fish with Sambal Matah
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
"Life, religion, and art all converge in Bali. They have no word in their language for ‘artist’ or ‘art.’ Everyone is an artist."
Anaïs Nin (c. 1975)
I spotted this dish on Instagram. It comes from "Rascal in Chef Jacket", as Balinese chef Didi Sarwono refers to himself, and his Instagram account @KitchenWorkshop is very widely-followed. This is one of those good news stories in the social media cybersphere in the sense of facilitating friendly interaction and knowledge-sharing - the picture of the dish un-literally jumped out of my Instagram feed and from there it was a simple matter of getting in touch, exchanging a few emails and Chef and I are now mutual followers. You can also find a YouTube video for his recipe here.
In so many ways this has all the hallmarks of the dishes we associate with and love from south-east Asia - a spicy marinade, a simple cooking process and a zingy, fresh and flavour-packed garnish. I feel the most appropriate translation of Sambal Matah is "raw salsa", uncooked as it indeed is. However, translating the word sambal is not necessary a trivial matter given, according to Wikipedia, there are 212 Indonesian variants of the stuff, describable variously under the monikers of relish, condiment, sauce, paste and so on. Though, apparently, sambals are for the most part thought to originate from Java, Sambal Matah would appear to be uniquely associated with the island of Bali.
With images in mind of Indian Ocean snapper, I have selected our native black bream as the candidate for this dish, though whether the two species share any genuine biological connection strikes me, at first glance, to be quite a complicated topic. That said, I would happily use sea bass or grey mullet and I would also be very inclined to use the barbecue for the cooking of the fish. A whole fish seems appropriate for this recipe, but with the appropriate alterations, fillets would without question be fantastic to eat subjected to this preparation.
Black bream are likely to continue to be with us for just a few weeks more and, though I can't exactly say why, I think the line-caught specimens I have bought this year have been as good to eat as at any time I can recall. So I was keen to get a few recipes on the blog before they made their way back out to more distant seas, and I genuinely think this is one to give a go before that time comes.
The original recipe from Chef Sarwono calls for candlenut in the marinade and I did make some effort to try to source these from my usual Asian grocers but to no avail - they are a speciality Indonesian ingredient. I'm sure, with a bit more effort, I could obtain them but I didn't get the sense from Chef that their inclusion was essential. So I have omitted them from this recipe but if you are able to get hold of them, Chef's original recipe would include 2-4 pieces in the marinade, pasted in the mortar (or blender) along with the other ingredients that are given the same treatment.
In my first trial of the dish I happened not to have any shrimp paste (truth be told, I actually did have some and knew I did, but just couldn't find it) so, to introduce the fishy flavour that the shrimp paste would obviously impart I used a splash of fish sauce. While this didn't seem to overly concern Chef he did point out that shrimp paste was a key ingredient, and recipes for Sambal Matah I have found do universally include a chunk of shrimp paste that has been baked in foil in a dry frying pan, so I am not minded to offer fish sauce as a viable alternative.
Chef was, however, unimpressed by my substitution of shallots with spring onions and, again, every recipe I have found for this sambal have specified shallot and none mentioned spring onion. Asian shallots (and Indian ones for that matter) are rather different to the "banana shallots" (sometimes referred to as "eschallots") we get, though similar to the ones that just look like tiny onions. The Asian ones are readily available in my local Asian grocers, but for completeness of the task, I have tasted them alongside banana shallots and I'm pretty comfortable in saying that they are adequately interchangeable flavour-wise.
Although the list of ingredients, as is often the case with Asian recipes, looks rather long, I have made the preparation and cooking process really very straightforward. First, the marinade I suggest to prepare in a blender rather than in a mortar. Second, this can be done a few hours ahead which conveniently allows the fish to gain the benefit of time with the marinade. Incidentally, the original recipe contains a small amount of coconut milk and stock in the marinade, but these are added in such small quantities it is unlikely to be convenient in a domestic kitchen to bother with this in the case of a preparation for two servings. If the marinade is too thick to apply to the fish, some additional lime juice and/or cooking oil will suffice. Don't over-bash the lemon grass for the marinade because it will be inclined to splinter into shards which can be a little difficult to discern from fish bones in the finished dish and perhaps detract a little from the enjoyment of the eating.
Finally, the Sambal Matah can largely be made ahead as well. That is provided the liquids and the seasonings are added at the last minute, which ensures the sambal remains "raw" rather than allow the fresh ingredients to "cook" in the acid and the salt. Chef was very critical of my slicing in my trial version of the dish, so I simply pass on his instruction: slice your sambal ingredients very thinly!
Balinese Baked Fish with Sambal Matah
Ingredients (Serves 2)
One 600-700g or two 350-400g whole bream, trimmed, gutted and scaled
Cooking oil (sunflower, vegetable or groundnut)
For the marinade:
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1½ tbsp roughly chopped shallot
2 red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
1" piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small tomato, deseeded and roughly chopped
½ tbsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp cooking oil
1 stick of lemongrass, bruised and cut in half into 2 shorter sticks
1½-2 tbsp coconut milk (optional, see recipe intro)
1 tsp lime juice (may require a little extra)
For the Sambal Matah:
3 tbsp very finely sliced shallot
1 fat garlic clove, finely chopped
2-3 red and/or green chillies (deseeded if preferred), very finely sliced
1 stick of lemongrass, white part only, hard outer removed and centre very finely sliced
3 kaffir lime leaves, very finely shredded ¼-½ tsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp lime juice (may require a little extra)
1 tbsp cooking oil (may require a little extra)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put all the ingredients for the marinade up to and including the cooking oil in a blender and blitz to a paste, scraping the bits off the sides with a spatula as necessary. If it needs a little more oil to create a paste then use a little more. Transfer the paste to a small frying pan along with the bruised lemongrass halves, heat and fry for a few minutes until the paste turns a little darker and starts to toast. Add the coconut milk, if using, and cook it down over a medium heat. Stir in the lime juice, turn off the heat and leave until cool enough to handle. The marinade should have a thick, spreadable texture which can be loosened with a little more lime juice and/or oil as necessary.
Slash the fish on the diagonal a few times about an inch apart, halfway through to the bone. Put the fish in a lightly-oiled baking tray and coat on both sides, and inside the cavity, with the marinade making sure to get some right into the slashes. Leave to marinate for anything from 20 minutes to a couple of hours. If marinating in the fridge make sure to bring the fish out and back to room temperature before cooking.
Preheat the oven to 220°C. Drizzle the fish with a little cooking oil then put it in its baking tray into the oven. Bake for about 15-18 minutes (depending on size) but check after 10-12 minutes to determine how much longer it will need.
While the fish is cooking make the Sambal Matah. Wrap the shrimp paste in a small square of foil and roast this parcel in a dry frying pan for 1 minute each side, then remove and allow to cool. Crumble the shrimp paste into a bowl and mix with all the other ingredients, adjusting the quantity of oil, lime juice, salt and pepper to taste, to create a moist dressing.
When the fish is cooked remove from the oven and allow to rest for a couple of minutes, then dress with the Sambal Matah, and serve.