• If you enjoy sardines, this winning Malaysian recipe is one to try. (Jackie M)Source: Jackie M
The childhood sandwiches of many Malaysians have four distinct flavours: sweet, spicy, savoury and seafood.
Seraphina Seow

15 Nov 2021 - 10:23 AM  UPDATED 15 Nov 2021 - 10:40 AM

Two beloved Malaysian sandwiches: one with dried-shrimp sambal (chilli paste) and the other sardine filled, maybe a bit different to the stereotypical school lunch sandwiches that we're used to in Australia - but that's all the more reason to give them a try.

Dried-shrimp sambal sandwich

To make a dried-shrimp sambal sandwich, you need to make the sambal first. After this, the sandwich-making part is simple. Butter two slices of bread and pack on the sambal.

Melbourne-based Malaysian home cook Audrey Chee purposes her dried shrimp sambal the same way her aunt did.

"Dried-shrimp sambal is a Nyonya cuisine [which hails from the Peranakans or descendants of Chinese migrants]."

Belacan sambal

Belacan sambal is traditionally a condiment but can also be used as a ready-made sauce to stir through seafood or served on the side of fish curries. It can also be eaten with plain rice.

"My grandma is Nyonya so that's where I saw them cooking it, especially my aunt," she says. "Each time she cooked it, she would cook it in a batch and pack a container for each family to eat with pulut panggang (grilled glutinous rice) and bread.

"We'd put it in the fridge, and every other morning we'd eat that for breakfast, and once we run out that we will not eat it for a few weeks or months, and once we cook again then we'll eat that again."

Jackie M, co-founder and host of the Malaysian Street Food Academy in Sydney, tells SBS Food that dried shrimp may have grown in popularity as it passed through Penang Malacca, which was historically a trading port. The Nyonyas, known for their culinary skill, slowly fried the dried shrimp with sugar and spices like chilli, garlic and onion, until it turned into crumbs that kept for a long period.

Dr Ong Jin Teong, Nonya Heritage Kitchen cookbook author, explains that because of sambal's long shelf life, the Nyonyas would bring it on their European travels in case they disliked foreign food. But Nyonyas were heavily influenced by the British, who taught them to make sandwiches.                        

Bread is also thought to have been popularised in Malaysia by the Hainanese, who mostly worked as cooks in British households when Britain colonised Malaysia. "We grew up eating a lot of Hainanese bread, which is like Western bread but fluffier," says Jackie.

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Sardine sandwiches

Carol Selva Rajah, a Malaysian culinary expert from Sydney, explains that because the bread is so soft, they used day-old bread for another childhood favourite, the sardine sandwich. The sardine filling is flavoured with tomato sauce, mixed with lime, chilli, and sugar, and sometimes accompanied by fried onion.

During her childhood, the preferred brand of sardines was Ayam Brand, whose yellow and red oval tin is still recognisable to many Malaysians. Carol says, "I remember that in the war when the Japanese invaded Malaya, people buried those oval Ayam sardine cans in the garden and dug them up when we were hungry."

Melbourne home cook Audrey remembers Ayam Brand sardines, which was cheaper than tuna at the time, was a staple that was eaten with bread in almost every Malaysian household.

"Everybody was looking at us eating that sardine sandwich."

"My father-in-law has always made sardine sandwiches, often for my husband's family. They cut it into triangles and put it in a container. Because it's from a big can, you can't make it for yourself only, so you make it for the whole family.

"My father-in-law loves doing that for picnics. There was even one time when we went for a badminton match that Malaysia was playing in. He made a big container of it and when he opened it up the stadium smelled so fishy, and everybody was looking at us eating that sardine sandwich," Audrey says.

Hae bee hiam (Nyonya spicy dried shrimp sambal)

Recipe by Audrey Chee 

Serves 4

Before you start, be prepared to dedicate 1 hour or more for stirring the ingredients continuously until dry. These ingredients burn easily.


600 g dried shrimp, soaked about 15 minutes and drained

2 tbsp tamarind puree

100 g sugar

Spice paste

• 20 dried red chilli, soaked in hot till softened

20 shallots, chopped

10 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tsp dried shrimp paste, (belacan) toasted

12 candlenuts

8 lemongrass stalks, finely chopped

8 makrut lime leaves, chopped

4 tsp ground turmeric

1. Fry the shrimp over medium-low heat until dry and fragrant. Cool down. Transfer the dried shrimp into a food processor and process as finely or coarsely as you like. Set aside.

2. Process the spice paste ingredients, except ground turmeric, until smooth and fine.

3. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large pan. Add spice paste and ground turmeric and cook the paste over low heat until fragrant, stirring constantly, or until the oil separates from the spice mixture. It's important to keep the mixture moving so that it cooks evenly and thoroughly for about 20 minutes.

4. After that, add the tamarind puree followed by the ground dried shrimps. Fry for another 30 minutes until the mixture is dry. Then add the sugar, mix well and fry for another 10 minutes.

5. Cool completely. Store in an air-tight container.            

The sambal can be refrigerated and used within two weeks.

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