Coconut sugar sambal

Last year, I worked in Melbourne on a few occasions. A colleague, whose family is from Sri Lanka, used to take me to her favourite Sri Lankan curry place near the office. It was a hole-in-the-wall joint with a very small daily selection of curries. After heaping the plate with curries, rice and papadums, the owner would ask, ‘sambal?’, and I would say, ‘yes please!!’. 

The sambal was chunky with shredded fresh coconut and vibrant red with lots of chillies. It was very spicy, tempered with a touch of something that was just beyond words. I always mopped up the last of the curry and sambal with rice.

Yesterday, musing on that sambal, I bought a cylinder of coconut sugar (don’t ask). Coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut palm flower buds. It is also known as ‘coconut palm sugar’, but is different from ‘palm sugar’ made from the sap of various types of palm trees.

Like good quality palm sugar, this block was rich-dark-moist like the darkest brown sugar. The difference was in the taste: the sweetness was more nuanced than everyday brown sugar, like deeply caramelised toffee, with an extra hint of flavour derived from the coconut flower sap. I think I said ‘wow’ out loud, and kept sneaking slivers of the stuff from the block.

I used the coconut sugar in a sambal: coconut sugar mixed it up with tamarind, roasted shimp paste, chillies (lots of chillies), as well as shallots and garlic. The mixture is cooked down until a pungent, salty, sweet, alluring smell began filling the kitchen.

This sambal has made its way onto our dining table a few times, varying slightly each time depending on the ingredients at hand and the other dishes on the menu. I like pairing this sambal with a mild pork curry (recipe below). The sambal’s sweetness meshes so well with pork’s natural sweet-tenderness, and its intensity brightens every mouthful.

Already I’m thinking about coconut caramel sauce, coconut sugary cakes, and even home-made dulce de leche with coconut sugar. I think coconut sugar has low GI compared to many other sugars – healthier baking?

Sambal bajak

Recipe from Australian Gourmet Traveller.


3 long red chillies, coarsely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
2-3 garlic cloves
30 ml (2 tbsp) peanut oil
2 tbsp tamarind pulp (or to taste)
4 macadamia or roasted cashew nuts, finely chopped in a food processor
1/2-1 tbsp belacan (shrimp paste)
1-2 tbsp coconut or palm sugar, grated
To season: fish sauce
Optional: finely snipped garlic chives


Roast belacan: Pre-heat oven to 200C. Wrap belacan in foil, and roast for 5-10 minutes or until the smell becomes roasted, somehow ‘darker’, and permeates the kitchen. (We open all the windows to let the smell out. Even in the depth of winter.)

Process chilli, onion and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Transfer to a frying pan with oil and stir continuously over medium heat until fragrant (4-5 minutes). Add remaining ingredients and stir occasionally until mixture deepens in colour (5-10 minutes). Adjust seasoning to taste and mix in garlic chives while the sambal is hot.


With lots of things! Including this pork curry:

Pork Curry

Also adapted from Australian Gourmet Traveller

A note on the pork curry: the steps are simple, yet the flavor is not simplistic: savoury, a little sour, aromatic with a balanced blend of spices. Process the curry paste until not-quite-smooth – bites of cardamom, cumin, fennel seeds or ginger keeps your palate guessing. And it tastes even better the next day. (If only the photo looked half as good as the original. I have a lot to learn photo-wise)


450 gm pork, choose a fatty cut like pork belly, cut into 2cm pieces
5 gm (1 cm) piece ginger, finely diced
1.5 tsp tamarind pulp*
5-7 fresh curry leaves
1 tbsp brown rice flour**
1 cinnamon quill
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1/2 tsp each cumin and fennel seeds, dry roasted and finely ground
2 green cardamom pods, bruised
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 clove
1 tbsp peanut or rice bran oil
5 red shallots, peeled and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced


Combine pork in a bowl with all ingredients except oil, shallots and garlic. Cover with plastic wrap and stand for 1 hour.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, add shallots and cook until translucent (6-8 minutes). Add pork mixture, garlic and 125ml water and simmer over low heat for 30-45 minutes or until the meat is tender and the gravy is thick. Season to taste with salt.

This is great with just plain jasmine rice. For a fancier dinner, serve with rice cooked with fresh coconut juice and lemongrass.


*the original recipe calls for dried black mangosteen, which can be found in specialty Indian grocers. But I don’t always have it in the house.

** the original recipe calls for finely pounded, uncooked long-grain rice (not easy! for everyday cooking, rice flour seems to work.)

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