Sunday, June 27, 2010

Balado buncis-- Indonesian green beans in red pepper sauce.

Harry left for camp this Sunday morning. Because he graduated on Thursday, he couldn't go up with the other counselors on Monday for orientation, so he went up on the campers bus and was the counselor in charge. We brought him to the bus stop and it was fun to see him in action, and even more fun to overhear them say that they were glad he was the bus counselor and that he really knew what he was doing. Our Harry!? Who seems to avoid at all costs any conversation with an adult that he doesn't know!? You never know!

Anyway, since this was his last Friday night dinner at home for a while, he got to choose much of the menu. For the main dish he chose an Indonesian beef stew with sweet soy sauce and spices. That was really all he cared about, but he did veto cauliflower as a vegetable and gave us permission to make this green bean dish. White rice instead of brown. He picked at the raw cukes in the gado-gado and left the rest and the sauce alone.

The green bean dish is easy and the sauce is highly adaptable. The name means something cooked in a sambal, an Indonesian spice paste. Balado is short for sambalado. I first had it on eggplant at the Indonesian embassy to the UN when their cafeteria was still open to the public. James Oseland, in his wonderful Indonesian/Malaysian cookbook, The Cradle of Flavor has a dish with this red sauce on fried potato cubes. I am sure that it is delicious, but he uses 10 fresh hot red peppers in his sauce. I like spicy food, but in my version, I use a puree of sweet red peppers, shallots, garlic and a single green serrano chili, and it was plenty hot for for Harry:

Balado buncis

  • 1 pound greed beans, trimmed
  • 1 fleshy sweet red pepper, cleaned and diced
  • 2 large shallots, coarsely chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1-3 hot peppers, sliced (see below)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • salty seasoning: Bragg's amino, light soy sauce, or, if you swing that way, terasi, belanchan or shrimp paste (see below for discussion and quantities)
  • salt
  • 1-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  1. Puree the sweet red pepper, shallots, garlic, hot peppers , tomato paste and salty seasoning (unless using the shrimp paste) in a blender or mini-processor.
  2. Heat oil on high in a nonstick skillet, or in an impeccably seasoned wok. When it is hot and almost smoking, (add about 1/2 teaspoon of shrimp paste if you are using it, cook a few seconds, and then )add the puree, with your face far away, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it reduces a bit and looses its raw smell, about 3 minutes, or more, depending on the water content of the sweet pepper.
  3. Add the green beans and stir and fry until done to your taste, for 5-10 minutes. I like them with a little bite, but no longer super crisp. If you are in a hurry, you can cover the pan and the steam will speed the cooking. If the paste reduces too much and starts to scorch, add water. Add a bit more salt if needed.
  4. That's it. I told you it was easy.
The salty seasoning: The aim in this dish is not only to add salt, but to add some of the flavor called umami, a Japanese term for protein richness. Think meat broth, soy sauce, good Parmesan cheese, sauteed mushrooms. Or think stinky fermented seafood. Classically, in Indonesia, this would be made with terasi, a dried fermented shrimp paste known as belanchan in Malaysia. It is sold in small, paper wrapped blocks in many Chinese and all Southeast Asian groceries. If you cook with treyf, I would use this. It is a bit of a pain to prepare. Take a thin slice off a the block put it in aluminum foil, and broil it or cook it in a skillet until it starts to stink up your kitchen. Then crumble it in with the other sauce ingredients when you puree them. The undried fermented shrimp paste is sold in jars and used in Chinese and Thai cooking. Fry this briefly before adding the other puree ingredients. Although it smells as revolting as the terasi, both will disappear into the other ingredients, leaving a rich umami flavor behind. I use Bragg's aminos, which I find gives the dish the umami richness without the treyf, and has much more character than most soy sauces. A teaspoon or two of either should be fine.

The hot peppers: Why is it so difficult to find red hot peppers of any variety in NYC supermarkets, and even in Indian groceries? I have not made the trek to Chinatown in a while, but you can often find them there. Ideally, this dish should be made with the long thin red peppers, sometimes called Holland or cayenne peppers. Use whatever chili is available, even a green one, and the dish will be fine. I would prefer serrano to jalapeno if you have the choice. Just be aware that the heat level can vary, and be sensitive to the tolerance of your audience. If making the dish for prepubescent children I would probably leave it out altogether.

Other vegetables: Try the sauce mixed into diced roasted potatoes, or with the microwave cooked eggplant I posted about earlier this month. Take a regular quartered and sliced eggplant, or a pound of the long thing ones sliced, and zap covered with a lid or microwave wrap for 4 minutes. Add the sauce, cooked on the stove, and zap 4 minutes more, covered with paper towel.


  1. I'm glad to see this, as while I adore Oseland's book, some of his authentic recipes are simply too hot for me.

    I wonder if you can find kosher versions of Asian fish sauce? In theory it is made with fermented anchovies, though usually they throw anything in.

    I'm not kosher and very few of my Jewish friends are, but it is always good to be able to meet guests' dietary requirements.

    1. If you want to avoid shellfish and fish sauce, I think that Bragg's Aminos, which I mention in the recipe, is probably your best best. It is a soy-sauce like product but with more pronounced umami. This is usually what I use. I am not sure if this is available at Montreal, but in the US you can often find it at health food stores. If you cannot find this, I would use a good aged soy sauce. Another advantage of these is that their smell won't drive anyone out of your kitchen, which might happen when you cook with terasi or blanchan.