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Spicy Anchovies (Sambal Ikan Bilis)


I grew up in Malaysia, where I enjoyed cooking and eating local dishes every day.

Simply delicious spicy anchovies!

Simply delicious spicy anchovies!

Anchovies and Malay Cooking

Anchovies, or ikan bilis, are commonly used in Asian side dishes, including, for example, Javanese sambal, Vietnamese nuac mom, and, Thai nam pla. In Malay cookery, we use anchovies in fried rice, sauces, finger foods, fritters, and much more.

One of my favorite dishes that incorporates anchovies is sambal ikan bilis, or spicy anchovies. This dish is usually served with fragrant coconut rice, or nasi lemak. The spicy paste comes from the combination of dried chilies, shallots, garlic, and red onion. However, there is a slightly sweet flavor in the sambal that comes from the palm sugar that is used in the recipe.

Health Benefits of Anchovies

The anchovy is a fish that is similar to a sardine. Anchovies have several health benefits: They can help lower cholesterol levels and help reduce the risk of heart disease (due to the heart-friendly fatty acids). I like knowing about the health benefits of food because it makes me feel happy when I cook with these ingredients.

One of my favorites Malaysian signature dishes called nasi lemak. As you can see here, sambal ikan bilis is served on top of fragrant coconut rice with fresh sliced cucumber and hard boiled eggs.

One of my favorites Malaysian signature dishes called nasi lemak. As you can see here, sambal ikan bilis is served on top of fragrant coconut rice with fresh sliced cucumber and hard boiled eggs.

While I Was a Student Abroad

Back when I was a student in Italy, ikan bilis was one of the must-have items that I brought with me from home. Why? Back then, it was very difficult to find Malay products in Italian shops, and I wanted to be able to have some familiar food. I was uncomfortable going out to eat at the local restaurants (money also was an issue); and in addition, I preferred to cook at home, in my rental apartment. After I cooked and ate, I would save the leftovers in the fridge. The next day I would re-heat the sambal, make a sandwich, and have it for lunch.

Simple But Delicious

Spicy anchovies are delicious, and this dish is very simple to make at home. Have it with steamed white rice or fried rice. By the way, you can easily double the recipe if you are planning to serve more people. Store the leftovers in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to three days. If you like spicy food, this dish is something that you must try. You can find all of the ingredients at any local Asian market.

Let's see the full ingredients.


  • 85 grams dried anchovies, peeled and rinsed
  • 10 dried red chilies, soaked in warm water and drained
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 4 shallots
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar or white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon tamarind paste
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • Oil for frying
  • Water for blending


  1. Prepare the sambal paste: In a blender, combine the dried chilies, shallots, garlic, onion, and add some water. Blend until it makes a thick paste. Set aside.
  2. Heat oil in a wok over medium heat.
  3. Fry the anchovies until they are crispy and golden brown. Take them out and put them aside.
  4. Using the same wok, fry the paste until it is fragrant. Add some water and let it simmer.
  5. Combine the fried anchovies, tamarind paste, salt, and palm sugar. Taste. If it is too spicy, add more sugar.
  6. Let it simmer on a lower heat. When it becomes thickened, it should be done.
  7. Place the sambal into a serving bowl, and serve immediately with steamed white rice or fried rice.

© 2019 Liza


Liza (author) from USA on February 10, 2019:

Thank you, Cornelia. Spicy anchovies are a very popular dish in Malaysia. It usually served with nasi lemak (fragrant coconut rice) that's a perfect combination. Let me know what you think when you have tried it.

Ailenroca Lyman from Somewhere Out There on February 10, 2019:

Great hub. It's the first time I heard about this dish, but because i's a spicy food (which I really love), maybe I would try it in the future

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