Making Rempah (Spice Paste)


Rempah is a Malay word used to describe the spice pastes used in many dishes throughout the Southeast Asian region. Depending on the recipe, various ingredients are pounded together in a mortar and pestle, then fried slowly in oil until intensely fragrant. The resulting paste is then used as a recipe base for various curries and stir-fries.

Aromatic and piquant, the flavour of homemade rempah is far superior to the ready-made curry pastes and stir-fry sauces found in supermarkets. The secret to a rempah’s magical flavour lies in the freshness of its ingredients, such as chillies, shallots, dried shrimp, lemongrass and various herbs and spices.

The rempah I make probably pales in comparison to those made by a well-trained Peranakan (or Straits Chinese), who are famous for their complex rempah-based dishes. Apparently, there are exacting standards on the preparation, taste and texture of rempah. But since I’m not Peranakan, I’m happy enough when my rempah comes out of the mortar looking smooth and well-blended.

As mentioned in my earlier post about the mortar and pestle, rempah should not be made in a food processor. Simply mincing ingredients in a food processor will not produce the depth of flavours and crushed texture produced in a mortar and pestle.

Unfortunately, pounding rempah is a time-consuming process, a luxury for many busy home cooks today. Personally, the demands of a full-time job has meant that making rempah has become the (very) occasional weekend project. However, the results are definitely worth the effort.

Pounding rempah does require some skill to ensure a smooth, well-blended paste. While not exhaustive, here are some things I’ve found useful when working a mortar and pestle.

  • Place your mortar and pestle on the floor while in use, as the force created by pounding the pestle against the mortar can damage a kitchen countertop.
  • Place a cork-board or a folded towel underneath your mortar to protect your flooring. This will also help muffle the noise if you live in an apartment.
  • While pounding the rempah, only use sufficient force necessary to break up the ingredients. Too much force and your ingredients will be flying in all directions.
  • Hold the pestle at a 45-degree angle and pound slowly in a clockwise or counter-clockwise motion around the base of the mortar. Avoid hitting the sides of the mortar in order to minimise noise.
  • Pound dry ingredients first, then add the ‘wet’ ingredients with a higher water content, such as shallots and onions.
  • Thoroughly pound each ingredient before adding the next. This will help ensure a consistent texture in your rempah.
  • As the amount of ingredients inside the mortar increases, scrape down the sides occasionally with a spoon to aid even pounding.

Coming soon: a recipe for a basic rempah-based stir-fry!

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