A Fiery Homecoming: Stir-fried Sweet Potato Leaves with Sambal Belacan

“Sweet potato leaves were very common in our kampung. We ate them so often when I was young, until I got quite sick of them,” my dad revealed. “But as I grow older I start to miss these leaves and I wish to eat them once again.” I noticed that he became rather obsessed with this vegetable of late, often requesting for hanzi ye (蕃薯叶; Hokkien for sweet potato leaves) whenever we dine out.

And that was how my interest in these leaves began, sparked off by a nostalgic comment from my father. Beside learning a new recipe, I’m also keen to delve deeper into my culinary heritage, and more importantly, to discover more about my own father. As I share bits and pieces about my growing interest in the kitchen, I realised my parents, particularly my dad, are repositories of knowledge about the region’s flora and fauna. I once “smuggled” back a rubber seed from a post-tsunami research trip in Krabi as a keepsake and placed it on my desk. My dad took one look at it and identified it correctly. I was impressed.

Now that I’m back in Singapore, I definitely miss the availability of certain Thai-specific items such as naam phrik phao or yot mara (bittergourd leaves), but I’m also thrilled by the ease of locating Malaysian/Singaporean/Indonesian foodstuff like belacan. And having access to my mum’s kitchen—and her brain—means that I have ready guidance at my disposal. When she sought my opinion one day on what to cook for lunch, I suggested stir-fried sweet potato leaves with sambal belacan. And that’s how the three of us—me, my mum and Mr. P—ended up going to the fresh market together to buy all the necessary ingredients.

A bundle of sweet potato leaves went for S$0.50 each at the nearby supermarket.

Haebi, or dried shrimps, are a bit stinky but they complement a Southeast Asian meal perfectly.

It was my first time buying belacan at the local Malay grocer but a lovely makcik gave her recommendation and helped me select a well-formed piece. Its pungent smell promptly reminded Mr. P of Thailand’s kapi (fermented shrimp paste).

My mum’s granite mortar-and-pestle set looks set to become my best friend in the kitchen.

“Ping, ping, ping,” it went.

A good roast on the frying pan brings out the true aromas of a mean belacan.

And the end product? A yummy dish of stir-fried sweet potato leaves with sambal belacan.

The three of us devoured the dish until not a trace was left. I sms-ed a picture of the dish to my dad with the following message in Chinese: “Papa, we had sweet potato leaves for lunch. But we finished everything.”

Sorry, till next time, Papa. :p

Stir-fried Sweet Potato Leaves with Sambal Belacan

Ingredients (Serves 3-4)
400g sweet potato leaves
3 chillies, sliced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp oil
3 tbsp sambal belacan (either make your own or use ready-made types)
Salt (to taste)

1. Pluck off the sweet potato leaves (optional) and remove the skin off the stems. Keeping only the more tender parts, chop the stems into 2-inch strands. Wash and drain the leaves and stems.
2. Pre-heat a skillet/wok on medium-high heat. Pour in the oil and stir-fry the garlic and sambal belacan until it turns fragrant—or pungent, depending on personal definition.
3. Add the sweet potato leaves, stirring them to make sure they are coated evenly with sambal belacan. Cover the lid to cook the leaves until soft. Toss in the chillies and give it a quick stir. Add a pinch of salt if the dish isn’t salty enough.
4. Transfer to a serving dish. Voila.

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