Sambal Okra with Coconut Saffron Brown Rice

The inspiration for today’s Sambal Okra with Coconut Saffron Brown Rice recipe is essentially twofold. First, I was inspired by flights of deliciousness found in a couple of fabulous cookbooks: Ottolenghi‘s Plenty (vegetarian) and My Cooking Hut blogger Leemei Tan‘s Lemongrass and Ginger.

Secondly, I was spoiled by my cousin who just got back from living in Singapore, as she’s the one who always brought me delicious spice pastes from Asia. That’s how I got addicted to a Malaysian chili condiment called sambal.

I miss living in Asia, hobnobbing around that continent, and feasting on spice-laden street foods. Chilies bring me to my knees (in a good way), and my mantra is and will always be, “the spicier, the better!” So of course, I found myself, one day, rolling up my sleeves to make my own sambal here in Toronto.

I once read somewhere that eating spicy food increases metabolism and stimulates sweating, therefore, enhancing fat loss. This article here talks more about the phenomenon. Since, I have another 15 pounds or so that I ought to lose from my recent pregnancy, I thought I would kick start my “diet” with a spicy vegetarian meal that reminded me of my younger (and skinnier) days living in Asia.

Driven in part by a desire to recreate Malaysia’s nasi lemak, and in part, to adapt it to Western tastes, I came up with this dish that was slightly bastardized – yet thoughtfully combined – from recipes found in the above-mentioned cookbooks. While I used saffron – rarely seen in Malay cooking – to impart a vibrant yellow hue to Canadian brown rice, I also stayed true to the coconut milk and ginger more commonly found in Malaysian nasi (rice) dishes.

All these lovely spices and herbs come together in a symphony of exploding flavours (yeah, what a cliché I have become). Truth be told, I couldn’t have orchestrated a better meal than this!

A quick warning, though. This is probably not for the kids. The rice, they will enjoy. The sambal chili okra…well, unless your kids have iron palates, then it’s best avoided by the little ones.

A dish like this, specifically nasi lemak, is usually eaten for breakfast in Malaysia – a fact that my husband and I learned when we were in Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu (that’s in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo). So, if you are craving a substantial and exotic meal today, this is justifiably a good choice!

5.0 from 7 reviews
Sambal Okra with Coconut Saffron Brown Rice
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Serves: 4 to 6
  • ~~ For the Sambal ~~
  • 2 teaspoons roasted shrimp paste* (skip this if vegetarian or see note below on how to roast)
  • 5 red fresh red chilies (1 oz), seeded
  • 3 green bird's-eye chilies (1/2 oz), seeded
  • 20 baby shallots (4 oz), peeled
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup vegetable or grape seed oil
  • 2 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon thick tamarind water (seedless tamarind pulp whisked with a little water, then strained)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • ~~ For the Coconut Saffron Rice ~~
  • 2 cups short-grain brown rice
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 3 cups water
  • 6 thin slices of fresh ginger, unpeeled
  • 6 kaffir lime leaves or regular lime leaves (optional)
  • ~~ For the Okra ~~
  • 1¼ pounds (6 cups) okra, trimmed and cut into short segments
  • 1 white onion, finely diced
  • lime wedges, for squeezing juice (optional)
  1. To make the Sambal using mortar and pestle, place the roasted shrimp paste (if using), chilies, shallots, garlic, and salt in the mortar, crush and grind the spices until a thick paste forms, then add the oil and water to smooth out.
  2. If making Sambal in a food processor, place the roasted shrimp paste (if using), chiles, shallots, garlic, salt, 2 tablespoons of the oil, and water in the bowl and blitz for about 1 minute, or until you get a smooth, fine paste. Add more water by the teaspoon, if needed to smooth out the paste.
  3. Set a wok or pan on high heat. Once hot, add the remaining oil and heat up well. Add the chili paste and stir, reducing the heat to low at once to prevent burning. Stir constantly for 5 to 10 minutes, or until you get a dark red oily paste.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in the tamarind water and sugar. Set aside.
  5. To make the Coconut Saffron Rice, heat the rice up a little over medium high heat, about 30 seconds.
  6. Add the saffron threads, salt, coconut milk, water, ginger, lime leaves (if using), then stir and bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce heat to low, cover and leave to simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until brown rice is done. Alternatively, follow cooking time instructions on your rice package. Before serving, remove ginger slices and lime leaves, then fluff up the rice with a fork.
  8. To make the Okra, set a large pot of water on high heat until it boils. Throw the okra in boiling water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes only, so it remains firm. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and leave to dry.
  9. When you are ready to serve, reheat your pot or pan with a little bit of oil, add the diced onion and cook until fragrant. Put the okra back in the pot or pan, stir in the sambal just to warm it up, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  10. Spoon sambal okra over rice and squeeze some lime juice to finish.
*To roast the shrimp paste, put the required quantity inside a square piece of aluminum foil and break it into pieces with a spoon. Fold in the edges if the foil to form a small packet. Roast in a preheated oven at 400 F / 205 C for about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool. The roasted shrimp will smell aromatic and darken into dry powder. This roasting step adds a deeper, smokier flavour to the sambal.



  • Even though I am not okra fan, I could eat that rice every single day…looks so good Jen!
    I love spicy food, I mean I really love it.. so same here “the more spicy the better” but I always have to adjust for myself only since kids and hubby can’t eat as much as I can. :)
    Great recipe, beautiful pics! Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Reply July 30, 2012


      Sandra, same here! I have to adjust the spice for myself. If I’m cooking something “spicy” – I always have to make two versions. A simplified one for the kids and of course, a spice-laden version for me! We’ll definitely get along in a restaurant, Sandra!

  • Reply July 29, 2012

    Laura (Tutti Dolci)

    I’ve heard such good things about both those cookbooks – I think I need to add them to my growing collection. I’ve never had okra but I love spicy dishes and the coconut saffron rice is genius!

  • Reply July 29, 2012

    the food dude

    What a great looking dish, awesome combination of flavors! Amazing colors too! And thanks for dropping by my site earlier, looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  • Reply July 29, 2012


    this looks delicious! love your pics! bet your sambal would be great with fish and seafood, french beans and aubergines, etc.. yums! i love ’em spicy too!

  • Reply July 29, 2012

    Choc Chip Uru

    Sambar and okra together my friend, it honestly does not get better 😀
    This looks incredible!


  • Reply July 29, 2012


    This looks seriously good and wil be trialled as soon as I see the next pile of okra – not always available in Oz semi-rural vegetable suppliers! You have deseeded the chillis, so it should in no way be what I consider hot! Just moreish :) ! Funny, just finished writing a newspaper health section article about foods using spices: turmeric in particular: besides all its other good points it has been proven to help cognitive function, ie keep the elderly from developing dementia! Actually if one did not have saffron at home, I would seriously consider substituting with turmeric.

    • Reply July 30, 2012


      Hi, Eha!
      Yes, definitely! If saffron is not available, turmeric is a wonderful substitution! I’ve made this rice with turmeric as well, and it tasted just as delicious! Of course then, we’ll have to call it “Coconut Turmeric Brown Rice!” Thanks for visiting :)

  • Reply July 29, 2012


    I have the Plenty cookbook and am interested in Lemongrass and Ginger-how could you go wrong with a cookbook with that title?! I like spicy food and developed a slight addiction to sambal goreng which I discovered while living in Den Haag dining in Indonesian restaurants. As I recall a slight amount goes a long way! Your dish looks beautiful with it’s warm spicy colors- I imagine it tastes delicious;-)

  • Reply July 29, 2012

    Jen @ Savory Simple

    I’m intrigued! I have to admit, I’ve never enjoyed okra except for in gumbo. But I have a feeling this would change my mind!

  • Reply July 29, 2012


    Your posts always inspire me to Want to step outside the safety of my chicken and pasta comfort zone. (I would love to be able to cook beautiful and exotic dishes like this!) I’m not even a huge okra fan, but I’m seriously considering giving it another chance. 😀

  • Anything with Sambal and I’m automatically in love. I am even more attracted to this recipe since you made your own–how awesome is that! Love this combo, Jen, and I adore your bowls. :)

  • Reply July 29, 2012

    Suzanne Perazzini

    I love the look of the dish with all those spices but I love more the idea of the ideal diet. I must try it.

  • I have passed by the Plenty book numerous times and just need to buy it! Your recipe looks fantastic and jam packed with bright flavors. I recenly has deep fried okra and it was divine, although I like how you prepared it. Happy Sunday!!

  • You inspire me with a lot of unique dishes you prepare. Although you are an Asian, but I love how you come up with all kinds of dishes with so many influence from different cuisines and ingredients (like comparing to me who pretty much focus on Japanese food – quite boring). I have Leemei’s book and I really enjoy her book although I’m not a cookbook person at all. I love okra and always enjoy cooking them. Your food is beautifully shot and created as always!

  • Reply July 29, 2012

    A Canadian Foodie

    I have the Plenty cookbook. I so rarely eat meat. I cannot digest it. Love the book. This rice looks lovely! Not an okra fan, but it does look nice. Great recipe inspiration.

  • Reply July 30, 2012


    Wow I can smell the deliciousness from here! I love this

  • Reply July 30, 2012


    And I have some okra that needs using up! What perfect timing! My husband and I are big fans of spicy food as well, and of Asian food too! This looks and sounds delicious :)

  • Reply July 30, 2012

    Lan | angry asian

    i adore okra – deep fried. i think it’s an american thing…
    however, i am always game to try it differently. i am a fan of spicy food, tho as of late i like to temper it, sometimes when something is too spicy, i end up numbing my tongue and i’m done for the rest of the meal.
    last, i think i’m in love with the coconut saffron brown rice

  • Reply July 30, 2012


    Sounds really tasty, I love spicy too so I know this would be great for me but not the rest of my bunch since their stomachs are not as app to spicy heat :( Nice photos Jen.

  • Reply July 30, 2012

    Amy (Savory Moments)

    What an interesting way to use okra. It looks incredibly flavorful!

  • Reply July 31, 2012

    Cass @foodmyfriend

    Plenty is my favourite book! A lovely lady that I work with gave it to me and it hasn’t left my kitchen since :) Such beautiful hearty vegetarian meals.

  • Reply July 31, 2012

    Jennifer (Delicieux)

    That rice looks so good. I could devour bowls of it. I love the sound of the sambal too. It’s not so long ago that I didn’t like spicy food, but recently I’ve really grown addicted to spicy food.

  • Reply July 31, 2012

    wok with ray

    This is my kind of food! I love how the sambal blanketing the pieces of okra. I like how the okra was not over cooked. Beautiful, beautiful, photography! :)

  • I love spicy foods! I have about 10 pounds to lose from a (not so recent) pregnancy. Guess I better kick up the heat :)

  • Reply August 1, 2012


    i adore okra… i make it in spicy indian style. this looks very similar but with alot more spices! i can bet you anything i would be drooling all over this!lol

  • Reply August 9, 2012


    sounds amazing. i love sambal. this kind of reminds me of a dish that my mum used to make with green beans. i don’t think i’m a fan of okra so perhaps i’ll give this a try with beans as a substitute.

    hope you’re well!

  • Reply August 18, 2012


    Hello Jen!
    I’m glad that you’ve got a copy of my cookbook. Have you tried any of the recipes? Would love to hear your feedback or perhaps a review from you on Amazon. :)

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