Fun with Food I: Recreating the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak

Ingredients for sambal badjak
All the ingredients for the sambal except the soy sauce.

Hello everyone!  I thought I’d take a departure this week from my fun experiments to show a food (and yet fun) experiment – my attempt to reproduce Huy Fong Food’s famous Sambal Badjak, a delicious Indonesian condiment.  Huy Fong, makers of the famous Sriracha sauce, stopped making their Sambal Badjak and Sate sauces years ago, and I was crushed.  I loved that stuff, and there is simply no substitute. I went to their site, sent them begging emails, and prowled the web for a recipe. I’ve subsequently tried a few, but they didn’t give me the magic flavor and texture of the original.

This is my latest attempt. I emailed another wistful guy who was also looking for a recipe, but he hadn’t found one either – though he did remind me of the smokey flavor that set the Huy Fong sambal apart. So I modified my recipe by adding smoked chiles (chipotles).

Sambal Badjak Recipe

The Ransom Version of the Huy Fong Food’s Original, v. 1.0


  • 20 red jalapeños, diced
  • 9 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and crushed
  • 10 dried chiles de arbol, stemmed and torn apart
  • 3 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 1 large shallot, diced
  • 12 large cloves garlic, diced fine
  • ~20 salted, roasted cashews
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 2 tbsp tamarind concentrate
  • 1 13.5 oz can coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp Thai ground (dry) galangal
  • 2 tsp dried, shredded lemon grass
  • 2 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 3/4 cup peanut oil


Heat 1/4 cup of the peanut oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat until almost smoking, then add the diced veg (jalapeños, onions, garlic, and shallot).  Sweat for 10 minutes.

Vegetables sweated
After cooking the jalapeños, onions, shallots, and garlic for 10 minutes.

Cover the crushed chipotle and chile de arbol with boiling water and let rehydrate for about 10 minutes. Blend together with the cashews and additional water as needed to a thick paste.  Add to the sweated veg.

Chile and cashew paste
The paste made by blending the rehydrated chipotle and chile de arbol chiles and the cashews.
Sambal after adding chile paste
Sambal 10 minutes after adding the chile paste.

Cook for an additional ten minutes after reducing the heat to medium. Add another 1/4 cup of peanut oil, and cook for a few minutes longer.  Add the remaining ingredients except the last of the peanut oil.

Sambal after all ingredients added
The sambal after addition of the coconut milk and seasonings.

Continue cooking, making sure to stir regularly.  Scrape the solids off the bottom of the Dutch oven to prevent burning (they do carmelize, but don’t let it burn – it will ruin the sambal).

Sambal after 2 hours cooking
Slow simmered for nearly two hours.

Reduce heat to simmer, continue cooking and stirring for half an hour.  Add the remaining oil, and cook another hour.

the finished sambal badjak
Minutes after the heat was turned off – it darkened further upon cooling.

The Final Result

The finished product was more like the Huy Fong version than my previous attempts, but failed on a few points.  It was a bit too sweet, so reducing the palm sugar from 2 tbsp to 1 tbsp is recommended.  I remember the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak as being a little bit sweet, but not as sweet as most other versions of the sauce.  The smokey taste was there, but muted – it might be worth roasting the red jalapeños over a wood fire to get something stronger.  Though I suspect a frank smoke taste would ruin the sauce.

The sauce wasn’t dark enough: the Huy Fong version was dark brown.  I thought of doing a French-style browning of the onions as if for classic French Onion Soup, and the sauce could probably have used another spoonful of soy sauce – using dark soy could also help get the color.  I do like the color I got, and it did darken further upon cooling.

The final difference was the coconut milk.  I’m not sure it was even used in Huy Fong’s version, but I do like it.  But I shouldn’t have used the whole can – I think half as much would have been better.  And next time I’m going to add a bit more fish sauce, it pretty much disappeared, and try adding more water and cooking it longer.  The Huy Fong version was also smooth, so you might blend the final sauce to a fine puree – I like it a bit chunky.

Finally, I’m going to bottle this and cover it with a layer of oil.  That was one characteristic of the Huy Fong that I also didn’t replicate: it was a very oily sauce, with a good half-inch of darkly colored oil on top when opened.  Reducing or eliminating the coconut milk would certainly help with that, as the milk helps keep the oil incorporated, though it does rise to the top over time in the refrigerator.

At the end, I was pretty happy with the sauce – I’m not there yet, but that’s half the fun.  The rest of the fun is smearing this over some fresh-fried salty chicken.  Yum!

BTW, this version is hot, as in very hot.  Not carcinogenic, but hot.  If you don’t want it so spicy, I’d use fewer arbols and chipotles.

Be well, enjoy, and have fun!

[NOTE:  Be sure to read Jeff’s insightful comment on this post – he’s the guy who was looking for a recipe, and he makes some cogent, insightful, and hilarious comments.  I can tell Jeff is a fun guy.]

Fun With Bills

In my last post I described some of the ways that I’ve experimented in my own life to understand more about fun – and to have more fun.  This week I moved on to something that’s a real tough nut for me to handle:  paying bills.

I admit that I dread it, even though I’m a detail-oriented person, sometimes obsessively so.  I hate doing my bills.  I know I have to do them, but I procrastinate.  That’s cost me in the past, cost me cash and peace – and precluded fun.

Tonight I’m doing my bills and making it fun.  Okay, maybe just funner, or at least less hateful.  But I aspire to fun, so that maybe next time I’ll be eager – or at least less averse.

First step:  gather all the paperwork together, and get the browser fired up.  Rather than carefully sort through the drifts of paperwork I’ve let pile up, it seems like more fun to just bundle it all up and throw it on the floor.  Then I start throwing all sorts of other paperwork off the table, and cap it off by sweeping the rest into the messy paperwork jumble with a dramatic gesture.  Fun.  Why?  Immediate feedback.  Throwing stuff on the floor is fun (and that’s where I’m going to work on it anyway), and the table is already clear!  I haven’t paid my bills yet, but I already have one of my rewards.

I decide to finish that job – I clear off and clean the dishes, put away the books, and wipe the table.  I set up a nice place setting for dinner later.  Yay!  Now, when I finish the bills, I’ll be done.  I won’t have another niggling task to perform – another opportunity for procrastination.

Next I grab the folders I’ll end up filing the paperwork into and toss them next to the pile.  A bag to put the recyclables into, and a trash can.  A pen, paper clips, a calculator.  Turn on the music.  Cell phone out of my pocket and on the table in another room.  Hmmmm.  A mixed drink, and some beer nuts.  Fun.  Why?  I’m treating the task as if it’s a party I’m hosting.  I’m paying attention to the environment, to having everything ready so I can relax and enjoy, and acting as if it this will be desirable – as if it will be fun.  I established a positive expectation, and made a workspace that’s fun and is welcoming to flow – what I call solo fun, an intense absorption in the task at hand.

The next important part of making bills fun is to set goals and establish rewards.  I won’t go into grisly detail, but I break it up into several intermediate tasks (I had, after all, cleared all the paperwork off my table).  I decide to sort all my banking and bill statements and move them downstairs with past-year’s receipts, and collect up other stuff (work receipts, benefits into, &etc.) into groups and deal with them – act, file, or recycle.  I resolve to reward myself for completion by setting aside time to work on my business logo, and to take breaks after completing specific tasks.  And I resolve to establish online bill pays for all those bills that were still paper-envelope-and-checks so that I could receive a bill, schedule a payment, and immediately file it – leaving my table clean.  Fun!  Why?  Because I had a whole series of things to look forward to, from cleaned up files to a rewarding activity afterwards, including the bright promise of never having to do this again.

The actual execution goes smoothly, and soon I have a clean floor except for a pile of bills.  Making actually paying the bills fun is now relatively easy, even though I don’t have enough money to pay everything and still go to my parent’s home for Christmas.  However, now it’s a situation with a neat border – I can decide easily which bills I can pay now, and which will have to wait until I get my next check.  I log into accounts, set up a new bill pay, and everything is shipshape and squared away.  I still have some bills to be paid, but now they’re neatly awaiting my next dollop of funds and I won’t be paying late fees – I’ll get everything in under the wire.

I’m finished, and indeed paying bills was fun.  Not rib-cracking rollicking fun, but much better than what I expected:  less hateful.  I managed it despite the fact that I’m in a startup business that isn’t making me wealthy yet – in fact, it’s hand-to-mouth.  I make another cocktail, and fire up Adobe Illustrator.  It’s time for logo design.  Fun!


Fun(ny) Business

I’ve struggled with fun in business.  The stress, the distractions, the tedium of unpleasant tasks, and the disappointments have all taken a toll.  Fun has seemed trivial in the face of shrinking bank accounts, blank pages that need to be filled, spreadsheets, and the hope of shaping the world to my own vision.

I’d like to share a few of the ways that I’ve applied fun to my own business.  After all, I’m building a fun consultancy, and if I’m not having fun myself at work then I shouldn’t expect success helping others to get to fun.  I’ve never believed the old cliche, “If you can’t do, teach.”  The teachers I’ve had the most respect for were masters of their field, with deep passion for their subject and broad and deep expertise and experience.  Teaching is itself a distinct profession – but it’s a double profession.  Teachers must be experts at teaching and in their subject matter.

I was developing materials for my consultancy, setting up workshops (actually, funshops), coordinating all the minutiae of running a small business, and conducting research on fun in the workplace when I realized that I wasn’t having much fun myself.  I was overwhelmed with my career change, I was trying to do everything at once, and I was worried that pursuing my dream was a big mistake.  I resolved that evening that I would make my workplace my best laboratory.  Much of my work is done alone, or via long-distance collaboration, so my focus was on solo fun, and that’s what I’ll describe in this post.

My first experiment was with fun stuff.  Cute toys.  My friend Angie had always referred to me as Dexter (from Dexter’s Laboratory), and she’d given me a number of Dexter and Dee Dee toys.  I had them on a shelf in my lab office, where they collected dust.  My hypothesis was that putting fun stuff in my workplace would do essentially nothing.  I dug them out of their box and cleaned off some space to display them prominently in my home office.

I was surprised to find that they did do something.  In particular, the Dexter that declared, “Dee Dee, get out of my laboratory!” when you pushed his labcoat button made it perceptibly more fun to face my computer and a blank page.  With a few more experiments, I discovered that the best effects were with fun stuff that have deeper meaning, are more than decorative, and are prominent.  Bert and Ernie dolls in lab coats now peer over my monitors, and Dexter is always available to order Dee Dee off the premises.

But fun stuff is frosting.  Sweet frosting on a bitter cake is still a bitter cake.  How can you make your work fun when some of it (or much of it) is tedious, unpleasant, difficult, frustrating, or boring?

Key ideas for my next experiments came from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s (me-HI-cheek saz-me-HI-ye) research on flow, and Jane McGonigal’s book on how games can change the world, Reality is Broken. Csikszentmihalyi studied the state of mind that focused individuals (surgeons, dancers, chess players, etc.) experienced when they were performing at their best, and McGonigal researched what makes  video and computer games fun and how that can be applied in the outside world.  I’d incorporated their ideas into my own work on fun, but I’d failed to apply them to my own situation.  So it was back to the bench for more experiments.

The most powerful factor was the frame.  Just as framing a painting gives it a discrete border, I found that properly framing my work made it possible to achieve fun.  When I was laboring in a large scientific institution under a problematic boss, I’d often dreamed of what a blessing it would be to have complete control, total freedom to choose.  However, when I became the boss of my own business, total freedom and control was daunting, distracting, and sometimes depressing.  While I could do whatever I wished whenever I wanted to, that often translated into doing a lot of things halfway, and avoiding some tasks entirely.  Feeling guilty about overdue projects, feeling stressed when I finally got back to them.

I set up experiments based on Csikszentmihalyi’s observations that flow comes, “. . . because one’s awareness is limited to [a] restricted field of possibilities,” through a, “. . . centering of attention on a limited stimulus field,” and that the process, “. . . contains coherent, non-contradictory demands for action and provides clear, unambiguous feedback,” and also on McGonigal’s emphasis on the importance of clear goals and immediate feedback.  I broke down dauntingly open-ended tasks like designing my web page into pieces that shared several characteristics:

  • Clear Process:  I knew how to get to the goal – perhaps not all the details, but the approach was clear and didn’t require much decision making.
  • Challenging:  The process involved some difficulty that I knew would be challenging to overcome, but was not open-ended or potentially impossible.
  • Small Victories:  The task consisted of a series of steps that could be tangibly completed.

For example, I found that my one of my webpage menu bars was growing too big for its layout.  I decided to make drop-down menus, but got frustrated with implementing the menus based on available code.  They either didn’t work, or dropped down behind the rest of the page, and they didn’t look good when I slapped my stylesheet styling on them.

I decided to break down the task into pieces.  And then realized that I should start by framing the task of breaking it down.  And then I applied a touchstone from my work as a research biochemist:  I made the first frame around the question of whether I should even bother.  As a researcher, I’d gotten into the habit of asking my colleagues what experiment would most rapidly and easily disprove their hypothesis – typically, that’s the opposite of the ‘normal’ approach, which is to try to prove the hypothesis.  Maybe it’s a boy thing, but destroying something has a visceral satisfaction – for me, at least, it’s fun.  In research, it’s also effective, as pursuing a hypothesis that looks promising in initial experiments, but in the end is wrong, can be ruinously expensive.  So, rather than make a list that broke down how I could make a drop-down menu work for my website, I tried to prove it wouldn’t.

Since it would be a web search task, I set a definite time limit – ten minutes.  Time limits are exciting, and IMHO are underutilized.  Time limits are fundamentally different from the (dread) deadline – they’re self-imposed, and intended to make your life easier, not more stressful.  They’re an unnecessary obstacle, something that game researchers recognize as a powerful tool for making a game more fun.  They also provide immediate, constant feedback, another powerful tool in the funbox.

The result:  I discovered that my flexible web layout wasn’t compatible with drop downs.  I would have to change the fundamental way my layout worked in order to incorporate the new menus, and it would be a lot of work.  Not impossible, but, on balance, not worth the trouble.  I found the answer in 7 minutes flat.

Yay!  In less time than I’d spent figuring out what to do about my menu problem, I’d turned a frustrating, open-ended task with no certainty of success into a triumph.  I had a grin on my face, and felt inspired to go back to the task of changing my menus to fit the format in a creative way.

Bottom line, end of the day, on the ground, nitty gritty, nuts and bolts, meat and potatoes lessons:

  • Pull back – pull way back.  Don’t be afraid to ask why you’re even doing what you’d planned
  • Put an unnecessary obstacle in your way.  Try moving your mouse with your left hand (or right, if you’re left handed), or setting a time limit.  Unnecessary does not rhyme with useless – even if you do something seemingly pointless like mousing with your off hand, when you break your wrist you’ll thank me.
  • Little teeny pieces.  Fun happens when you’re absorbed in what you’re doing, and if you’re thinking about the forty other things you have to do before you’re done with the task you’ve set yourself, you’re not absorbed.  You’re dissipated, distracted, and self-conscious.
  • Immediate, constant feedback.  Stop and reread your text.  Hit the refresh button and see what your webpage edits look like.  Ask your friend to read it and give you a comment.  Do something to acknowledge what you’ve done so far.  The time you ‘waste’ on this is repaid in the little rewards that build momentum and refresh motivation.

Remember, most of us have started a business because we’re following our passion – and looking for fun.  Specifically, we’re striving for that funnest of all experiences, having fun while working.  Why else sacrifice so much at so much risk?  Yes, maybe a successful startup will make you rich, but it’s more likely that you’ll end up sapped and broke.  We’re chasing a job that is all we dreamed a job could be.  A job that’s fun.

Next post I’ll talk more about what I’ve discovered by experimenting on myself.  It’s rewarding for me to show other people how to have fun at work, but I admit that it’s been even more so to show myself how to have fun.  Please, go out and have fun.  Right now.  Why wait?