The only thing I truly love more than food itself are the condiments associated with it. My interest in food and food writing, a thinly veiled ploy to get closer to them. All of them. As proof, I once famously patronized a sub shop in Boston for years solely for their mind-melting blue cheese sauce (which they politely declined to sell me in bulk), despite other neighborhood spots that made far better buffalo chicken. That’s why I reacted with both horror and delight, on a recent trip through Southeast Asia, to learn I’d been in relative darkness about a wildly diverse and delicious condiment category. Sambal.
Now, I knew of sambal before this adventure. The basic hot chili paste sold and served in round plastic jars with green lids and presented with tiny spoons to add instant heat to Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese food. In the states there are really just one or two brands widely available, and they look and taste similar, so I’d venture to guess the average American assumes, as I did, that this is all sambal is.
Sambal Oelek, $4.35 on Amazon
Give your next meal some heat from the east.
What I didn’t know is that in the place of its origin, Indonesia, and surrounding countries, sambal is almost completely open to interpretation with only a few hard and fast rules, creating interesting and seemingly endless versions, used in truly endless ways.
What Is Sambal?
In short, to be called sambal the mixture should consist of ground red (sometimes green) chili and probably (but not definitely) vinegar, soy sauce, or another liquid binder. That’s it. From there a combination of other flavorings and aromatics like ginger, shrimp paste, peanut sauce, anchovy, coconut milk, citrus, garlic, and tomato give each sambal a distinct profile and personality. It is traditionally mixed into a paste via mortar and pestle but certain versions are simply diced and left chunky while others are pureed into a thinner consistency.
As I wound my way through the region (Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and eventually down through Indonesia), ramekins of pastes, salsas, and sauces of many colors, textures, and tastes would arrive with increased frequency for nearly every piece of fish, chicken, or plate of vegetables I ordered. Never one not to ask an annoying follow-up question when food is placed before me, time and again I was told it was “sambal.” Often as many as three would be dropped together; diced chunky with tomato and sweet shallots and just a hint of chili heat to be scooped up with a fork and heaped onto grilled fish, with others ground into a finer paste, and far more Scoville burn to be mixed, carefully, into soup, rice, or noodles.
Despite influence from nearby powerhouse food cultures like China, Thailand, and India, traditional Indonesian food is sound yet simple. Fresh fish, fried rice and noodles, soups, vegetables, fried chicken, or skewered satays, to name a few. The thing that all these foods have in common, I’d discover, is they’re made better and more interesting by the presence of good sambal, and the versatile chili paste proved a singular and perfect way for restaurants and warungs (small family-owned eateries) to differentiate themselves, and add a personal touch to time-tested recipes.
Nasi Padang is a popular Indonesian style of dining, which prompts diners to choose, or let the chef powers that be choose, a variety of meats, vegetables, rice, noodles, and curry dishes to be served family-style and always with a selection of sambals. It’s been said you can venture an educated guess as to where in Indonesia you are based on the sambal you’re served, often influenced by the literal hundreds of native and immigrant ethnic groups, in one of the most diverse regions on earth.
ChefSofi Mortar and Pestle Set, $34.99 on Amazon
Make your own sambal with a traditional mortar and pestle.
While there are countless versions and recipes to choose from, these are a few popular sambals you’ll find in the region. And while you won’t find many in western markets, trust that all are simple to make with a mortar and pestle (traditional), food processor, or chopping knife.
This is the version you’ll find most in the U.S., made popular by Huy Fong Foods (of Sriracha fame). It’s mostly just crushed chili pepper and a touch of vinegar. A very efficient method for adding heat without much else. Get the Sambal Oelek recipe.
Another basic version of sambal with chili, onion, garlic, and tomato and a dash of vinegar. This sambal is a no-nonsense way to add some burn to most any dish without disrupting the rest of the flavor profile much. Great to balance out sweet dishes like ones with coconut milk. Get the Sambal Bajak recipe.
This version is one you’ll find most frequently in Indonesia. It’s essentially the same as Sambal Bajak but with the addition of Terasi, a type of fermented shrimp paste which adds an undeniable depth to the sauce, and in turn, whatever you add it to. Get the Sambal Terasi recipe.
This looks and feels more like a salsa than the more homogeneous chili paste we’ve come to associate sambal with. Great to spoon over grilled fish or chicken, or mix in with a simple fried rice. Get the Sambal Dabu-Dabu recipe.
This is another popular one in Indonesia. With the addition of ground peanut to the more traditional chili, garlic, and tomato, this sambal is especially good served with chicken satay, dumplings, or foods made with traditional Indian spice. Get the Sambal Kacang recipe.
This sambal starts with soy sauce and then any variety of chili, garlic, shallots, and ginger are blended in via mortar and pestle or a fine chop. Used often as a dipping sauce for gyoza, spring rolls, or other fried bites. Get the Sambal Kecap recipe.
Another that looks much more like a salsa than a chili paste. Sambal Matah is found on the Indonesian island of Bali among other places. Simply chopped chili, onions, garlic, ginger, lemon juice, and lemongrass make this a fresh and simple sambal to make with very little time or trouble. Get the Sambal Matah recipe.
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Header image courtesy of The Burning Kitchen