Whether you’re sitting in a five-star restaurant or relaxing at a street-side food-stall, you’re never far from sambal in Indonesia.
Sambal for your average Indonesian is like tomato ketchup to an American: it goes with everything. Rice or a stir-fry, beef or fish, on an omelette or in a soup – this all-purpose fiery, tangy relish comes in several hundred flavours. Add some shrimp paste and you get sambal terasi; throw in some peanuts and you’ve got sambal kacang. Like it sweet? Mix in some mango or pineapple. Smelly? Sambal durian. Make a baseline sambal chili paste sauce, and – if you can stand the heat – it’s time to get creative in the kitchen.
Where Does Sambal Come From?
It’s hard to imagine an Indonesian person without thinking of hot sambal sauce and sweaty mealtimes. But it wasn’t always so.
Everyone knows that the islands of Maluku were known as the ‘Spice Islands’. And while cloves and nutmeg were already key ingredients in local dishes, it wasn’t until Portuguese traders landed in 16th century Indonesia that chilis finally came face-to-face with their most devoted fans. Add some black pepper, turmeric, shallots, lemongrass and tamarind from India – or the ginger, garlic and soy sauce brought by Chinese sailors – and you begin to get a real taste of where sambal sauce comes from. Actually, it’s from a bit of everywhere.
But sambal isn’t just an Indonesian thing. Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Holland have all developed their own twists on tradition – but the word sambel (‘sambal’) is from Java. In Indonesia, you’ll often hear the basic sambal recipe referred to as sambal oelek or sambal ulek – ‘sambal’ describing the raw chili-paste mix, and ‘oelek’ referring to the stone pestle, or Javanese ulek, that the paste is ground up in.
A Chili a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
In Indonesia, the humble chili finds itself into most daily dishes – and is, unsurprisingly, the central ingredient in everyone’s favourite sauce: sambal oelek. Chili peppers have your health at heart. Boasting zero cholesterol, they’re also packed with Vitamin C – which fights off free radicals and prevents scurvy – as well as the important antioxidant Vitamin A. On the mineral front, they’re loaded with manganese, iron and magnesium – and the potassium in chilis will help control your heart-rate and blood pressure. Add a dash of Vitamin B-complex including niacin, riboflavin and thiamine to keep you cool-headed and relaxed – and you’ll find that ‘Sambal with everything’ is a smart health choice.
Different Types of Indonesian Sambal
Just as sambal’s ingredients are as varied as the traders who sailed across to Indonesia, so are the basic recipes that stretch from one end of the volcanic archipelago to the other.
If you like it a little bit sour, try a sambal asam – a terasi prawn-paste with some Indian tamarind concentrate thrown into the mix.
Fishy? It’s got to be Lombok’s sambal plecing with the island’s very own lengkare shrimp paste.
If you want it superhot (or don’t like your guests) then sambal setan – ‘devil’s sambal’ made with Madame Jeanette chilis and popular in Surabaya – should be at the top of your list.
If you’re visiting Palembang in South Sumatra and like it sweet, you might be served up with a sambal buah – literally a ‘fruit sambal’ – which is your basic terasi with a kemang mango and pineapple twist.
Passing through Sundanese territory in Bandung might see you sweating over some sambal jengkol made with the mildly poisonous jengkol bean – too much of this slightly stinky vegetable can give you gout… and kidney failure. Perhaps give this one a miss.
Cooking up a storm on your barbecue? It’s got to be sambal kecap, the sweet-and-hot blend of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), red chili, tomatoes, shallots and a squeeze of lime. But be sure to keep some cold Bintang beers on hand…
In Bali’s Ubud, Ibu Oka (next to Ubud Palace) will serve you up one of the tastiest takes on Balinese sambal that accompanies her world-famous roast pork
International Sambal Sauce Variations
In multicultural Singapore, food hawkers cater to all tastes by combining sambal’s standard ingredients with some English mustard and Indian curry leaves to make the perfectly hot chicken sambal.
In Malaysia, a basic prawn-based sambal terasi will have you searching for sambal belacan recipes in your cookbook. Ditto for a nasi lemak sambal recipe: it’s Malaysia’s national dish. Some Malaysians might prefer the sweet-and-sour sambal tempoyak with fermented durian and anchovies – although that sounds like a recipe for bad breath.
On the other side of the Indian Ocean, you’ll find that shrimp paste is substituted with crumbled Maldive fish – ending up as sini sambal, pol sambal or lunu miris in Sri Lanka.
When in Thailand, ask for a sriracha – and in China, la jaio. Your waiter won’t know what ‘sambal’ is.
Where to Buy Sambal
Whether you’re in Indonesia or abroad, there’s no excuse for not making your own homemade sambal. But if you’re already in Indonesia and feeling lazy, there are plenty of ready-made sambals and shrimp-pastes for sale at all major Indonesian supermarkets from Jakarta to Jogya. And they’re tasty. Take a walk around Bintang, Hardy’s, Delta Dewata or Carrefour for the widest choices.
In the United States, Europe or Australia, you’ll need to pay a visit to your nearest Asian greengrocers if you’re making your own and are looking for some of the more exotic ingredients. You can, of course, just buy your sambal online. In the US, try the Indo Food Store for a good range of Indonesian food products. The Australian-based Indo-Asian Grocery Store also has a wide choice of ready-to-eat sambals – or try the UK-based Melbury and Appleton for a sambal oelek substitute that can be delivered across Europe.
Where to Eat a Killer Sambal in Indonesia
OK, so you’re on holiday in Indonesia and you don’t want to make your own. Why not pop into one of Pondok Cabe’s budget restaurants while you’re in Yogyakarta for an eye-watering array of Mum’s Own sambal. Or in Bali’s Ubud, Ibu Oka (next to Ubud Palace) will serve you up one of the tastiest takes on Balinese sambal that accompanies her world-famous roast pork. And while you’re in Ubud, why not get your hands dirty in a cooking class and learn from an expert?
Preparing a Basic Sambal Sauce
You don’t need to be a masterchef to prepare your first baseline sambal sauce. If you’ve never made one before, the trick is to keep it simple – you can always get more imaginative later. For a traditional ‘Mothership’ recipe that goes well with rice, noodles, fried foods and, well, anything – it’s easy and quick.
To make your first cup of sambal, you’ll need the following:
1 cup of your favourite red or green Indonesian chilis, chopped.
½ a cup of chopped garlic.
3 tablespoons of canola oil – virgin olive oil also works.
2 tablespoons of white vinegar.
Heat the oil in a pan, stir in the chopped chilis and garlic, and sauté until the chilis are soft.
Transfer the chili-garlic mix to a mortar-and-pestle or a blender, taking care to leave as much of the oil as possible behind in the pan.
Add a pinch of salt, and grind (or blend) the chilis and garlic until you have a smooth but slightly chunky consistency. You’ll find you have more control over the consistency if you grind by hand.
Return the chili-garlic-salt mix to the pan, add the vinegar, and stir on a medium heat for 1-2 minutes – or until the sambal has thickened.
And there you have it. Your first Mothership Sambal is ready to accompany your favourite Asian dish. If you have some left over, store it in a sealed glass jar with a lid as a base for tomorrow’s more adventurous sambal recipe. It’ll stay fresh in your fridge for a week.
Pro-Tips When Preparing Sambal
Wear disposable gloves when you’re cutting and handling chili peppers – and make sure that you take the gloves off before you rub your eyes…
Using a blender might seem easier than using a pestle-and-mortar – but the strong chili taste will contaminate other foods unless you pour water and coffee-grounds into the blender afterwards to get rid of the unwanted smell.
When including shrimp paste in a sambal, first wrap it in some tin foil or a banana leaf and bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 180C – it’ll take the edge off the strong taste, and release its flavours.
Indoneo’s Top 3 Sambal Recipes
Sambal Sotong Recipe
Since sambal is a sauce that’s popular across Southeast Asia, let’s start with a saucy sambal sotong recipe – hot squid with a lick of ginger, tamarind and lemongrass – that’s enjoyed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Ready in 55 minutes. Serves 4-6 people.
1 kg fresh squid
1 tbsp. white vinegar
3 cups of water
5 kemiri (buah keras, or candlenuts), chopped
6 large red chillies, seeded and chopped
6 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 slice terasi (shrimp paste)
2 tsp. fresh ginger, finely chopped
A pinch of cumin powder
A pinch of turmeric powder
1 lemongrass leaf, finely chopped
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
3 tbsp. tamarind water
1 tsp. gula merah (brown sugar)
A pinch of salt
Clean the squid, discarding the head and ink sac. Chop the tentacles into 2cm lengths, and cut the squid into small squares.
Mix the white vinegar with 2 ½ cups of water and use this to rinse the squid. Drain immediately.
Grind the kemiri (candlenuts), chillies, shallots and terasi (shrimp paste) with a pestle and mortar until smooth. Add the chopped ginger, lemongrass, cumin and turmeric and mix thoroughly.
Heat the vegetable oil in a deep frying pan or wok, add the sambal chili paste mixture and fry for a minute on a medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
Add the chopped squid and tamarind water, and fry for a further 3 minutes.
Stir in the brown sugar, salt and remaining ½ cup of water and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring frequently.
Serve immediately with white rice.
Sambal Udang: Hot Sambal Prawn Recipe
Staying with the seafood theme, next up is an addictive way to enjoy a bowlful of fresh Indonesian king prawns.
Ready in 45 minutes. Serves 4-6 people.
6 shallots, chopped
6 macadamia nuts
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tbsp. sambal oelek (base sambal sauce)
2 tsp. shrimp paste – or 4 anchovy fillets
2 tbsp. canola oil
1 medium onion, finely sliced
2 tbsp. tamarind concentrate
3 tbsp. gula merah (brown sugar)
1 kg king prawns, peeled with tails intact
2 large tomatoes, chopped
Basil leaves, decorate to taste
Grind the shallots, macadamia nuts and garlic with a mortar and pestle until smooth, and mix in the sambal oelek and shrimp paste. Add 2 tablespoons of water and combine.
Heat the canola oil in a deep frying pan or wok over a medium-high heat, and fry the sambal mixture and onions for 2-3 minutes.
Add the brown sugar, tamarind concentrate and 375 ml of boiling water and stir for 5 minutes until the sauce thickens.
Add the prawns and chopped tomatoes and cook on a medium-low heat for 8 minutes or until the prawns are cooked, stirring occasionally.
Serve with white rice, and sprinkle to taste with basil.
Sambal Tempe Recipe
And finally: a quick vegetarian snack, or a spicy side-dish to accompany chicken or meat. Cook up some protein-rich slices of tempeh (‘tempe’) – fermented soya beans, and a firm Indonesian favourite.
Vegetable oil (for deep-frying), plus 2 extra tbsp
400 gm tempeh (‘tempe’), thinly sliced and halved lengthways
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 long red chillies, finely chopped
10 gm (2cm piece) galangal, finely chopped
½ tsp shrimp paste, roasted
2 tbsp gula merah (palm sugar)
50 gm tamarind pulp, mixed with 200ml water, strained with solids discarded.
Slice the tempe into thin squares.
In a deep saucepan, heat vegetable oil to 175C. Deep-fry tempe in batches, turning occasionally, until golden brown. Drain, and place fried tempeh on absorbent kitchen paper.
Grind the shallots, garlic, galangal, shrimp-paste and chili in a pestle and mortar.
Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a wok over a medium heat, and stir-fry the sambal for 2-3 minutes until fragrant.
Add the palm sugar, and stir over a medium-low heat for 1-2 minutes until dissolved.
Add the tamarind paste and deep-fried tempe to the mixture, and stir frequently for 5-6 minutes until sauce has reduced.
Serve with white rice.
Some Like it Hot…
They say you can spot an Indonesian on holiday by the large jar of sambal in his hotel room. To your average Indonesian person, a meal isn’t a meal without rice – and without sambal, it isn’t worth eating. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert – a spicy sambal sauce will put fire in your belly and give your body a healthy boost. But remember one important thing: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen…