EXPLAINER

What is sambal oelek?

The rich history of this popular condiment makes it a worthy pantry staple for sauces, marinades and more

By Katrina Yentch

Published May 10, 2022 5:44PM (EDT)

 (MielPhotos2008 / Getty Images)
(MielPhotos2008 / Getty Images)

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Hot sauce enthusiasts tend to cycle through their obsessions like brief yet meaningful romances. In the past, they've "put Sriracha on their Sriracha," and swarmed McDonald's to hoard Rick & Morty's-inspired Szechuan chili sauce. The next spicy condiment that may get the Sriracha treatment is one that's not new to you if you're familiar with Indonesian food: It's sambal oelek.

What is sambal?

Sambal is an aromatic condiment comprised of dry and fresh ground spices and herbs. Like chutney in India and salsa in Mexico, the world of sambals is vast. There are countless sambals from all over Indonesia, each tweaked to local ingredients, regional specialties, and individual preference

Indonesians swear by sambal, demanding its necessity to accompany and complete national favorites like Nasi Goreng and Gado Gado. Australian-Indonesian chef Lara Lee emphasizes how crucial sambal is in her cookbook "Coconut & Sambal," sharing that "Indonesians can get quite nostalgic about sambal — it reminds them of home." Above all, they are essential to bringing out the most complex flavors in a dish, as well as achieving a symphonic balance.

In Indonesia, sambal is usually made from scratch. That means that they require the hard work of hand grinding the ingredients into the chili pasta. Lee explains the process of grinding a sambal, which is typically done with mortar and pestle-esque tools called the cobek and the ulekan. "That's when you're finding these grandmas making sambals in the family of 50 that are coming for the wedding," she says. "They're grinding it, they're putting their back into it . . . In Indonesia it's often prepared on the floor, it's just easier. You can be cross-legged, you can be on all fours, it just depends what your preference is."

She continues to explain the methods of sambal preparation, emphasizing the versatility of it: "You can have raw sambals, you can fry them and add oil. There's no one kind of way, and all of the different sambals have different characteristics and identifiers."

The choice of ingredients for sambal vary from region to region, but some of the most common items that end up in sambals include red chilis, shrimp paste, garlic, lemongrass, shallots, and makrut limes. Sambals like the Balinese raw matah typically accompany meat and seafood dishes, while the Western-influenced sambal kacang becomes a creamy and addicting choice to drizzle atop salads and dip satay into. While most are served as condiments, they can also transcend into marinades.

What is sambal oelek?

In American grocery stores, the sambal you're most likely to run into is Sambal Oelek. Typically tucked into the shelves of the Asian foods aisle, it appears crimson red and packaged in a round squat jar with a bright green lid. While the range of flavors and spices within sambals are never ending, sambal oelek in particular is very paired down in comparison. A mix of ground chili peppers, salt, and occasionally vinegar and oil, it may be considered the antithesis to the rest, driven by simplicity rather than complexity. The phrase sambal oelek in particular translates to ground chili sauce, but the word "oelek" is actually a Dutch spelling of the Indonesian word ulek, which means to grind in a mortar.

The sambal oelek we know today consists of chilis introduced to Indonesians by the Spanish and Portuguese during the 16th century. However, sambal ulek certainly existed before this time. "They did make sambal using native ingredients like andaliman pepper, which comes from the Szechuan pepper family," Lee explains. "They would make sambal with that, native gingers, and a Bali spice called Long Pepper. That would provide this sultry taste that sambals were famous for."

Lee reports that 352 versions of sambal have been created since this time, but sambal oelek in particular has remained unchanged across Indonesia. Rather than changing a dish, it adds a kick of spice to a meal that may have been fine without it — but for us spice lovers, it's a necessary addition to an otherwise perfect meal.

Sambal oelek goes global

Sambal oelek's simple yet versatile nature has allowed it to play a significant role in the cuisines of other Southeast Asian countries. It's common practice to add sambal oelek to Vietnamese and Thai dipping sauces like nuoc mam and nam jim. Lately, it has also made slow yet steady progress as a condiment and cooking ingredient in more Western kitchens.

Given its history and proximity, Malaysian cooks have their own version of chili sauce similar to sambal oelek. However, it serves as a base ingredient for food rather than a standalone condiment. Their cili boh is a dried chili paste typically added to fried rice or noodle dishes. Sambal belacan, on the other hand, enhances the simplicity of sambal oelek with the additions of shrimp paste and calamansi lime juice.

"It has shrimp paste in it to add more flavor," explains Malaysian restaurateur Norman Musa of sambal belacan. "Sambal oelek in general, I believe, has changed the way it has in Malaysia according to the region's taste preferences. Unlike my current base in the United Kingdom, where we shape a dish based on the availability of local ingredients, that isn't the case in Malaysia. Since we have so many of the same ingredients [as Indonesia] available and on hand, we work with our taste preferences. That's where the shrimp paste comes in — through belacan."

Currently, the availability of sambal and sambal oelek in a region is largely dependent upon the presence of an Indonesian population there. Areas like The Netherlands see an abundance of Indonesian food varieties, while the United Kingdom is still growing accustomed to spices outside of India's influence.

Thanks to spice purveyors Huy Fong Foods, the United States has had plenty of access to its version of sambal oelek lately. Its ability to transcend as a condiment and a marinade makes it a favorite amongst chefs and hot sauce lovers; it may prove to be a reigning condiment that will prevail beyond countless hot sauce obsessions to come.


Katrina Yentch

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