Sambal Oelek and Beyond: Exploring the Wide World of Indonesian Chili Pastes

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

In the early 2010s, with its easy-squeeze bottle and bright green cap, one sauce nearly overthrew ketchup as America's favorite red condiment: Huy Fong Sriracha. The rooster-adorned bottles had long been a mainstay at Southeast Asian restaurants, where the sauce was used to add a hint of heat to the likes of pho and banh mi, but suddenly it was launched into new ubiquity, as likely to appear on a Red Lobster menu as on the table at a greasy spoon. But the next time you're in the grocery store, look next to the tall bottle, and you'll probably see the other red chili condiment with the green cap and rooster label: sambal oelek. It's easy to compare sambal oelek to sriracha—both originated in Southeast Asia, America's most popular versions of both sauces are made by Huy Fong Foods, and both can top an egg sandwich or get tangled up in a spicy peanut noodle salad with equal success. But beyond those shared traits—and their ability to clear up your sinuses—the similarities quickly end.

The reasons to pick up sambal oelek, though, extend beyond that one paste. An Indonesian loanword originating in Javanese, sambal translates to "condiment" (oelek, meanwhile, refers to the Indonesian ulek, a mortar-and-pestle-like stoneware tool used to make all manner of pastes). This makes a clear point: There is no one sambal. In fact, dive deep into the world of sambals and you'll quickly realize that there are thousands upon thousands of versions, most of them unfamiliar to even the most die-hard sambal oelek fans in this hemisphere.

But let's start with the basics. Sambal oelek, at its core, has a short ingredient list: raw hot red chili peppers and salt, pounded together with a mortar and pestle for a flavor that is pure, unadulterated spice. The result is a chunky, spoonable paste studded with chili seeds. Though it's also popular in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, sambal oelek is native to Indonesia, where it's used as a basic condiment, much as Westerners would use any hot sauce. Stir it into your fried rice, or scoop it onto the eggs or avocado toast you're having for breakfast.

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While there is no definitive Date of Sambal Creation, it's likely that Southeast Asians started grinding hot peppers with their mortars and pestles not long after the spicy fruit made its way to the region. Though chili peppers are integral to culinary traditions around the globe, they're actually New World plants, meaning that they were growing in the Americas long before Christopher Columbus reached those shores in 1492. It wasn't until the 16th century that the Portuguese brought them to Asia, leaving a lasting influence on the continent's myriad cuisines. Today, you can think of sambal oelek as the delicious gateway to the realm of nuanced and complex chili pastes that people in this part of the world have been making for ages.

Betty Yu, the owner of the popular South Philadelphia Indonesian restaurant Sky Cafe, has lived in the US for 15 years, but she formed her love for sambals growing up in Indonesia, where she remembers eating at least one variation at every meal. And she's especially partial to one that she'd argue is the country's most beloved: sambal belacan. Named for its inclusion of the hardened shrimp paste belacan, this sambal is funkier and fishier than its oelek counterpart, excellent with fried seafood and raw vegetables. But, just as sambal oelek is the tip of the iceberg for sambals in America, sambal belacan is only a starting point in Southeast Asian cuisines.

"In Indonesia alone, we have over 17,000 islands, with lots of ethnic groups, and every ethnic group has its own sambal," Yu says. "The majority of people know around 20 sambals. Every day, every meal has homemade sambal."

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While Yu says that people will eat the chili pastes with almost anything—crackers, eggplant, congee—you wouldn't just pair sambals with dishes at random. According to her, eggplant, for instance, must be cooked with sambal balado, which features raw tomato, garlic, and shallots. One of the best ways to taste other types of sambal is to get out of your kitchen and see how restaurants around the country are using different homemade versions. At Sky Cafe, order nasi ayam sambal hijau and you'll get a platter of white rice, fried chicken, and curried vegetables, among other toppings, paired with sambal hijau, which trades out red chili peppers for green ones. Or, order your dish of choice and add a side of sambal belacan, balado, or hijau—or all three, to get a true taste of the variety.

Indonesian restaurants aren't abundant in the US, but there are a handful—and that handful leans heavily on sambals, just as American diners depend on ketchup and mustard. In Los Angeles, Simpang Asia serves different varieties in classic Indonesian dishes, such as ikan goreng (spicy fried fish) and nasi bungkus (banana leaf–wrapped rice and meats with pungent, shrimp paste–flecked sambal terasi); you can even buy different sambals to go from the in-restaurant store. In New York, there's the Malaysian-inspired Kopitiam, where sambal belacan is mixed with a stir-fry of ikan bilis (anchovies) and peanuts, or served over coconut rice in nasi lemak. For more modern, primarily vegan Indonesian-style fare, Brooklyn's Selamat Pagi serves dishes with slightly sweet sambal tomat, earthy beet sambal, and raw, fragrant sambal mateh (lemongrass, chili, shallots, lime, makrut lime leaves, coconut oil, and shrimp paste); order the prawn chips starter and you'll get to try them all. If you're looking for more traditional Indonesian dishes with homemade sambals, Sky Cafe—both the Philadelphia and the New York branches—can't be missed.

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Then take Yu's advice and try making sambals at home. On your next trip to the grocery store, look at the sriracha, then at the sambal oelek, and then wander over to the shrimp paste and fresh chilies. At their most basic, sambals are just fresh chilies (traditionally cabe keriting, or curly chilies, but Fresno or serrano chilies will work) and their seeds, ground in a mortar and pestle with salt, but you can use a food processor for greater ease and speed. Try adding shrimp paste or fish sauce, cherry tomatoes, vinegars, shallots, and really any aromatics and spices you like—with more than 17,000 sambals out there, experimentation is the name of the game. Nothing's better than a freshly made sambal, says Yu. Taste just one and I think you'll find it's pretty hard to argue.