Malaysian Sambal Sauce

Malaysian Sambal Sauce

The Spruce

Ratings (118)
  • Total: 30 mins
  • Prep: 10 mins
  • Cook: 20 mins
  • Yield: 1 cup (16 servings)
Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)
76 Calories
5g Fat
9g Carbs
1g Protein
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

A popular condiment in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, sambal is a sauce made from chilies, spices, herbs, and aromatics. It has a complex flavor that is all at once earthy, spicy, and hot.

The traditional way of grinding the spices to make the sambal starter paste is to use a stone mortar and pestle. The ingredients are placed in the mortar (the bowl) and, with the hand moving in a circular motion, they are ground to a paste with the pestle. It is a labor intensive process but the proponents of the traditional method claim that the slower grinding releases the essential oils of the spices better. The modern and easier way to make sambal is to use a blender or a food processor


  • 10 shallots 
  • 2 ounces fresh chilies (about 8 fresh chilies)
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 stalk lemongrass (use only the bottom 3 inches of the stalk)
  • 2-inch piece fresh turmeric
  • 2-inch piece galangal
  • 1/2 ounce dried chilies (about 10 dried chilies), soaked in hot water for 5 minutes
  • 5 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 3 tablespoons palm sugar
  • Fish sauce to taste

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Malaysian sambal sauce ingredients
    The Spruce
  2. Peel and roughly chop the shallots. Slit the chilies and scrape off the seeds if desired. (Removing the seeds will eliminate some of the heat from the chilies.) Roughly chop the chilies.

    Cut shallots for sauce
    The Spruce
  3. Peel and crush the garlic. Thinly slice the lemongrass.

    Cut lemongrass for sauce
     The Spruce
  4. Peel the turmeric and galangal and chop each.

    Chopped turmeric and galangal
    The Spruce
  5. Using a mortar and pestle, blender, or food processor, grind all of these prepared ingredients, plus the hydrated dried chilies, to form a paste. If the mixture is too dry and grinding is difficult, add a tablespoonful or so of water.

    Add ingredients to food processor to form a paste
    The Spruce
  6. Heat the oil in a wok or small frying pan. When the oil is moderately hot, sauté the paste over low heat until fragrant. This should take about 15 minutes. Keep the heat low throughout the process and stir the paste constantly so that it does not stick to the pan.

    Heat oil in wok and add paste to cook
    The Spruce
  7. Add the tamarind paste, palm sugar, and fish sauce.

    Add tamarind paste to sauce in skillet
    The Spruce 
  8. Let the paste cook while stirring occasionally. It is ready when the solids separate from the oil. Use immediately or cool to freeze for future use.

    Malaysian sambal sauce in skillet
    The Spruce
  9. Enjoy!

Tips and Substitutions

After the sambal is cooked, ladle as much of the hot sauce as you want onto your main dish or rice. Let the rest of the sambal cool before dividing into portions and freezing. The frozen sambal will keep for 2 to 3 months.

If you have trouble finding some of the ingredients listed, several of them can be substituted. Instead of shallots, you can use 8 small red onions, and in place of the dried chilies, add 3 teaspoons chili powder. If fresh turmeric is unavailable, swap it out for 2 teaspoons turmeric powder, and if galangal is difficult to find you can use a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger. No tamarind paste? Use 4 tablespoons tamarind juice instead.