Malaysian Sambal Sauce

Malaysian Sambal Sauce

The Spruce / Stephanie Goldfinger

Prep: 30 mins
Cook: 15 mins
Total: 45 mins
Servings: 16 servings
Yield: 2 cups
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
82 Calories
4g Fat
11g Carbs
1g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 16
Amount per serving
Calories 82
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 4g 6%
Saturated Fat 0g 2%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 94mg 4%
Total Carbohydrate 11g 4%
Dietary Fiber 1g 5%
Total Sugars 6g
Protein 1g
Vitamin C 3mg 17%
Calcium 19mg 1%
Iron 1mg 6%
Potassium 176mg 4%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(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 chiles, spices, herbs, and aromatics. It has a complex flavor that is all at once earthy, spicy, and hot. With the increase in popularity of hot and spicy condiments, it's become easier to find this ingredient jarred in most well-stocked grocery stores, where it will likely be labeled "sambal oelek." Making sambal sauce yourself isn't hard, and you can customize it to suit your liking or the needs of your dish; some versions include fish paste, for example. Tweak the heat by scraping out the chile seeds if desired, which will remove some of their heat.

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 food processor, or a blender, and that's what this recipe uses.

Most of the ingredients can be found at Asian markets or high-quality grocery stores with a robust international foods aisle. This recipe will definitely yield more than you will use in one recipe. After the sambal is cooked, ladle as much of the hot sauce as you want onto your main dish or rice. Cool the rest, and refrigerate the remainder. For longer-term storage, freeze the sambal by dividing it into smaller portions. It will defrost quickly and be ready to use in no time.

1:16

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"Malaysian Sambal Sauce is great to have available for adding a spicy kick to any meal. Now, you can make this easily at home. It requires a bit of patience to process the starter paste, but don't let that prevent you from trying this recipe because your food processor or blender does all the work!" —Diana Andrews

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Ingredients

  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed

  • 1 (2-inch) piece fresh turmeric, peeled and coarsely chopped

  • 1 (2-inch) piece galangal, peeled and coarsely chopped

  • 1 stalk lemongrass, soft inner part only, thinly sliced

  • 1/2 ounce (about 25) small dried red chiles (such as chile de arbol or Thai bird), seeded for less heat and soaked for 10 minutes in boiled water

  • 2 ounces (about 45) fresh red Thai bird chiles, seeded for less heat and coarsely chopped

  • 10 shallots (about 10 ounces), coarsely chopped

  • 5 tablespoons vegetable oil, or canola oil

  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce, or to taste

  • 3 tablespoons palm sugar, or 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

  • 2 tablespoons tamarind paste

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Malaysian sambal sauce ingredients

    The Spruce / Stephanie Goldfinger

  2. Add the garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, hydrated dried chiles, fresh chiles, and 2 tablespoons water to a food processor or blender. Pulse, then process, scraping down the bowl frequently with a silicone spatula until a smooth paste forms, 8 to 9 minutes. Add the shallots and pulse, scraping down the bowl occasionally, until the mixture is just combined, and the shallots are still coarse and visible, about 1 minute more.

    Ingredients for sambal in food processor to form a paste

    The Spruce / Stephanie Goldfinger

  3. Heat the oil in a wok or medium nonstick frying pan over very low heat. When the oil is moderately hot, add the paste mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until just fragrant, about 10 minutes.

    Heat oil in wok and add paste to cook

    The Spruce / Stephanie Goldfinger

  4. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar, and tamarind paste.

    add the fish sauce, palm sugar, and tamarind paste to sauce in skillet

    The Spruce / Stephanie Goldfinger

  5. Continue to cook the paste on very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar melts and the solids begin to separate from the oil, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Use immediately or let cool, then refrigerate or freeze for future use. Enjoy.

    Malaysian sambal sauce in skillet

    The Spruce / Stephanie Goldfinger

Recipe Variations

  • Instead of shallots, you can use 8 small red onions.
  • In place of the dried chiles, add 3 teaspoons chili powder.
  • If fresh turmeric is unavailable, swap it out for 2 teaspoons turmeric powder.
  • If galangal is difficult to find, you can use a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger.
  • Instead of tamarind paste, use 4 tablespoons of tamarind juice.

How to Store Sambal Oelek

Once the sambal has cooled, and you've used what you need for serving, you can freeze it for two to three months. Transfer to several small containers (or use an ice cube tray) so you can take out just what you need, as you need it.

Is Sambal the Same as Sriracha?

Sambal and Sriracha are two popular spicy hot sauces with origins in Southeast Asia, and in some cases can be substituted for one another in a pinch, but they are definitely different. Sriracha is a smooth condiment comprised of a half a dozen or so ingredients including sugar. It's sweeter with garlic undertones, whereas sambal is more fiery in taste, chunkier, and less acidic than Sriracha. A little bit of sambal goes a long way.