Malaysian Sambal Sauce

Malaysian sambal sauce in a bowl

The Spruce

Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 20 mins
Total: 30 mins
Servings: 16 servings
Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)
76 Calories
5g Fat
9g Carbs
1g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 16
Amount per serving
Calories 76
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 5g 6%
Saturated Fat 1g 3%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 13mg 1%
Total Carbohydrate 9g 3%
Dietary Fiber 1g 2%
Protein 1g
Calcium 22mg 2%
*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 blender or a food processor, 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 yield more than you're likely to 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. If you want to freeze it, cool the rest of the sambal before dividing it into smaller portions and then freeze.

1:16

Click Play to See This Malaysian Sambal Sauce Recipe Come Together

Ingredients

  • 5 cloves garlic (crushed)
  • 2-inch piece fresh turmeric (chopped)
  • 2-inch piece galangal (chopped)
  • 1 stalk lemongrass (thinly sliced; use only the bottom 3 inches of the stalk)
  • 1/2 ounce dried chiles (about 10 dried chiles, soaked in hot water for 5 minutes)
  • 2 ounces fresh chiles (about 8 fresh chiles, roughly chopped)
  • 10 shallots (roughly chopped)
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
  • Fish sauce (to taste)
  • 3 tablespoons palm sugar (or 2 tablespoons brown sugar)
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind paste

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Malaysian sambal sauce ingredients
    The Spruce
  2. Using a mortar and pestle, blender, or food processor, grind the garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, hydrated dried chiles, fresh chiles, and shallots to form a paste. If the mixture is too dry and grinding is difficult, add a tablespoonful or so of water.

    Ingredients for sambal in food processor to form a paste
    The Spruce
  3. 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
  4. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar, and tamarind paste.

    Add tamarind paste to sauce in skillet
    The Spruce 
  5. 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. Enjoy.

    Malaysian sambal sauce in skillet
    The Spruce

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.

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.