Spicy Sambal Sauce

Varieties and uses in Asian cuisine

Sambal in a jar

Shilpa Iyer / Stocksy

Sambal is a spicy, chili-based sauce or relish that is popular in many countries across Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. The sauce consists of ground or pureed chilies and may include small amounts of other ingredients such as citrus juice, shallots, fruit, salt, sugar, or other spices. Making this spicy chili paste is a way to preserve chilies and is often used when fresh chilies are not available.

The word “sambal” is also used to indicate a dish in which sambal sauce is the main ingredient. For example, the Malaysian dish “sambal goreng udang” is fresh shrimp seasoned with sambal sauce.

Sambal Varieties

There are hundreds of varieties of sambal that vary depending on the type of chilies used, other added ingredients, texture, and region in which it is made.

Flavor: Popular chilies used to make sambal include: habanero, cayenne, bird’s eye, and lombok. The heat level of the sambal is directly related to the type of chili used. Depending on whether or not sugar or fruit is added to the sambal, there may be a hint of sweetness to compliment the heat. Varieties that include shallots, salt, and other spices almost resemble a relish or chili-based salsa.

Texture: The texture of sambal ranges from a coarse relish to a smooth puree. Traditionally, sambal is made using a stone mortar and pestle to grind the chilies and other ingredients into a paste. Sambal oelek, which can be found in many western grocery stores, derives its name from the pestle with which it is made.

How to Use Sambal

Traditionally sambal is used as an all-purpose condiment. It may be added to noodle dishes, soups, stews, meat, rice, and even eggs. Sambal can also be used to add heat and flavor to marinades, dips, sauces, and spreads.

To make a spicy spread for sandwiches or burgers, mix sambal with ketchup or mayonnaise.

If you have a recipe that calls for a small jalapeno, you can substitute 1 tablespoon of sambal oelek. While it doesn't have additional spices, check other varieties of sambal to see whether they include something that will change the flavor of your dish.

Where to Buy Sambal

Due to the increasing popularity of Asian food within the United States, sambal can be found in many larger grocery stores in the international food aisle. Sambal oelek is most widely available in the United States although specialty stores, import stores, and gourmet shops may carry other varieties.

Substitutions for Sambal

If you have a recipe that calls for sambal oelek but you don't have any handy, you can make a substitution. Sriracha chili sauce will have the same chilies, less vinegar, and a bit of garlic. Tabasco sauce has chilies and more vinegar than sambal oelek. Both of these are liquid sauces while sambal is a paste, but depending on the recipe it may work fine. If you don't have either of these or you don't want more liquid in your recipe, substitute crushed red pepper or ground cayenne. Use only 1/4 teaspoon of crushed pepper or cayenne for each teaspoon of sambal in the recipe.