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What is Sambal?

Sambal - Description, Varieites, and Uses

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Sambal Sauce
Photo by Bethany Moncel

What is Sambal?

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 a 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 are 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 mortal and pestle to grind the chilies and other ingredients into a paste. Sambal Oelek, which can be found in many western grocery stores, derives it’s 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.

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 ethnic foods section. Sambal Oelek is most widely available in the United States although specialty stores, import stores, or ethnic groceries may carry other varieties.

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