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What is Sambal?

By Laura Evans
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sambal is a sauce made of chiles used in Indonesia cuisine, Malaysia cuisine, and Singapore cuisine. This condiment, or sauce that is used to complement or enhance the flavor of foods, is also used in cuisine of the Philippines and Sri Lanka. These sauces can be made at home or purchased from specialty grocery stores in the United States. The most commonly available sambal in the United States is sambal oelek from Indonesia.

A number of different types of chiles can be used to make this condiment. These include the blocky, red cayenne pepper, which has a high vitamin A content; the yellow adyuma, which is also called habanero; and the red or green bird's eye chili. Among the other chilies that are used are the yellow or green Madame Jeanette chili and the red or green chili pepper.

The spicy chiles in sambal can have health benefits. Chilies may be able to lower the "bad" cholesterol in the blood stream, which is low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. In addition, chiles may increase the production of endorphins, the natural chemical that leads to "runners' high." Spicy chiles are also thought to aid in digestion. Capsaicin, the chili ingredient that causes chiles to be "hot," is the element that to which the chiles' health benefits are generally ascribed.

A simple recipe of sambal oelek includes four ounces of fresh chopped red chiles, two tablespoons of white rice vinegar and one teaspoon each of salt and sugar. The ingredients can be put into a blender until the mixture is finely chopped. This condiment can be stored in the refrigerator between usages.

Sambal can be used with a number kinds of foods. The chili sauce is often used with seafoods such as shrimp or scallops, as well as poultry such as chicken. This condiment works well with asparagus and eggplant and is also used in rice and noodle dishes.

Not every sambal is made the same way, even within a region. For example, this condiment might include a fermented shrimp paste, tamarind concentrate, or crushed fried peanuts when made in Indonesia. Some Indonesian chili sauce recipes call for mango, candlenuts, shallots, or lime. Other recipes call for a combination of some of these additional ingredients.

Like Indonesia, Malaysia has variations on the theme of sambal. These variations can include the addition of a dry fish floss called serunding ikan, or kaffir limes. Other additions include toasted shrimp paste, tomatoes, or sweet-sour mangoes.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon274209 — On Jun 10, 2012

@nextcorrea: That is really odd. I've never seen Sambal in stores. Here in The Netherlands there are many types and brands to choose from.

The best one I tried is Surinaamse Sambal and second best is baked sambal from Conimex (popular brand here).

By bluespirit — On Sep 03, 2011

@saraq90 - I have heard of sambal belachan which is as the article talked about - Malaysian so I don't think you are likely to have a Malaysian restaurant but just in case - I had to add it!

Another way to try it is possibly in your local grocery with a great selection of items that are rare or from other countries - there are two Dutch versions of sambal and they are called koningsvogel sambal and sambal brandal and they are sold in grocery stores (because again, you are probably not likely to find a Dutch restaurant just around the corner).

Good luck on your sambal hunt!

By Saraq90 — On Sep 03, 2011

I love trying new foods and I must say that after reading about sambal I feel like I have missed out on Indonesian food! I love good spice and the chilies described in this recipe sound just up my alley.

Now I must say I do not think we even have an Indonesian restaurant in our town, but from reading the comments and article it sounds as though there might be other types of sambal from other countries such as @truman12 described that he found in the Philippines.

What are the names of some of these variations? (Maybe I will be able to find a restaurant of that type on my search for sambal!)

By Ivan83 — On Sep 03, 2011

A friend of mine gives out homemade sambal to friends and family around the holidays. I always look forward to it because I am usually finished with the bottle before the month of January is up.

I have had lots of different chile sauces but there is something about sambal that is far and away better than any other. It just tastes so fresh and bright. I think my friend has a particularly good recipe.

September just started. Only 3 more months till Christmas.

By nextcorrea — On Sep 02, 2011

I have a pretty substantial backyard garden and I grow over 15 different kinds of chilies and peppers. I use them to make all kinds of things but one of my favorites is to make my own sambal.

I love it because the saucce is delicious and there is so much variety possible. At one time or another I have used every different kind of chile I have in one of my batches of sambal. Plus there are so many other ingredients that you can add to make the flavor sweeter, smokier or even hotter if that is what you are looking for.

I don't think I have ever seen sambal in a store, even in a specialty food store. If I couldn't make it myself I would have no access to this delicious sauce.

By truman12 — On Sep 02, 2011

I went to the Philippines when I was in the Navy. On our first night off the boat me and a few of the guys found a local restaurant to eat at.

There was a bottle of sambal on every table. I had never had the stuff but when my food came I asked the guy what it was and he just said chile sauce in a really thick accent. I like hot stuff and I was game for trying the local foods so I proceeded to slather it over my entire meal.

Well little did I know that sambal packs a real punch and the variety served in this restaurant was extra hot. I made it through my whole meal but my face looked like a tomato. The other guys got a big laugh about it.

I ended up trying sambal in a number of other restaurant and it was never as hot as it was in that first one. I kind of wonder if the waiter was laughing at me from the back room watching me pour lava all over my food.

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