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Spotlight on Spice: Can’t Live Without Sambal

Southeast Asians can’t live without chili peppers.

So it is unfathomable to imagine Southeast Asian cuisine before the 16th century when the chili pepper did not exist outside its native place in the Americas.  Most dishes in Asia at that time were probably spiced up with black & white pepper.

But 500 years ago, when that first chili hit the shores of the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago (now Malaysia & Indonesia), it was thrown in every local dish and stayed there to this day.

chili pepper spice

It didn’t take long for Malaysians and Indonesians to realize that they could eat even more of the spice if they pulverized the chili pepper into a paste.

Sambal was born.

Sambal is basically a chili-based condiment or cooking ingredient.  But to limit it to a definition would not do it justice.  Throughout the diverse region, there are endless varieties of sambal, with pounded chilies mixed with any combination of spices and flavors.

Some sambal can be fire on your tongue, lessening the importance of any additional ingredients.  However, most sambals are moderately spicy, allowing the mix of flavors to interact and complement the dish it is served with, like many legendary dishes in the region, such as sambal stuffed fish, sambal ikan bilis (anchovies), sambal prawns, sambal asparagus, sambal kangkong, sambal sotong (squid), sambal telur (eggs), sambal petai (stinky beans).

Sambal is also served as a dip for sweet potato chips, prawn crackers or raw vegetables.

Traditional sambal is called sambal oelek – a simple mix of fresh, plump, long red chilies with salt and lime.  But for most, sambal oelek is just the starting point.  For more depth, think about adding in other spices and ingredients like shallots, garlic, tamarind, belacan (fermented shrimp paste), lemongrass, dried shrimps, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, coconut, peanuts, and galangal.

There is no wrong answer with sambal.  Just pick a chili, throw in a few of your favorite ingredients, grind it all up into a paste, and enjoy!

Ready to explore the world of sambal?  We’ve handpicked some amazing sambal recipes for you to try out.

{Left} Sambal Matah by Ira of Cooking Tackle – A beautifully presented Balinese sambal with shallots, lemongrass, and the wonderfully fragrant torch ginger flower.

{Right} Sambal Dabu-Dabu by Ira of Cooking Tackle – A simple sambal from the Manado region of North Sulawesi.  An Indonesian chunky salsa with chopped tomatoes, shallots, and chili, and a squeeze of lime.

{Left} Sambal Bajak by Pepy of Indonesia Eats - A Javanese sambal that complements all those delicious fried foods in Indonesia.  Pepy modified the preparation by first roasting the ingredients, then grinding them, and finally, frying the sambal.

{Right} Sambal Tumpang (Javanese Old Tempe Sambal) by Pepy of Indonesia Eats – Tempe is a soybean cake common in Indonesian dishes, and adds a bit of protein into this unique sambal.

If you’re up for more sambal, do head over to Indonesia Eats where Pepy indulges your need for chili with her extensive recipes for sambal.  Some of our favorites include Sambal Andaliman, Sambal Kemiri (candlenut), Sambal Pencok (Sambal terasi with Long Green Beans) and Sambal Tomat (tomato).

{Left} Sambal Belacan by Season with Spice –The spicy glue that holds Malaysia together.  This most famous of sambals gets its pungent kick from the belacan - a dried fermented shrimp paste that will stink up any kitchen.  Sambal belacan is best with ‘Nasi Lemak’ - Malaysia's iconic dish.

{Right} Sambal belacan with dried shrimps by Anthony of Food Affair Vietnam - Similar to sambal belacan, but this version has the addition of dried shrimps for a more intense taste and aroma.

Still up for one last sambal (pictured first on this article)?  This recipe is moderately spicy and is perfect as a chip dip.

Sambal Dip Recipe by Season with Spice
Makes about 1 cup

6 fresh, long red chilies (serrano chilies) - sliced
5 cloves garlic - peeled and chopped
4 shallots - sliced
1 tsp of grated fresh ginger
1 stalk lemongrass - thinly sliced (white part only)
6 kaffir lime leaves - center spine removed, thinly sliced,
3/4 tbsp of Season with Spice's Coconut Palm Sugar 
1 tsp salt or to taste
2 tbsp of lime juice
2 tbsp peanut oil

1. Pound or blend the chilies, garlic, shallots, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass, into a paste.
2. Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the paste.
3. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Add sugar and salt. Stir it frequently until the mixture changes color and becomes very fragrant.
4. Remove from heat and leave to cool. Before serving, add lime juice. Serve with chips or crunchy vegetables.

1. I used a mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients, so slicing them into smaller piece will help speed up the pounding process.
2. De-seed the chilies if you prefer a milder taste.
3. If you use a food processor to blend the ingredients, add a little water and oil if needed.
4. Store the leftover sambal in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week (or in the freezer longer).


BiteMyCake said...

I love chili. In Croatia, we don't have sambal, but do have chili powder and peppers.

Ira@Coockingtackle said...

What ever my food they should have sambal besides, Sambal is like my breath...
bring a life to my daily homecooking :)
Reese, its a great post anyway

Indonesia Eats said...

Can't agree more with this title! That is right! I can't live without sambal. According Indonesian way, sambal should make fresh daily just like my family does. However, I don't have time to make sambal everyday, so I usually make it in a big batch and keep it in a jar for a month or so. Whenever I need sambal, I can have it right away. Whenever I want to make nasi goreng or other stir fry dishes, I can add a bit heat by adding sambal too :)

Lazy version of me.

Rosa May said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jasmin said...

Whoa! So many types of sambal to try out. Sambal bajak & matah are looking good...

wok with ray said...

Count me on that title. There is nothing better than home made Sambal. I admire your photography and I always wanted to submit a recipe. One of these days, If I can come up with one that will be up to your standards. :)

Nami | Just One Cookbook said...

Japan is not that far from Southeast Asia, yet we don't really have chili in our food. I wonder why... was the chili expensive item back then? I wonder why we never imported chili... even China and Korea use chili but we barely use chili in Japan. Very strange...I've never actually spent time thinking about it and now got me thinking. I love your Sambal Matah photo so much! I'm currently looking for wood plates/bowls just like you are using. It's hard to find them here, so I'm hoping I can score some in my next Asia trip...

seasonwithspice said...

Tamara - hope you get to give sambal a try. A good way to start is to use chili peppers that you can find it Croatia & blend them with a food processor. Add some salt, sugar and a squeeze of lime juice. It's truly worth it! Even a Midwest boy like Mark can't live without sambal after he discovered the beauty of sambal:)

seasonwithspice said...

Everyone should try your sambal matah!

seasonwithspice said...

I believe it was the same in Malaysia where families used to make fresh sambal everyday. But now that there is refrigerator, most people will just make a big batch and keep it for at least a week or more. I'm impressed to hear that your family still makes sambal fresh these day.

Oh yes, add that heat of sambal to nasi goreng. The nasi just taste even better!

seasonwithspice said...

Let us know when you get a hand on homemade sambal, Rosa.

Arudhi@Aboxofkitchen said...

Hi Nami, I had that "why no chili in Japan?? why? why?" question since my first weeks here and I still don`t have the answer, lol. Please share with us when you finally know why :))

Arudhi@Aboxofkitchen said...

Nice!!! Creepily speaking, I can feel sambal flows in my vein :p I rarely find shallots here (or never, I think?), so I use red onion or regular onion instead. It seems like I started to forget how the fresh shallots taste like, but I still enjoy making sambal varieties with whatever ingredients I have here. And since fresh red chilies are not common here, I use dried chillies, cayenne, and Korean chili flakes (gochugaru) to compensate for the redness. I still proudly call it sambal, though :D Anyway, this post is incredible! And I`m hungry again!

Adventuress Heart said...

This is so wonderful!! I've been wondering what to do with lime leaves.

seasonwithspice said...

Sambal is definitely a great way to use your lime leaves. If you still have leftover, use the lime leaves for tom yum, curry or stir fry with seafood. May be you can use them on your baking recipes for an Asian twist?:)

seasonwithspice said...

Arudhi - not creepy at all..I have sambal flows in my veins too:) It’s almost like an addiction. You won't believe that Mark has that too. I think so long you can find the right substitutes, you can still whip up some good sambal. I'm sure you have come up with some interesting twist to the ingredients you can find in Japan.

seasonwithspice said...

Very good question Nami. May be you’ll start a new trend in Japanese cuisine:) The sambal matah is from Ira of Cooking Tackle. She sure does take gorgeous pictures. Schedule your Asia trip to Indonesia & Thailand next, they are best places to shop. Some places in Malaysia also offers a great deal of handicrafts too.

k992010 said...

I love sambal and found that the home made version was even better. I agree that it is all about blending your favourite ingredients together. There are no right or wrong, happy experimenting. I literally think of what I can eat or cook with the sambal. I love chillies and another reason to grow them. Nami, I think Japanese food is so fresh that it doesn't incorporate any spice or chillies.

K992010 said...

I love sambal and found that the home made version was even better. I agree that it is all about blending your favourite ingredients together. There are no right or wrong, happy experimenting. I literally think of what I can eat or cook with the sambal. I love chillies and another reason to grow them. Nami, I think Japanese food is so fresh that it doesn't incorporate any spice or chillies.

seasonwithspice said...

Great to know another sambal lover. Don't we just love how we can create so many dishes with the endless varieties of sambal? Truly a dynamic spice mix.

Season with Spice said...

Thanks Mick, good to hear from another person who "can't live without sambal"

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