Nancy Gerlach

Indonesian Sambals

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Indonesian Sambals

by Nancy Gerlach, Food Editor Emeritus

Nancy Gerlach


  • Sambal Oelek (Hot Chile and Lime Condiment)

  • Sambal Trassi (Shrimp Paste Condiment)

  • Sambal Tomat (Tomato Condiment)

  • Sambal Bajak (Fragrant Chile Sambal)

  • Sambal Kacang (Spicy Peanut Sauce)

Just the name Indonesia conjures up images of tropical islands, swaying stands of bamboo, white sandy beaches, clear blue waters, and people dressed in fabulous batik fabrics. Actually I’m looking at just such a picture as I write this–a painting my father brought back from his stay in Indonesia many years ago. He was the person who first introduced me to this wonderful, exotic country.

Indonesia is comprised of a chain of some 18,000 islands stretching across 5,000 miles in the South China Sea. For centuries Arab, Indian, and Chinese traders were attracted to these islands because of the wide array of spices that grow there. But it was Marco Polo that dubbed them the “spice islands” and spread the word of their wealth throughout Europe. Because of the value of spices, Christopher Columbus, searching for a water route to these very islands as well as India, changed the history. During the period of exploration and colonization of the world, Spanish, Portuguese, and English sea captains all sailed to these shores, but it was the Dutch East India Company that dominated the archipelago for more than 300 years. The interaction of all of the above cultures with the native population had a profound influence on the cuisine.

It’s probable that chile peppers were first introduced to the area by Portuguese traders sailing to and from the Portuguese colony of Goa in India soon after they won control of the Malacca Strait in 1511. This New World spice, was welcomed and quickly was incorporated into the Old World spice cuisine.

The common term for chile peppers in the region is cabe (also spelled cabai). Cabe hijan refers to green chiles while cabe merab are red and cabe rawit are the notoriously hot bird chiles. But like in every other part of the world where they are grown, the naming of chiles has taken on a life of their own. In Java and other parts of Indonesia they are called lombok. The nomenclature gets even more muddled when the chilehead travels to Bali, a Hindu outpost in predominately Muslim Indonesia. There, chiles are tabia. Tabia lombok (sometimes called tabio jawa) is a finger-length chile that resembles a cayenne, while tabia bali is about an inch long and is the most popular chile on the island. Tabia kerinyi are the “bird’s eye” chiles, or piquins, and tabia gede is a type of bell pepper.

Chiles are used in a wide variety of dishes in Indonesia and are often combined with coconut cream or milk. On the island of Java, sugar is added, making that cuisine a mixture of sweet, sour, and fiery hot. Some cooks there believe that the addition of sugar keeps the power of the chiles and other spices under control. Perhaps the principal use of chiles in this part of Asia is in sauces called sambals which are commonly spread over rice or used as a dip for satays, which are small chunks of either beef, chicken, or pork which have been marinated and grilled.

Sambals are fiery blends of hot chiles and other seasonings which are used as relishes, condiments, or sauces throughout all of Indonesia. Sambals vary greatly–some are raw, some cooked, and some can even be considered a salad. There are those that contain vinegar, tamarind, shrimp paste, and a variety of fruits, vegetables and even meat, but the one common ingredient in all of them is chile. Sambals are a staple item in every Indonesian’s kitchen and are sometimes referred to as the equivalent of the American’s salt and pepper. Almost no Indonesian dish is served without its proper sambal. These condiments are usually exceedingly hot because it is expected that the dish will be mixed with a large quantity of rice before being eaten

There are various commercial brands of sambals available in Asian food stores that are good, but I prefer to prepare my own and they do keep for a long time under refrigeration. Purists will tell you that a sambal must be made using a stone mortar and pestle, but a blender or food processor will work and is much less labor intensive. The following are a sampling of Indonesian sambals to get you started on enjoying this exotic cuisine.

Sambal Oelek (Hot Chile and Lime Condiment)

This basic, hot sambal, which has been called the “mother” of all sambals, is also spelled olek or ulek. Since “olek” means hot peppers, I’ll go with that spelling. This sambal goes well with meats and poultry as well as being a perfect condiment to just add heat to your meal. It can also be used as a base for creating other sambals or as a substitute for fresh chile peppers in recipes.

  • 1 cup dried red chiles, such as piquins or cayennes, stems removed

  • 6 cloves garlic

  • 3 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, peanut preferred

Place the chiles in a bowl, cover them with hot water and let them sit for 15 minutes until softened. Remove the chiles, drain and discard the water.

Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Thin the sambal with more lime juice if desired.

Yield: 1/3 to ½ cup

Heat Scale: Extremely hot

Sambal Trassi (Shrimp Paste Condiment)

Trassi is a pungent, fermented, dried shrimp paste but don’t be put off by the smell. Its flavor and aroma is improved with cooking or, if the sambal is not cooked, is toasted before using. Found in Asian markets, the color of this cake can range from pink all the way to a brownish black. This sambal is best served at room temperature with chicken and fish dishes.

  • 1 tablespoon shrimp paste (trassi)

  • 2 tablespoons chopped red chiles, such as cayenne

  • 1 tomato, chopped

  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar

  • 1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice, fresh preferred

  • 1 teaspoon salt

To toast the trassi, spread the paste on a piece of foil and fold to seal. Place under a broiler for 2 minutes. Remove and cool.

Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.

Serve this sambal at room temperature.

Yield: 1/3 to ½ cup

Heat Scale: Very Hot

Sambal Tomat (Tomato Condiment)

Don’t let this tomato based sambal fool you into thinking it’s a dip for chips–it can be extremely hot! The trassi isn’t toasted in this recipe as it is cooked in the sauce. This sambal is good with fish dishes and any extra can be frozen for future use.

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, peanut preferred

  • 10 shallots, chopped

  • 7 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 10 large red chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped

  • 2 medium tomatoes, cut in wedges

  • 2 teaspoons shrimp paste (trassi)

  • 2 teaspoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • Salt

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallots and garlic and saute for 5 minutes, being careful they don’t brown. Add the chiles and saute for another 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and trassi, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Place the tomato mixture along with the lime juice in a blender or food processor. Pulse to a coarse texture. This sambal should not be smooth.

Season with salt and allow to cool before using.

Yield: ½ to 1 cup

Heat Scale: Very Hot

Sambal Bajak (Fragrant Chile Sambal)

This sambal has plenty of garlic and shallots and is a favorite in Padang. It is called fragrant because of the nutmeg and lemon grass. At one point in history, the only place in the world where nutmeg grew was a group of islands, the Bandas, in Indonesia. Lemongrass is a lemon scented herb with leaves similar to pampas grass. It is used in tea blends and in cooking. The tough outer leaves need to be removed before using and, when using the whole stem, such as in this recipe, it should be bruised a couple of times with the edge of a knife before being added to release the fragrance.

  • 6 red serrano or cayenne chiles, stems removed

  • 6 shallots, peeled

  • 4 cloves garlic

  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 stalks lemongrass, bruised

  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar

  • ½ cup coconut milk

  • ½ teaspoon salt

Place the chiles, shallots, garlic and nutmeg in a blender or food processor along with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Process the mixture to a smooth paste.

Pour the remaining oil in a saucepan and heat over a medium high heat. Add the spice paste and lemon grass and saute, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes until the mixture changes color.

Add the sugar and gradually add the coconut milk and salt and simmer over a low heat for 5 minutes to thicken.

Remove from the heat and allow the sambal to cool. Discard the lemongrass before serving the sauce.

Yield: ½ cup

Heat Scale: Very Hot

Sambal Kacang (Spicy Peanut Sauce)

This hot and spicy peanut sauce is probably the one most associated with Indonesian cuisine. Widely popular, there are many variations of this sambal. It is used as a dip for satays, as a basis for unusual curries, as a dressing for gado gado which is an elaborate mixed vegetable salad, and as a sauce for cooked vegetables. Sambal Kacang also makes a great dipping sauce for an appetizer of crisp garden vegetables. It is traditionally prepared by pounding the peanuts into a paste before using. I’ve simplified the recipe by substituting commercial peanut butter.

  • 3 shallots, minced

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, peanut preferred

  • 1 cup chicken broth

  • ½ cup peanut butter, either crunchy or smooth

  • 3 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 1 tablespoon crushed dried piquin chiles or substitute Sambal Oelek

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

  • 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallots, garlic, and ginger and saute until the onions are soft and transparent but not browned, about 5 minutes.

Add the chicken broth, raise the heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes until thickened.

Serve the sambal warm or at room temperature. Do not refrigerate or the peanut butter will congeal and the flavors will not blend.

Yield: 1 cup

Heat Scale: Very Hot

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