Sambal, Indonesia's famous chilli paste

Updated: Jun 4

'Sambal' is the Indonesian and Malaysian name for a condiment and ingredient that traditionally consists of ground Spanish chillies/ peppers, called 'cabe' (pronounced as tjabé) or 'lombok' in Indonesia, or 'rawit', the very hot little peppers, and salt. But there are all kinds of varieties, such as sambal with coconut milk, eggplant or fermented shrimp paste ('trassi'). Sugar and all kinds of herbs and spices can be added as well.

Sambal ingredients
A brief history of sambal

In ancient histories, the Spanish or chilli peppers first appeared around 6000 BC. Remains show that around that time the Maya and Aztecs were already intensively growing chilli peppers. The plants were not only used as food, but also for medicinal purposes. At the archaeological site 'Huaca Prieta' in Peru remains have been found of cultivated peppers that date back to 2500 BC.


The peppers may be called Spanish, but they were actually introduced by the Portuguese to their colonies in Asia. That's how the peppers ended up in Malacca (Malaysia), Ambon and East Timor (Indonesia). The peppers don't originate from Spain but are native to South America, where the Portuguese traded with the local population of Brazil. Before the arrival of the Portuguese, Indonesian cuisine was heavily influenced by Indian cuisine and those dishes were seasoned with regular pepper and ginger.


Sambal varieties

Sambal is essentially one thing Indonesians cannot live without. The unique combination of spiciness and umami in sambal is the secret to Indonesian cuisine’s reputation. There are actually hundreds of sambal varieties available throughout the archipelago.


Many Dutch and Indo-European people (so-called 'Indo's) have the standard 'Sambal Oelek' (an oelek or ulek is a kind of pestle, used in combination with a mortar, the cobek) at home, but a sambal lover often also has variants such as 'Sambal Badjak' and 'Sambal Manis'. At most Dutch supermarkets, many of the varieties are for sale in small pots.


Well-known sambals can be bought at most Dutch supermarkets, such as:

Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek is the basic variant that only contains Spanish chillies (lomboks) and salt and sometimes some vinegar for preservation. Sambal Oelek isn't fried and is therefore quite spicy.


Sambal Badjak

If you would like a sambal which isn't too spicy you can go for Sambal Badjak. The chillies in this sambal are usually fried, which reduces the heat. Onion and garlic among other herbs and spices - like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and spices - are also added, which further reduce the heat. To reduce the heat even more, coconut milk can be added. As you can see, Sambal Badjak contains more ingredients than regular sambals and this does give the sambal an unique and refined taste.


Sambal Brandal

Brandal (or berandal) in Indonesian means rascal or scoundrel, which already gives away how spicy this sambal is. This fried sambal consists of kemiri nuts, garlic, onion and sometimes tamarind (asem) or Kaffir lime leaves (daun djeruk perut) are added.


Sambal Manis and Sambal Kecap

If it gets too hot for you with all those chillies, Sambal Manis or Sambal Kecap might be what you're looking for. Manis is Indonesian for sweet and kecap means soy sauce. Because sugar or kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) are added these sambals are less spicy.


I prefer spices in my sambals and they should not be too hot. Having your whole mouth and lips burning is a pass for me, because then you won't taste the refined flavors anymore. It won't come as a surprise that my favorite sambals are Sambal Badjak and Sambal Kecap. These sambals, which are home-made by me, can be tasted during my Indonesian cooking workshops. In third place comes a fresh (non-fried) sambal, the Balinese Sambal Matah. Apart from fresh chillies this sambal consists of shallots, garlic, trassi shrimp paste, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, ensuring its fresh flavor. In my next posts I will share the recipes and instructions of my favorite sambals. They are based on traditional recipes but always with my own personal touch.

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