Essential Indonesian Ingredients – Sambal

Essential Indonesian Ingredients – Sambal

This is an additional article, and a follow up, to my previous article about Sambal Terasi. Sambal is so variable, and flexible, with such an importance to the cuisine, I felt it required an additional article to explain this.


Ok, so first of all, Sambal isn’t necessarilly an ingredient. It is more typically used as a condiment, and can be found in almost every Warung and Kaki Lima – street food vendors – in Indonesia.

If I had to give a metaphor, to help Westerners understand this amazing condiment, it would be this; Sambal is to Indonesia, what parmesan is to the Italians; Pepper to the French, and tomato kethup to the British. It is something on the side of every meal, which people add to their own taste.

That is where the similarities end though, because whereas my European examples take a “one size fits all” approach, the opposite is true in Indonesia. A large number of Indonesian dishes will have their own specific sambal, and each vendor of that dish, is likely to have their own version of it. Such is the importance of this condiment to the national cuisine, a vendor’s livelihood can often depend on his sambal quality, as much his, or her, main product.

To give you an example of this, let me refer to a rather funny altercation with my wife, as we went out in search of Mie Ayam – Chicken Noodles. It is one  of her favourite meals, and being Indonesian, she considers herself a sambal connoisseur. We went to a street vendor, and everything seemed great. The noodles were the right ones, and well cooked. The chicken tasted great, and the broth was perfect. Then came the sambal, which wasn’t the correct one for the dish, nor well made. We’ve NEVER eaten there again.

Now you can see its importance, let’s move on to how you eat with it. Now in England, we have two types of Ketchup eaters – the “to the siders” and the “go crazy, and pour all over.” In Indonesia, there is only “to the side”, and you add small amounts of it, to each bite you have, just a small amount mind, as it can overpower the taste. The only exception to this, is when eating soups, or broths, when you add the sambal to alter the flavour or spice, and this is entirely to taste.

If you’re interested in cooking, and eating, Indonesian food, always try to “Google” the dish you want to try, to see if it has its own sambal. If I ever cover a dish, with a specific sambal, I will ensure to post it alongside. Pairing the right sambal with an Indonesian meal, is almost as important as the cooking of the meal itself.

To end with, let me give you a quick recipe for the most basic of all sambals – Sambal Oelek. The name comes from Ulek, the stone pestal and mortar.



20 keriting chilies, long thin ones
4 garlic cloves
6 Indonesian shallots – 2 ordinary ones


  1. I like to pre-chop all my ingredient, before mashing them into a paste, so do this first.
  2. Add your chopped chilies, shallots, and garlic to you cobek and ulek-ulek, or mortar and pestle, add salt to help you grind it, then grind.
  3. Add in a splash of oil to bring it together.
  4. (Optional) put the mixture in a frying pan, and cook the paste for a minute or two. I prefer this, as it blends the flavours nicer, and mellows the garlic, and shallots a bit.
  5. Salt to taste.

Sambal Oelek is the base for most sambals, so it is a great place to begin. From here you can add a whole host of ingredients to replicate Indonesian recipes, or make your own. Popular ingredient would be – lime, lemon, various vinegars, sugar, tomatoes, terasi, spicier chilies, bell peppers, etc…

Sambal Oelek is also what is commonl referred to as “chili paste” in many recipes.





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