Sambal is a hot relish that originated in Java, Indonesia. There are thousands of versions across the archipelago, and sambal can also be found in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. The term derives from the Javanese word sambel, meaning “condiment,” and for most Indonesians, a meal is not complete without it.
Nearly every meal is built around sambal, which is placed in the center of the table along with rice and kerupuk crackers; meat, fish, and vegetable dishes surround sambal as supporting acts, rather than the main event.
At the heart of any sambal recipe are fresh or dried chiles, enhanced with flavors that may include (but are not limited to) garlic, ginger, lemongrass, tomatoes, citrus, and terasi (fermented shrimp paste). The traditional Indonesian home cook grinds their sambal using a heavy cobek and ulekan, a version of the mortar and pestle that can be made of hardwood or volcanic rock, such as granite. They work the ulekan (pestle) back and forth, sliding it across the cobek using the weight of their body to crush the ingredients to a gleaming paste.
Happily, even the most authentic Indonesian chefs appreciate a shortcut. I have watched legendary Indonesian cookery writer Sri Owen make her sambal using a food processor, so I now use my food processor with a clear conscience when batch-cooking sambal—it takes no time at all to make and still tastes delicious.
I learned to love and appreciate spicy food from an early age, perhaps thanks to the influence of my grandmother Popo. Now there is always a healthy supply of sambal in my fridge and my freezer, which finds its way into soups, onto eggs, and to accompany any dishes or snacks to which its sultry heat can lend itself.
Sambal is a very personal dish, with each region having its own variation and every family their own recipe. Indonesians can get quite nostalgic about sambal—it reminds them of home.
My quest to learn about sambal led me to a dimly lit kitchen in Ubud at the home of a Balinese ceremony chef called Pak Darta, a quiet man who dresses in traditional batik-patterned clothing and is famed on the island for cooking feasts for up to 800 guests at funerals, marriages, and births. In his kitchen, Pak Darta prepared the ingredients for our first sambal. Waving his hand over a woven basket filled with spices, he picked up the galangal.
“This one is good to rub on itchy skin,” he said in a mix of broken English and Bahasa Indonesian, before moving on to the turmeric, “for cuts,” and then the multi-purpose ginger, “for when your blood is not running well.” He also told me it’s good for smelly armpits, pointing to his underarms. What I soon came to realize is that the ingredients in Indonesian spice pastes and sambals also contain natural remedies to promote good health and cure ailments.
Together we made sambal matah, a raw sambal made of sliced shallot, chile, garlic, and makrut lime; and sambal tomat, a cooked sambal of ground chile, garlic, shallot, ginger, and tomato, which works beautifully as a condiment and marinade.
While sambal must balance heat, saltiness, sweetness, and sourness, another essential element is umami. In its simplest form, umami can be described as a savory flavor—the fifth taste sensation. It is that moment when all flavors are in perfect harmony, in the same way that Parmesan can elevate a humble pasta dish, or how the crispy exterior of a chargrilled steak makes it taste meatier and more delicious. Tomatoes, soy, garlic, fish sauce, anchovies, and fermented shrimp paste all create umami flavors in these sambal recipes.
Sambal is not just a condiment, but also acts as a marinade, and you will often see it used as a recipe component. Nor is it limited to Asian dishes, as it can be added to almost anything that can take a little heat: Try smothering sambal over crispy baked potatoes (like an Indonesian patatas bravas), mixing it with mayonnaise as a dipping sauce, drizzling it over pizza in the way you would use a chile oil, or as a spicy relish on a hamburger. It’s utterly addictive.
Tips for Making Sambal
To make any sambal recipe vegan, replace the anchovies, fish sauce, or fermented shrimp paste with tomato purée, soy sauce, cooked tomatoes, or sun-dried tomatoes, plus a little extra salt.
When making small quantities, using a mortar and pestle (or cobek and ulekan) will be just as quick as a food processor, but grind the hardest ingredients first to produce the best results. If you have neither a food processor nor a mortar and pestle, chop the ingredients as finely as possible.
Do not use coconut oil when making raw or cold sambal, as it will solidify once cooled.
Store sambal in an airtight container to retain its freshness. Most cooked sambals will keep for at least one week in the fridge. Where possible, cover the sambal in a thin layer of oil to preserve it.
Most cooked sambals freeze beautifully, so cook them in larger quantities and freeze in an airtight container or ice cube trays sealed in a zip-lock bag. You can then take out only what you need. While fresh sambals are best eaten within one or two days, frozen cooked sambals will last up to three months.
If your sambal is too spicy, you can diffuse the heat by cooking the sambal for longer in the pan, which will slowly mellow the spice; add something acidic to tame the heat, such as citrus juice or vinegar; add more sugar, which will counteract the spiciness; or add more ingredients or oil to dilute the chiles. Failing that, serve your sambal with lots of rice, which will help to balance the heat, and have a glass of milk on standby.
Excerpted from “Coconut and Sambal” by Lara Lee, copyright 2020. Published by Bloomsbury USA.