Our expat chef experiments with Malaysian and Indonesian sambals
Condiments were the last thing on my mind when I sat down at one of Kedai Kat Jat’s rickety plastic tables. I had taken a taxi over to the open air restaurant in the Brickfields neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur, specifically to try their ikan pari bakar, or grilled stingray.
The stingray was not great.
The grill-charred skin was unctuous and gelatinous while the flesh tasted similar to overcooked eel. On the bright side, it had been cleaned properly so the meat didn’t smell like hot piss as can happen with carelessly handled stingray. At least I had a cold Carlsberg to wash it down.
But my mediocre experience with the ikan pari bakar was completely overshadowed by a small melmac bowl filled with a deceptively simple crushed chili pepper condiment. It was fiercely spicy and complex with distinct chili, garlic and citrus flavors.
The heavily tattooed Malaysian cook noticed me deeply examining the sauce, smiled and said, “Sambal. Good with everything.” At that moment, a veil was lifted and I saw the condiment world in an entirely new light. My personal sambal awakening began and an enticing new world of Malaysian and Indonesian sambals spread out before me.
Huy Fong brand sambal oelek (pronounced zam-bahl U-lek) had been a staple in my pantry for years, but this Malaysian version had very little in common with my go-to jar sporting a rooster on the front. I quickly learned that was because there are actually hundreds of types of sambal (yes, hundreds), each with its own history, blend of chiles, seasonings and preferred usage. Thanks to Huy Fong Foods, the same geniuses that make Sriracha here in the U.S., sambal oelek is the most common variety in North America, but it only scratches the surface of sambal mountain.
In Indonesia, the birthplace of sambal, there is a tendency to go heavy on the spices, often including shallots, garlic, chiles, turmeric, shrimp paste, lime, palm sugar, tomato and lemongrass in their sambal recipes. It can be eaten raw or cooked into other foods and the variety of flavors is staggering. For example, there’s Sambal Hijau (green chile sambal) that goes with beef rendang, Sambal Mangga (green mango sambal) that goes with fried chicken, Sambal Kacang (peanut sambal) for satay, or Sambal Ulek that you can put on almost anything.
Malaysian sambals tend to be lighter, less spicy, sweeter and sometimes a bit sour. The most common Malaysian sambal is Sambal Belacan, which is just a mixture of chiles, sugar and belacan (shrimp paste). Malaysian Sambals don’t typically include as many ingredients as their Indonesian counterparts and the flavors can be strikingly different from one to the next.
Sambal Kelantan, for example, has a strong sour flavor due to heavy doses of lime or vinegar; Sambal Ikan Bilis (Salted fish sambal) and Sambal Sotong (Squid Sambal), on the other hand, have very unique, fish-forward flavors. Malaysian sambals also tend to be well-mixed. In fact, restaurant cooks have recently begun to move towards using a blender to mix them rather than traditional mortar and pestle.
Sambals can be eaten with almost anything—noodle dishes, grilled meats, fish, burgers, pizza or as a substitution for hot sauce in your favorite chicken wings recipe. Anywhere you use hot sauce or a spicy dip, replace it with sambal for an instant upgrade. With a basic sambal base, you can mix and match ingredients to create whatever flavors you like. Add fermented shrimp paste and you’ll end up with Sambal Terasi; fried peanuts and you have Sambal Kacang. The possibilities are endless.
I’ve included a good sambal base recipe below to get you started. Pick up a mortar and pestle from the Asian market (they’re shockingly cheap), Google some variations and start you own sambal awakening.
- 1 cup coarsely chopped Thai chiles or red jalapenos
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped garlic
- 3 tbls canola oil
- 1 tbls coarse salt
- 2 tbls white vinegar
Add canola oil to a pan on medium heat. Add chiles and garlic to the heated oil and sauté until the chiles soften. Remove chiles and garlic from the pan and add to a mortar and pestle, leaving the oil in the pan for later. Add salt and mash until smooth but slightly chunky.
Place the mixture back into the pan with the chile oil and add vinegar. Stir on medium heat for 1-2 minutes until the sambal thickens.
Pour into a glass jar and store in the fridge for up to two months, or use for other sambal recipes.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits