Pickles and Tea Adventures in Asian American Cooking

Homemade: Sambal Oelek (and a Chili Paste Comparison)

sambal oelek

Chilies pounded in a mortar; a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of salt; homemade sambal oelek is ready

If you’ve bought Sriracha sauce at the Asian market (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you’ve probably noticed two other bottled chili sauces parked right by it—sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce. All three are made by the same company, Huy Fong, and sport lids of the same shade of grassy green.

So what’s the difference, you might ask? First of all, the ingredients differ slightly. Here are the ingredient lists according to the labels on the bottles:

Sriracha sauce: chilies, sugar, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar

Chili garlic sauce: chilies, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar

Sambal oelek: chilies, salt, distilled vinegar

Try sampling the condiments side by side, you’ll taste the finer nuances of each. And while you could use them interchangeably, I reserve each sauce/paste for a different purpose.

Mellow and sweet, Sriracha sauce is often used as a condiment for soups (what would Vietnamese pho lovers do without Sriracha?!), fried noodles, even hamburgers, and pizzas. In fact, its popularity knows no bounds as trendy restaurants invent novel ways to incorporate the vermillion-colored sauce into mainstream dishes. Some concoctions I’ve come across: Sriracha mixed into mayo for an Asian-style aioli, or in a Bloody Mary.

Chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek are used more for cooking. Chili garlic sauce, with its garlicky flavor, is perfect for stir fries and to make mabo dofu. I also use it in a dipping sauce with soy sauce and vinegar for dumplings. The combination of heat and tang in sambal oelek is well-suited for tuna salad, and as a shortcut ingredient to make beef rendang (or any other spicy Indonesian dish for that matter).

My heart, however, belongs to sambal oelek. Of course, since we both come from the same Indonesian stock. And while I do have a Huy Fong bottle sitting in my fridge, I also enjoy making it fresh the traditional way—hand-ground in a basalt stone mortar or ulek (oelek is the old Dutch spelling) with a pestle (ulekan). It’s so simple, I make just enough for one meal.

There are so many other sambals in Indonesian cuisine: sambal terasi, sambal badjak, sambal kecap, etc., and I’m planning on a sambal series over the next few months. Plus, I’ll also show you how a little tweaking to the original sambal oelek recipe can give you Hainanese chicken rice chili and steamboat chili!

For now, here’s my method for making sambal oelek.


Sambal Oelek

sambal oelek

The basic sambal oelek “recipe” calls for just chilies and salt. If you like it spicy, add some bird or Thai chilies. The Indonesian name for the long chilies used in sambals is cabe keriting or curly chili, but any long chili like Fresno or Serrano (or whatever chilies are waiting to be picked in your garden before the first frost appears) will do. I found some nice, fat unnamed long chilies about 8-inches long at my market. A small bowl of the finished sauce plate-side next to some fried chicken or fresh-cut vegetables will have you dip-dipping away!

2, 8-inch long red chilies (about 2.5 ounces)
Large pinch of salt, and more to taste
Juice from 1 key lime (about 2 teaspoons), or 1-2 teaspoons vinegar
Sugar to taste (optional)

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: enough for 2 people to enjoy at one meal

Remove the stems and slice the chilies lengthwise. Remove as much membrane and seeds as you like (these are what give chilies heat, and as you can tell from the photos I’m a wuss).

Chop the chilies up and place in the mortar with a generous pinch of salt. Grind the chilies with the pestle using a twisting motion until pulpy.

Chopped chilies (top); ground chilies (bottom)

Add the lime juice and more salt and sugar to taste. Serve immediately.

Note: If you make the sambal in bulk (I strongly advise a food processor!), it will keep in a sterilized jar in the fridge for a few weeks.


sambal oelek

All done! Here's my mess ...

What’s your favorite way to use sambal oelek?


For those dying for a Sriracha sauce recipe, here are 2 great sites to visit:

Viet World Kitchen: Andrea has recipes for fresh and fermented versions
Leite’s Culinaria: A recipe from “The Sriracha Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, 2011) by Randy Clemen

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  • I love this! You fed my brain and also fueled my appetite for eating/cooking with/making this gorgeous feisty condiment.

    • Pat

      Hi Nancie, try experimenting with it and see what you come up with. Thanks for visiting!

  • Sam

    i lov indonesian food and this is great sauce ever

  • Randy Gregory

    Thank you, I just discovered your site and I must say the jar of Sambal I buy is usually on the bottom shelf. I buy the gallon jar of Huy Fong. Great with peanut butter on toast for breakfast and I am neither Indonesian or Dutch. I grew some serranos to make Sambal Ulek with and did and it is long gone. I will enjoy reading more and maybe I will even add my Sambal badjak recipe, I haven’t made it in a few years though.

    • Pat

      Hi Randy, not everyone buys a gallon jar of sambal. You must use it frequently in your cooking. You would get along famously with my mum! Do post your sambal badjak recipe if you get a chance. I’d love to see it and it’ll jumpstart you making it again. Cheers, Pat

  • Randy Gregory

    Hi Pat, thanks. I have been reading your site for a few days now. Hopefully I will be doing your lemongrass chicken this weekend. I fell in love with Indonesian food in 87 on my first trip to the Netherlands.

    Here is my sambal Badjak recipe;

    1 cup dried red hot chill soaked in 1 cup water for an hour
    2 TBSP sliced onion
    3 cloves garlic
    1 tsp trassi (shrimp paste)
    2 tsp salt
    1 TBSP gula jawa ( or brown sugar)
    1 tsp tamarind concentrate (or equal amount from paste)
    1 TBSP butter
    1 salam leaf

    Blend all ingredients except butter & salam, include water
    Melt butter in saucepan and add blended paste & salam. Cook over low – medium heat for about 10 minutes or to thickness you desire.

    Enjoy and good cooking!

  • Bernhard

    Hello and thanks for these insights!
    …as a teenager I was so addicted to Sambal that I’d often eat it just with a touch of butter on thin rice crackers (or ryevits)! …I doubt I could still stomach those quantities… 😉

  • Jen

    Hi Randy, could you tell me how long your sambal badjak lasts for then please as I might need to reduce the quantities, thank you very much

  • I was just about to head off to the supermarket to buy some sambal oelek ( I didnt even know what it was..) til I stumbled upon your recipe. Since I much prefer homemade and have some chillis in the garden I made this easy recipe.; It is soooooo good. My hubby just loves it and now i am going to make it in bulk.. Thankyou so much.

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  • Filed Under

    October 13, 2011
    Culture    Indonesian    
    • Posted By

      Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Pat Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens. Pat especially enjoys covering topics that converge on food, history and culture and has been published in numerous international, national and regional publications. Her cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens is a treasury of family recipes and stories spanning over a dozen Asian cultures.

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