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You love hot & spicy? You need sambal oelek!

I love cooking with jalapenos, chili flakes, serranos, cayenne, hot curry ... and just about every other spice that adds some nice "heat" to a dish. I was talking to a chef friend recently about where he sourced his wholesale spices, and the subject of chili flakes came up. He told me about an Indonesian chili sauce called "sambal oelek" which, according to my friend, is a secret of many chefs. It adds chili heat to dishes without changing the core flavors of the underlying dish.

Well, I looked all over San Francisco and finally found it! That night I came home and made a thai steak salad and added a tablespoon of sambal oelek to the dressing -- perfect! I've since added a little to seafood dishes, black bean chili, meatloaf, and even my grandmother's famous mac and cheese recipe. It adds a delicious layer of spice and complexity to everything. For someone who cooks with so much spice, and who lives around so many Asian markets, I can't believe I didn't know about this stuff.

I'm curious if anyone else uses it? If so...do you have any good recipes that call for it?

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  1. i bought a bottle of this last weekend.......and haven't used it yet........

    1. It's not secret nor hard to find in asian groceries. Glad you like it! Any additional flavoring adds to the all in all flavor.."underlying" or not. Just enjoy.

      1. This one is really great, though for me, halibut is harder and harder to find and purchase, so expensive now! Halibut with Sambal Vinaigrette and Wasabi Cream, the colors of this dish are beautiful:


        1 Reply
        1. re: Val

          Thanks, Val. I'll check that out -- sounds delicious!

        2. Another good sambal is Badjak. I think it is a chilli paste with pureed fried onions. Powerful, but complex, flavor.

          1. Just wondering, where in SF did you find it?

            9 Replies
            1. re: DezzerSF

              Not SF, Dallas, TX, but ask around. SF should have it. Is there anything SF doesn't have?

              1. re: DezzerSF

                I found it at Battambang Market. They have it both large and small size jars. The regular jar is $1.49 and the large is $2.29.

                Battambang Market
                339 Eddy St, San Francisco, CA

                1. re: foodiesf

                  Unless you like everything REALLY HOT, a large jar should last about 5-10 years. Let us know how you like badjak.

                  1. re: Joebob

                    Hmm. I would say sriracha is spicier than sambal. But I like 'em both. They're great combined. Guess I lurve my hot stuff....

                    1. re: linguafood

                      Funny, I always thought that sambal is spicier than sriracha. My fan is Sriracha because sambal is too vinegary for my taste. Sriracha is sweeter and more mellow.

                      1. re: Miss Needle

                        i concur. i add sambal when i want something to be extra spicy. also, i usually use sambal as a cooking ingredient, and sriracha as a condiment.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          Sambal = sauce. Like sauces, there are many different types of sambals, some hotter than others.

                          They use different ingredients. Some might use vinegar or shrimp, others lemongrass or garlic.

                          1. re: C. Hamster

                            When I said sambal, I meant sambal oelek. I assumed people would have known what I was talking about since the original thread was about sambal oelek.

                            1. re: Miss Needle

                              i prefer sambal to sriracha...i find sriracha too vinegary/sweet, since it's not a sauce but a condiment

                2. i purchased mine in a regular grocery store....here in Nova Scotia !

                  1. I throw a bit of it in all of my dumpling dipping sauces.

                    1. Ming Tsai uses it a lot in his recipes. I think it has a nicer flavor than the usual chili paste with garlic.

                      1. One of my mother-in-law's signature dishes, which she made at least once a month, was the African dish fish thieboudienne. I once suggested she add about a teaspoon of sambal to the sauce, and it was like the rug in THE BIG LEBOWSKI: it really tied the whole dish together. From that day forward, sambal was a crucial addition to the dish.

                        I use it in tomato-based pasta sauces sometimes too.

                        1. Oh my gosh, you must try this. Gary Rosen, a chef in Bali gave me this recipe. It calls for a cup of sambal olek, but even when I reduce it to half a cup it's HOT. I added a bit of brown sugar to counteract the heat. I also didn't follow all the steps: I heated ground spices, made a paste in the blender, and then stewed the beef in the paste. I couldn't figure out the need to marinate when I was braising the beef in the paste 2 or more hours. He didn't say what to do with the lemongrass. I blended in the tender parts, and let the tough parts cook with the stew along with curry leaves, pulling them out later.

                          Beef Rendang Indonesian beef stew cooked in coconut milk
                          1.5 kg beef, cut into large cubes
                          12 shallots, chopped (or 2 onions)
                          5 cloves of garlic, chopped
                          4 pieces of galangal sliced
                          1 inch of fresh ginger, grated
                          (half) cup of Sambal Ulek (Indonesian chili sauce. Can be found in most Asian grocers)
                          4 stems of lemongrass
                          1 tsp turmeric
                          1 tsp coriander
                          1 tsp cumin seeds
                          5 curry leaves (optional)
                          3 cups of coconut milk
                          1 tsp of tamarind, in 4 tablespoons of warm water
                          2 Tbsp of soy Sauce
                          salt to taste
                          Process the shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, sambal ulek and turmeric to a
                          smooth paste. Dry fry the coriander and cumin until they give off a good
                          aroma, then grind them finely and add to the paste. Spoon it all over the
                          cubed meat in a bowl and mix it well. Add the curry leaves and marinate for
                          30 minutes.
                          Pour the coconut milk and tamarind liquid into a wok and add the spiced
                          meat and soy sauce and stir until the liquid boils, then reduce the heat and
                          simmer gently, uncovered, for 11/2 hours, until the meat is tender and the
                          liquid is very much reduced.
                          Serve with steamed rice and a salad of sliced onions, tomato, lime and coriander

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: wearybashful

                            Wow, thank you! I will definitely make this. Thanks for making the time to reply with such an interesting recipe.

                            1. re: foodiesf

                              I forgot to say, I didn't use so much coconut milk, because that stuff is really high calorie. But it's a stew, not a chemistry experiment. It can take a lot of variation.

                              1. re: wearybashful

                                After posting this, I googled the recipe and found many similar versions. Many say to cook it in a wide pan so that the liquid cooks off entirely and the beef fries in the oil and fat left behind.

                          2. Mom's Braised Chicken Wings

                            2 lbs. chicken wing segments
                            3 T. vegetable oil
                            2 T. chopped garlic

                            braising liquid:
                            1 c. soy sauce
                            1/4 c. sake
                            1/4 c. brown sugar
                            2 T. chopped garlic
                            1 T. black pepper

                            finishing sauce:
                            1/2 c. ketchup
                            1/4 c. sambal oelek

                            1/4 c. toasted sesame seeds

                            Rinse 2 lbs. chicken wing segments and pat dry w/ paper towels.

                            In a large wok or heavy sided pan, on high heat, add 3 T. vegetable oil. When it is very hot add 2 T. chopped garlic and chicken wing segments. Parcook the wings, stirring and turning to ensure even cooking.

                            While the chicken wings are cooking, in a separate bowl, combine 1 c. soy sauce, 1/4 c. sake, 1/4 c. brown sugar, 2 T. chopped garlic, and 1 T. black pepper. When the wings are about 50% cooked (about 5-10 min), drain out all the juices. Add the braising liquid and continue stir-frying the wings on high heat for another 10 minutes or so or until 80% of the liquid has evaporated.

                            In a bowl, combine 1/2 c. ketchup and 1/4 c. sambal oelek and add to the pan. Coat the chicken wings well w/ this sauce and continue cooking for 2 minutes to carmelize a bit. Remove from heat and mix in 1/4 c. toasted sesame seeds.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: soypower

                              soypower, can't wait to try these. /DH loves his wings, but I have to say that this looks pretty warm? I love this stuff but honestly 1/4 cup? Okaaaaaaay. I'm willing!

                              1. re: soypower

                                I'm SO trying this! Might add some ginger and anise too. Thanks for posting the recipe!

                              2. At least in the L.A. area, you can find this in regular grocery stores (in the Asian foods/condiments section) -- Albertsons, Ralphs, Vons all have it. Good stuff.

                                1. The word "Sambal" is akin to "sauce."

                                  There are many types of sambals, oelek being a popular one sold throughout the United States.

                                  A good asian grocery should carry many other types, as well, which put other ingredients and spices to use. Plus you can make your own pretty easily.

                                  1. I use sambal really anywhere I want a little added spice. It forms a basic component of my dressing for egg salad, I often add it to soup and stew, it adds great heat to pasta sauce. While looking for a way to perk up some frozen pizza over the weekend I even discovered that sambal oelek goes mighty fine on top of a nice slice of cheese and sausage!

                                    1. I've used sambal for years, it is a regular addition to my chowmein, and cool noodle salads. I love it with vinegar and soy sauce on potstickers. It is the key to my Indonesian fried rice, and we love it. My kids eat it, and my one time non spicy food eating husband now can't get along without it either, a true convert! It can be found in any market here.

                                      1. Amongst the MANY hot sauces in my kitchen, sambal is definitely one of the best. Another good hot sauce trick is cochujan, a korean chili pepper paste. It's mixed with rice so it thickens up sauces especially well. The flavor is very rich. I use it in everything from bbq to spaghetti sauce. I know several chefs who also keep it in their kitchen.

                                        1. In New York's Chinatown, finally found some at Kam Man (of course) and whoo boy, now I've got another vice! This stuff IS good, adds nice heat/spice without overwhelming the base flavor, works with everything I've tried it with so far.

                                          1. With my eggs at breakfast then with my lunch and dinner. I am completely addicted. I really believe it is the combination of hot from the chile and then the very slight bite of the vinegar that makes this a dream sauce.

                                            Absolutely essential for SE Asian cooking.

                                            1. A friend of mine has a good, easy, sambal recipe at chefsachs.blogspot.com. It's in the Blog Archive, May 2008 and it's in the Nasi Lemak recipe.