Sambal Oelek is a popular Southeast Asian chili paste sauce usually made with chili peppers, fish sauce, garlic, sugar, and lime juice. Unlike sriracha sauce, sambal oelek is generally thicker in consistency and therefore has different uses than sriracha.
In many parts of Southeast Asia, even in China, there are different variations of this chili paste. For example, in China, we have what we call a “chili garlic” paste. Northerners in China usually use this “sambal oelek” for dumplings mixed with ChinKiang vinegar. Other parts of Southeast Asia use shrimp paste, ginger, and/or shallots to give this sauce a pungent and umami flavor. The sauce is traditionally made with a mortar to grind up the chili peppers and mix with the ingredients, however home cooks can also use a food blender to make the sauce.
"Sambal" is a Malay loan-word from Javanese origins.
Last spring, before diving full-time into Sosu, I spent a month in Cambodia teaching English in a rural village just 30 km outside of Siem Reap. It was one of the most rewarding experiences for me. I was also lucky to be able to live in the village and learned quite a few sauces from the teachers and the host family that I stayed with.
Everyday between 11am – 1pm would be the “teachers” lunch break where we each cooked for each other. The dishes we cooked were simple and consisted of no more than 1-2 dishes with a fruit dish as dessert (I ate a lot of mangoes since it was mango season and the kids would give mangoes to teachers as a “thank you” present!)
One day, my friends and teachers made a sauce to go with a traditional chicken dish to celebrate my joining of the program. (In Cambodia, chicken is a delicacy and only eaten when there’s a special occasion) The sauce was made with a lot of garlic, chili peppers, lime juice and fish sauce. I asked what it is and they said it was a chili paste. I remember thinking it looked a lot like the Sambal Oelek that I have seen in the Asian supermarkets and only later did I realize it was Cambodian’s version of Sambal Oelek.
In Cambodia, the flavors tend to be a little sweeter as sugar is often used for cooking but also as a topper for noodle soups (you will commonly find sugars around tables in noodle restaurants). This version of the Sambal was a nice sweet, lime-based paste with light flavors of fish sauce and chilies. Paired together with the chicken dish, it was a delicious sweet, tangy and spicy combination.
(Teachers and I)
(Garlic and chili peppers are lightly roasted)
(The garlic and chili peppers are moved into a mortar and pounded to get a smoother texture)
(From left to right. Lots of lime juice is squeeze into the mix. Fish sauce is added to the mix. Sugar is added. And last step, it is diluted with warm water to give it more of a sauce consistency)
So taking this method as an inspiration, I wanted to make a better version of Sambal Oelek with no additives and preservatives. I also wanted to re-use the delicious and pungently fermented pepper seeds and skins from our barrel-aged sriracha mash. I knew the fermented pepper seeds and skins would carry a lot of flavor that would balance quite well with the rest of the ingredients of the sauce.
We kept our ingredients simple and true to the sauce – fermented sriracha mash, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and lots of garlic. The result is a flavorful, spicy, and umami chili paste that is very delicious.
We can’t wait to share this new sauce with our Kickstarter supporters and also with all of you when it is ready in Fall of this year! Recipes to follow in the next blog post, check back again!