What Is Sambal Oelek?

You may see sambal oelek near Sriracha, that ever-popular hot sauce, but do you know what it is? Is it a hot sauce? A chili paste? Something else? How spicy is it? And what flavor should you expect? Let’s dive into what makes it tick.

What is sambal oelek?

Sambal oelek is a popular condiment in Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s a chili paste made of red chilies, salt, and vinegar and is usually served as a dipping sauce or an ingredient in cooked dishes. The combination of ingredients gives it a slightly sweet, tangy, spicy flavor that pairs well with many different types of food.

It originated in Indonesia but has grown in popularity far beyond its home region to become a global condiment. You can find many incarnations of this chili paste across southeast Asia. For example, you will find forms of it in Cambodia and Thailand. It is a simple seasoning made of bright red chili peppers and speckled with their yellowish-white seeds.

Sambal oelek exists as one of many sambals. The sambal class of condiments delivers a vast range of flavor profiles that include sour with sambal asam and sweet with sambal kalasan. 

While sambal oelek chili paste is definitely Indonesian, the name is not entirely from Southeast Asia. Oelek is actually the Dutch version of ulek, which is the original Indonesian word. Ulek-ulek is the name of the vessel used to prepare sambal ulek — it is a kind of mortar. The traditional ulekulek is made from stone or from bamboo. The chili paste is made in the ulekulek by grinding the ingredients with a kind of pestle. 

Sambal oelek flavor profile

Simplicity is among the qualities that set sambal oelek apart from other chili sauces and pastes. Make or buy another type of sambal if you want complexity. How simple? Most recipes for sambal oelek can count their ingredients on one hand. For instance, our homemade sambal oelek recipe contains only red chilies, salt, vinegar, and water.

The flavor experience created is simple, too: sambal oelek is sweet, slightly tangy, a little salty, and spicy. It’s a natural sweetness, coming from the mature red chili peppers used in the creation of this paste.

A key difference between it and sriracha is the lack of garlic in most sambal oelek recipes. It doesn’t have that pungent undertone you experience with sriracha (which is a chili garlic sauce by definition.) The inclusion of the seeds and the thick consistency are two additional characteristics that set sambal oelek paste apart from sauces like sriracha. The seeds are mostly about texture and appearance rather than — as many people believe — heat. The texture is also far less runny. 

–> Learn More: Sambal Oelek Vs. Sriracha – How Do They Compare?

Some versions of sambal oelek do come with garlic, but even those will not be intensely flavored, and some may also contain an acid to create the expected tartness. In commercial blends like the Huy Fong Foods version, you will find sodium bisulfate and xanthan gum. The sodium bisulfate is to lower pH, and the xanthan gum is to give the paste a thicker, jam-like texture.

Is sambal oelek spicy?

The common commercially made types of sambal oelek sold in the United States are mostly mild in overall heat, though it does tend to be slightly hotter than sriracha. If you have tried sriracha and want the next rung up in terms of heat, sambal oelek is recommended, but both of them are pretty far down on the Scoville scale.

A homemade sambal oelek is a different matter. The heat level is inconsistent and can vary according to the peppers used and the cook’s taste preferences. If you are making your own sambal oelek, make sure that the chilies you use are within your personal heat-tolerance range. Some traditional recipes are oil-based, which lessens the heat quite a bit.

Common uses for sambal oelek

Traditional Indonesian food is highly flavorful and rarely needs extra seasoning. Sambal oelek exists merely to provide a little extra heat for anyone who wants that additional spark. Indonesians usually place it on the table as a condiment like salt and pepper or like ketchup in the west.

The mild flavor of sambal oelek allows it to work well in western dishes as well. In this respect, it is much like sriracha. Both sriracha and sambal oelek have become popular far beyond their homelands. Use sambal oelek in marinades, for beef jerky, or on hot dogs.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on February 28, 2023 to include new content.
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