A key ingredient in the South East Asian store cupboard, sambal is a must have if you like Asian cuisine or spicy food. If you can't get it where you are, here are 12 of the best sambal substitutes,
What is sambal?
It is an Asian chilli paste or spicy sauce that is commonly found in Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Bruneian and Sri Lankan cuisines. You can see how integral it is to South East Asian cuisine from the fact that there's even an Indonesian cookbook called "Coconut & Sambal" (which I've not read, so can't comment on.)
There are many different variations, depending on the region- for example, in Indonesia alone, there are already over 200 types of sambal- most of which consist of pounded red chillies, mixed with other things to change the flavour. (For example, sambal Assam has tamarind in it whilst sambal kicap has the Indonesian sweet sauce, kicap manis, a type of thick soy sauce, in it.)
Sambal can be divided into the cooked and raw varieties. Raw sambal is usually eaten immediately, whilst properly cooked ones (that have been sautéed for the right amount of time) can be kept in the fridge for a long time (stored in an airtight container). The most popular ones in Singapore are:
- sambal belacan - a raw chilli sauce that consists mainly of fresh red chillies, toasted belacan (shrimp paste), sugar and sometime calamansi lime (Limau kesturi). It is often mixed with fried ikan bills (anchovies) and peanuts.
- sambal oelek- another raw sambal which has quite a sharp taste that can be used as the foundation for other sambals, it consists of raw red chillies pounded with a little salt. It goes well with many Indonesian dishes.
- sambal tumis (which means to stir fry) - a cooked chilli paste in which pounded red chillies are fried with belacan, onions, garlic and sometimes tamarind. This has a decent shelf life in the fridge.
How to make
Traditionally, the red chilies & other ingredients were pounded in a mortar and pestle, but nowadays many households use the blender (or food processor (or buy their sambal from the supermarket.) To make sambal Oelek, pound 1 Cup of fresh red chillies with 1 tablespoon of salt, then stir well with 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar. (The seeds of the red chili peppers aren't removed so use the big red chillies and not chilli padi (bird's eye chilli) or it'll be too hot!
How to use it
Sambal is part of the South East Asian's daily life and often used in these ways:
- as a side sauce - I can just eat it with rice! - for example, it is often eaten with Singaporean soy sauce pork and also goes very well with steamed aubergine, soy sauce mushrooms & Mee Siam kuah
- mixed with other condiments to make a dipping sauce such as mayonnaise sambal
- to stir fry food e.g. spicy canned tuna relish, sambal fried rice or fried noodles
Note: if you like fried rice, you may also be interested in these leftover rice ideas (leftover rice is the secret ingredient to making a good plate of fried rice but rice goes bad very quickly so pay attention to food safety!)
Where to buy
In Asia, you can get sambal in any grocery store or supermarket, although most households will have a family recipe. In America and UK, Wholefoods stocks sambal oelek (as does Waitrose in the UK) but for other places outside of Asia, you will need to go to Asian stores.
Obviously different types of sambal would suit different replacements as sambal Assam, for example, tastes very different from sambal petal! Unfortunately, it's not possible to compile a list of alternatives of the over 200 types of sambal, so I'm only focusing on the 2 most ubiquitous versions here (sambal oelek & sambal belacan goreng).
For Sambal Oelek
The best options for replacing sambal oelek should have a spicy taste but also the same tanginess and freshness that this raw sambal does. They are listed below from best to worst:
- Fresh red chillies + rice vinegar + salt: obviously, the best substitute is homemade sambal oelek. (See above for ingredient quantities) Red chillies are widely available (if not, here is a list of good chilli replacements) and vinegar and salt are pantry staples, so there's really no reason not to make your own sambal oelek! (If you don't have rice vinegar, you can use white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, lime juice or lemon juice instead.)
- Raw chli paste - mix it with rice vinegar and salt
- Sriracha sauce (or another chili garlic sauce)- the colour, tanginess and texture is similar, making this a good option, although sriracha has garlic which sambal oelek usually doesn't. Substitute in a 1:1 ratio.
- Tabasco hot sauce- Tabasco sauce is a good alternative as it is similarly tangy and spicy. However, it has a much stronger vinegary taste and the spice is pretty powerful so a small mount goes a long way.
- Harissa chili paste- this chilli paste from North Africa is similar in spice and texture to sambal oelek, but has very different spices in it. It also doesn't have that fresh from the garden flavour so only use it if you are OK with the final result tasting very different from the original! (Likely still delicious though!)
- Red chili flakes/ Cayenne pepper flakes- this helps to replicate the spicy flavor of sambal oelek. However, as the flakes are a dry spice and not a paste, mix them with some tomato ketchup or tomato paste to get the same texture and tanginess.
- Dried red chillies - You can make your own red chilli flakes by blitzing dried red chillies then mixing with tomato ketchup or paste, as above.
- Chii powder - as above
For Sambal Belacan Goreng
Sambal belacan has a depth of flavour thanks to the fermented shrimp in it, so the best alternatives should have the same flavour notes, which we can create by mixing in something like oyster sauce or fish sauce.
- DIY sambal sauce: pound red chillies- a mixture of fresh and dry- with garlics and shallots (or onions, if you can't get the former) then fry with toasted shrimp powder and a lot of oil till fragrant, the colour deepens and the oil separates.
- Chilli paste - Mix this with some fish sauce and sugar.
- Nam Phrik Pao - this Thai chilli sauce is made from red chilli flakes cooked with garlic, sugar, fish sauce, shrimp and other ingredients. The fish sauce and shrimp give it a similar funkiness to sambal belacan and you can replace in a 1:1 ratio.
- Gochujang chili paste- this hot chili paste is a Korean fermented chilli which has recently become a popular condiment in the West (it goes very well in meat dishes!) It doesn't contain seafood, so mixing it with some anchovies (or fish sauce) will help, although the final product will taste different. It's also quite concentrated, so you may not need to use as much.
- Red Chili flakes/ chilli powder- mix with a fermented sauce such as oyster sauce and tomato paste.