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, here is what you can use as the Best Sambal Oelek Substitute!
What is Sambal?
Sambal, also known as sambol, is an Asian chilli paste or spicy sauce that is commonly found in SouthEast Asian food. It is a popular condiment in Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Bruneian and Sri Lankan cuisines.
There are many different variations, depending on the region. 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, 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 oelek- a raw sambal which has quite a sharp taste that can be used as the foundation for other chili pastes. It consists of raw red chillies pounded with a little salt and goes well with many Indonesian dishes. (We'll be focusing on it in this post.)
- 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 tumis (stir-fried sambal) - 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
The main ingredients of sambal oelek are fresh red chillies, salt and rice vinegar. (Pound 1 Cup of the chilies with 1 Tablespoon of salt before mixing with 2 Tablespoons of vinegar.) If you prefer a thicker sauce, you can add a thickener as well.
Traditionally, sambal oelek was made in a mortar and pestle- Oelek is actually a Dutch spelling of the Indonesian word "ulek" which means to pound in a mortar. Sadly, nowadays many households use the blender or food processor (or buy their sambal from the supermarket.) The taste is very different!
Tip: 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
Sambal is part of a South East Asian's daily life and can be used in these ways:
- as a side sauce - sambal oelek is used as a dip for steamed vegetables, keropok or Asian fritters. Sambal belacan, on the other hand, is often eaten with Singaporean soy sauce pork and also goes well with soy sauce mushrooms & Mee Siam kuah.
- as a sandwich spread ( combine it with some tomato sauce!)
- mixed with other condiments to make a dipping sauce such as mayonnaise sambal
- sambal belacan is used to stir fry food e.g. spicy canned tuna, fried noodles or fried rice dishes.
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.) 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 Petai!
Unfortunately, it's not possible to compile a list of alternatives of the over 200 types of sambal, so I'm only focusing on Sambal Oelek here.
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 Chilies + Rice Vinegar + Salt
The best substitute is homemade sambal oelek, which you can make if you have chilies, vinegar and salt.
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 Chili Paste
Mix the chili paste with rice vinegar (or calamansi lime juice) and salt to get a great alternative to Sambal Oelek.
Sriracha Sauce (or another chili garlic sauce)
The colour, tanginess and texture is similar, making this a great substitute, although sriracha has garlic which sambal oelek usually doesn't.
Substitute in a 1:1 ratio and add some vinegar as Sriracha doesn't have the same zing.
Tabasco hot sauce
Tabasco sauce is a good alternative as it has a similar flavor: tangy and spice. However, it has a much stronger vinegary taste and the spice is pretty powerful so a small mount goes a long way.
Use in a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio (i.e. only add half of one-third of the original Sambal Oelek amount.)
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, such as cumin and paprika.
Harissa paste 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!)
Substitute in a 1:1 ratio.
Fresh Jalapeno Chilies
You can crush some Jalapenos and use them as a Sambal Oelek Substitute.
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 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 to make a Sambal Oelek Substitute.
As above, mix the chili powder with the tomato sauce or paste.
Note: some people recommend Gochujang as a Sambal Oelek substitute.
The 2 taste nothing alike! Gochujang has a fermented, deep flavor whilst Sambal Oelek is fresh and tangy. However, if you're just looking to substitute with something spicy, Gochujang could do in a pinch.
Sambal is a generic word that refers to many different type of South East Asian condiments. (The word "Sambal" actually means condiments.) 1 of the types of Sambal is Sambal Oelek. Other types of Sambal, some of which can be used as a Sambal Oelek substitute, include Sambal Terasi or Sambal Belimbing.
Sambal oelek should be kept in a dark, dry corner if unopened. After opening (or if homemade), store in the fridge.
Yes. You can eat Sambal Oelek straight from the jar (so raw) or you can use it in stir-fries.
Recipes which Go With Sambal
If you've found this list of Best Sambal Oelek substitutes useful, I'd be grateful if you shared it on social media! Thank you! 🙂
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