Essential to Any Indonesian Dinner
Another Tamil Traveler

“A most essential part of any respectable Indonesian dinner.” — Alec Robeau [1]

“In the realm of condiments, the unbridled Indonesian imagination runs wild.” — Agnes de Keijzer Brackman [2]

Indonesian sambal

Sambal Istimewa, one of many Indonesian sambals

The Indonesian food group called Sambals is sometimes translated as pickles or relish or condiments.  It is commonly described as chili based, although this may not always  be the case.

Sambal is normally used to mean a condiment that has a chile based sauce.

Sambals are popular in the cooking of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore,as well as the southern Philippines, Sri Lanka and some outlying areas such as Suriname in South America and South Africa (through the Dutch colonial influence.) [3]

Sambals are commonly made of chili peppers with addition of other ingredients such as sugar or coconut and are served as accompaniments or side dishes to rice and curries, especially in Indonesia.

Indnesian Saus Cabe - one of the sambals

Indonesian Saus Cabe – one of many Indonesian sambals

There are hundreds of recipes for Sambals.

The name “sambal” is a word in Malayan or Bahasa Indonesia, which is used for this kind of spicy sauce or condiment.  When we check this term, we find it is a loan word from the Javanese sambel.

Then when we check the meaning of the Javanese term, we find something interesting: It appears to be a loan word from Tamil, namely sambhar. This in turn is a loan-word from Sanskrit, with a basic meaning of “carries, brings together,” possibly referring to the combination of several ingredients in Sambals. [4]

So Sambals, like Ginger and Rice, appear to be early natives of South India which traveled over a wide region of the Pacific.

And there are Sambals in the Indian Subcontinent, especially the South.  It appears that Sambal is another ancient time traveler from Tamilnad that has spread through Malaya, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In some other former parts of the Dutch Empire, Sambals are sometimes non-chili vegetables or fruits served with spicy dishes.

So there are less intense varieties.  As Agnes de Keizer Brackman says, “Not all Sambals are fiery hot.”

And although there are hundreds of Sambal recipes, there are basically only six main kinds, described in detail by Brackman in her cookbook.

And although Sambals are often described as chopped, they may be made in other ways, like Sambal Oelek, originally made in a mortar and pestle.

Sambal oelek Indonesian red pepper sauce

Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek, the red pepper sauce which is probably the most familiar hot sauce served with Indonesian food, is commonly sold in Asian markets.  Unfortunately, unless you use a lot of it, Sambal Oelek tends to be bad rather quickly once opened, even in the refrigerator.

You can always make your own. Here’s a simple recipe that makes a small amount that will keep for a few days:

Sambal Oelek

12 large red chiles
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon tamarind juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon grated lime peel
2 green onions, white part only
2 cloves garlic


First seed and crush the red peppers and chop them coarsely.  Chop the lime peel finely, also the onions and garlic.  Combine all the ingredients and mix together in a blender or food processor.  You may want to add a little water to make the mixture smooth.  This is best when freshly made!

Tamarind Juice

Tamarind Juice for Use in Making Sambal Oelek

There are many sources of Sambal recipes – we list some Internet sources in the link. [5]

For Further Information:

[1] Alec Robeau, Cooking the Indonesian Way (Sydney: W. H. & A. W. Reed, 1970).
[2] Agnes de Keijzer Brackman, Art of Indonesian Cooking (Singapore: Asia Pacific Press, 1970).
[3] “Sambal,” article, Wikipedia  —
[4] Etymology, with Tamil original of Javanese term, with its Sanskrit derivation, in Wordnik, http://www.worknikcom/words/sambal
[5] Sambal recipe sources — Seriously Malaysian: How to Cook with Sambals —
Sambals to accompany Cape Curry, from —
Indian Sambal recipes, Sambals for Curry Recipes from Yummy —

Indonesia - frieze from Borobudur


4 thoughts on “Sambals

  1. Pingback: sambal oelek indonesian hot sauce | Pacific Rim Gourmet

  2. Pingback: Indonesian cuisine | Pacific Rim Gourmet

  3. Pingback: Philippine cuisine | Pacific Rim Gourmet

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