Sambal oelek 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 chil peppers and speckled with the yellowish-white seeds.
Sambal oelek exists as one of many sambals. The sambal class of condiments delivers a vast range of flavor profiles that includes sour with sambal asam and sweet with sambal kalasan.
While sambal oelek chil 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 ulek–ulek is made from stone or from bamboo. The chili paste is made in the ulek–ulek 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.
Sambal oelek offers mild heat and little else. Some versions come with garlic but even those will not be intensely flavored, and some may also contain an acid to offer a little tartness. Most blends will include salt, but too little to consider it truly salty. 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.
The inclusion of the seeds and the thick consistency are two 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.
Is sambal oelek spicy?
The common commercially made types of sambal oelek sold in the United States are mostly not very hot. 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.
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 a lot. You might want to make one of those to ensure that the final product stays mild.
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.