Indonesian Sambal

After about 35 years spending my life in Indonesia, I have come to a conclusion that Sambal is something Indonesian couldn't live without. The fiery hot paste of different kind of chillies, mixed with different kind of ingredients, is a guaranteed appetite rouser for most of people here. I said "most", because there are a little part of the population that could not stand sambal, namely; babies and children, and very rare number of adults who think sambal tends to disrupt the taste balance, and serves no more than a fetish for capsaicin.

Though born and raised in a family line of good sambal makers, I was one of the very rare adults mentioned above. I couldn't even stand a regular Siomay peanut sauce, which by default is always medium spicy -- doing otherwise would be considered as heretic among the Siomay sellers. Up to high-school I eat Siomay only with kecap manis, sweet fermented soy sauce.

Things are changing when I entered college. With occasionally eating out in cheap street side vendors lat at night after studio hours, I became quite well acquainted with the dish Pecel Lele, a deep fried catfish with sambal pecel that made from tomatoes, chillies, garlic, all fried, and then grounded to the watery salsa consistency.

It was back then, my resistance to sambal grows, up to the point that now I can enjoy some types of sambal.

Sambal Varieties

There are so many kinds of sambal exist in Indonesia. In fact, you can create sambal up from almost anything! Just to mention a few, beside of the regular sambal that created from chilli pepper paste, you can also create sambal oncom, sambal keluwak, even sambal with mango seed's meat.

Taxonomically, you can divide sambals into two large groups; "matang" or cooked, and "mentah" or raw. Sambal matang usually consisted of pre-fried ingredients, or including cooking as one of the process. Sambal mentah on the other hand, has most of its ingredients raw. Cooking in Sambal matang usually enhance the flavour, while also taming the fire a bit, hence why the common sambal served in local eateries are usually are from this Sambal matang category. Sambal mentah on the other hand, is the ones that usually packs serious punch.

The main ingredients in a sambal is almost always a chilli paste. In Indonesia, the chilli paste is mostly created from "cabai merah" or red chilli peppers.

Other common ingredients uses are bawang putih (garlic), bawang merah (shallot / red onion), and terasi. Terasi is both infamous and beloved; due to its strong pungent smell and the richness it will lend to a dish. Terasi is made from fermented ground small shrimps, which was later sun dried and cut into blocks. Good terasi are dark purplish brown in color, while lesser quality terasi usually has the lighter tint, or showing strong traces of artificial coloring. Terasi needs to be cooked first, by either light roasting or grilling on open fire, or include them in your cooking to cook along the meal. Good terasi creates the pungent dark "shrimpy" tone in meals like curry and stir fries, and also gives Sundanese Sayur Asem a rich body. The creation of good Sambal Terasi therefore, relies heavily on the quality of this ingredients.

Other ingredients usually used as the finishing touch, is the jeruk limau or jeruk purut, (kaffir lime). Though having only low level of sourness, it's mainly uses to enhance the sambal's aroma instead of taste. Some types of cooked sambal usually incorporates also daun jeruk (lime leaves) to further enhance the aroma.

Some version of sambals includes serai (lemongrass), asam jawa (tamarind), kemiri (candlenut), and surely the beloved kacang goreng (fried peanuts).

The usage of sambals are mostly as condiments to a main dish, but it can also include vegetables to become a side dish like Sambal Kangkung (water spinach in sambal), and further cooked to become "Sambal Goreng" dishes (fried sambal) with its character of hot, complex, and flavorful taste.

Beside of the "heavy" kind of sambals, there are also other kind of sambals which has milder taste, or follow a different path completely, in example:

Sambal Kecap

Sambal Kecap is made from finely slicing cabai rawit and shallots, and mixed them with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), finished with sprinkles of kaffir lime juice or lime juice. This type of sambal has the main characteristic of sweet, dark taste, with the mild stinging sensation from the cabai rawit, and freshness of a raw shallot. Sambal kecap usually accompanies light tasted meal like tahu goreng (fried soybean curd), tempe goreng (fried soybean cake), and is also the favorite sambal to accompany ikan bakar (grilled fish).

Sambal Matah

Sambal Matah is a special raw sambal from Bali, which consisted of chopped bawang merah, serai (lemongrass), cabai rawit, jeruk purut, and the root of kecombrang (torch ginger). The latter ingredients is a bit rarity, but has this unique distinct taste which enhance the taste and aroma of Sambal Matah. This sambal fits well with the Balinese style cooking which usually consisting of intense spices, like the Ayam Betutu, while also proven to be a perfect match also for Ikan Bakar. If you adore raw shallots taste that is.

Sambal Dabu-Dabu

Sambal Dabu-Dabu (or just Sambal Dabu) is also a raw sambal but from the region of Manado, Sulawesi Utara. It consist of chopped bawang merah, cabai rawit, tomat merah/tomat hijau, and seasoned with salt and lime juice. Like its fellow sambal matah, Sambal Dabu usually pairs very well with Manadonese style Ikan Bakar.

Sambal Hijau

Sambal Hijau is a cooked sambal from Padang region, Sumatera Barat. It consist mainly from cabai hijau, the less hot sibling of the cabai merah, with taste somewhat resembling green paprika with spicier taste. Mixed with tomat hijau (green tomatoes), bawang merah, and then cooked to achieve the oily mound, this sambal gives a mild hot and sour taste (not to mention oily), and is a staple condiment in Nasi Padang (Padangnese mixed rice dish) menu around Indonesia.

Sambal Kacang

Sambal kacang is mostly uses as dipping sauce for snacks or light meal, like otak-otak, lontong isi, lumpia, or accompanies Nasi Uduk, the famous coconut infused rice dish from Betawi (Jakarta) region. It is made from ground fried peanuts which is cooked and seasoned. It usually has a watery consistency.

Sambal Oncom

Sambal oncom is created with oncom as its main ingredients. Oncom originates from Parahyangan region of Jawa Barat, and it is the version of tempe that created with peanuts instead of soybeans. There are at least two types of sambal oncom; the dry version which usually consist of raw chopped oncom, also includes daun kemanggi and raw chillies; and the mushy version which usually consist of finely ground oncom and then stir fried to achieve the thick body and the sweet spicy taste. The latter usually used as condiment for ketan bakar, while the first is a meal company, or used as the filling for lontong, serabi ("Indonesian pancake" according to Anthony Bourdain), and Jawa Barat's famous snack; Comro (or Combro).

I will list more of them when I have more time in the future.

Indonesian Chilli

Indonesian sambals uses fresh chillies, and the most used kind is chilli peppers or locally called "cabai merah". This kind of chillies usually has a medium thick body taste, with moderate pungent and hotness, and creates that warm sensation on the back of your mouth and your tongue. You can also still feel the cabai merah in your stomach as it sends out the warm sensation throughout your body, long after you finished eating.

The other kind of chillies usually used is the notorious / much beloved (according to who's speaking) chilly paddy, or bird eye chillies, or local calls it "cabai rawit". This tiny fiery thing sparked a well-known Indonesian proverb of "kecil-kecil cabai rawit", which often addressed to something small but pack a great punch, as the cabai rawit is. With around 50,000-100,000 Scoville units, cabai rawit was once recorded in Guiness Book of World Records as the hottest chilli in the world, but that was before the discovery of Habanero and before the birth of Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost Chilli which currently hold the world record of scoring 1.041.427 on Scoville units.

Different from the cabai merah, cabai rawit is considerably merciless upon eaten raw; it doesn't burn your tongue or warming the back of your mouth, but instead it "bite" you right in the tongue, exhale that "greenish devil" aroma, which almost instantly would be followed by the punch to your brain, provoking momentarily increased awareness, and make your scalp sweats for mercy. It could also choked you as the liquid reaches your throat.

Eerily, raw cabai rawit is a must condiment for eating tahu isi, tahu goreng, and bala-bala; Indonesian batter fried delicacies. Or, devilishly invisibly included whole inside a lontong, or kroket, in which makes it serves as a culinary land mines. To my personal view at least.

In Bandung region of Jawa Barat, there is also a variety of cabai rawit that rarely found elsewhere, it packs an even greater punch than regular cabai rawit, which according to Indian Spice Encyclopedia was originated back to the Inca empire in Southern America. Locals name it "Cabai Bendot", while internationally it's better known as "Rocoto", which currently are cultivated in Peru and Bolivia. Rumors has it, that Bandung was one of the trial place to cultivate this breed of chilli outside South America, due to its similar high altitude (about 700m above sea level).

In a region of Pulau Lombok, east of Bali, there's also a local chilli variety called "Cabai Lombok" which many says closely resembles the Bhut Jolokia in strength, and it's the reason why the place is called "Lombok", which in Indonesian also meant chilli (Pulau Lombok = Chilli Island). This type of special chilli, lent its fame to the popularity of the super spicy dish Ayam Taliwang from the same region.

Eliminating the Sambal Aftertaste

A Bhut Jolokia, is further synthesized and created as the main ingredients for Indian unique Chilli Grenades. While it doesn't kills, but the idea of having anything chilli related inhaled into your lung, or exposed into your bare eyes, is something I believe none would favour.

On a less grander scale, the fiery traces left in your mouth after eating a sambal is also an experience enough to make someone feels great discomfort, Tears shredding discomfort. What to do when such thing happens? An ice cold drinks won't do any good, as the bites will stay even after glasses of ice cold water drank.

Milk to some extent will helps reduce the degree of discomfort, but for the most proven effective remedy, the principal is to instead fighting fire with fire: drink a glass of hot tea, or anything hot enough to pass through your tongue without burning them, and you will experience a momentarily highly painful sting to your tongue and mouth, due to the chilli traces left in your taste buds. But afterward, it is a gentle ride along the gentle slope of a hill; the pain will quickly disappears, and the burning sensation from the sambal suddenly will become bearable.

Moving down below, a good portion of sambal is known to increase the vitality of your digestive system, but to the untrained stomach, even a midly strong sambal could also induce gastrointestinal disorders, which will result in mild discomfort, up to a nasty diarrhea.

With such hazard to your health, not to mention your sanity, it's a wonder how someone could become a die hard sambal enthusiast. But it does happen. (bay)


Indonesia Eats said...

Bay, I'm still not sure whether cabe gendot is jalapeno or rocota. Would you be able to provide me with cabe gendot science name? Thanks.

Angie said...


I don't even want to think about drinking something hot when the insides of my mouth is burning - I think that approach is too painful for me LOL

I'm Indonesian and I'm from Manado (so I know what spicy food is all about)

Here's a trick: chew gum after you eat (I love Wrigley's Doublemint). It eliminates the burning aftertaste and is replaced with a nice minty taste plus a fresh breath.

bayuamus said...

Hi Pepy, according to the book "World spice plants" written by Johannes Seidemann, Cabe Bendot latin name is Capsicum Pubescens.

You might also find other references in this webpage

bayuamus said...

Hi Angie, that's true, hot drinks is the least that you want to have after an encounter with the sambals, hehehe.

I also find your solutions interesting and might want to try that next time, instead of a glass of steaming hot tea. :D

Ade Putri Paramadita said...

Kang Bayu, aku share di page-nya Food For Fun boleh yaaa?

bayuamus said...

Sure de, silakan :-)

Bart J. Meijer said...

Hi Epicurina,

The Cabe Bendot is a Capsicum Pubescens, and in normal English called Rocoto. Rocoto (C. Pubescens) are not often grown commercially, for no apparent reason really. Lately there is more interest to grow them with chilli growers and people that make hot sauces. I have now got over 10 Rocoto varieties.

Cheers Bart

Unknown said...

And right now there is even a new sambal hype going on in Indonesia called BonCabe. BonCabe is a sambal tabur which means you can sprinkle it on top of any dish that needs to be spicy. Quite spicy stuff and soon there will be a really spicy version!

More here:

Unknown said...

I wouldn't call it a sambal, but agree it's so spicy delicious! I've already proclaimed it as my latest addiction here: :)