Digging deeper into Sambal Oelek - Indonesia’s healthy relish the world is falling in love with

Bali is known for many things, from its idyllic beaches to its disruptive volcanoes, gleaming rice paddies and magnificent temples.

It is also described as a playground for Australians and tourists alike, with its surf, its hip cafes serving Balinese coffee beans and its yoga retreats.

We were fortunate enough to traverse the island with a local, exposing ourselves to pockets of Balinese nature and culture.

But today, we’re not here to talk about what there is to see in Bali.

Instead, we’re here to talk about something just as pervasive and as ubiquitous as Bali's lush and spiritual landscape; only, this something is to be found within the warung's (little eatery) of Indonesia, going by the name of sambal.

Knowing Sambal

I came across sambal for the first time (and probably the second time), completely by accident at one of Singapore’s hawker centres, when I ordered nasi goreng - a fried rice dish that incorporates this fiery yet healthy relish It was only until I began to see this glaring red sauce pop up in many-an-Asian-meal, that I began to recognise how significant this chilli paste is.

The story behind sambal is as curious as it is fascinating. Not only has it been around for centuries; it appears to be constantly evolving, as Indonesia’s many ethnic groups living on its 17,000 islands, continue to create variations of this condiment. Not to mention the variations made by Indonesia’s neighbours, and its imitators in the West. Whilst we were in Bali, I'm pretty sure we tried a handful of sambals, each adding its own flavour profile to that with which it was paired.

There are some basic things you need to know about sambal.

First is its etymology: the term sambal is thought to have originated from Indonesia’s Javanese word, sambel, which means ‘chilli relish’.

The second thing to know is that there are two main types of sambal: raw or cooked, the former called sambal mentah and the latter called sambal masak. Sambal masak or cooked sambals are more prevalent in western Indonesia, while sambal mentah or raw sambals are more common in eastern Indonesia.

Here's us preparing sambal at a cooking class in Singapore.

You would commonly see sambal paired with the word oelek, which refers to the Indonesian word ulek, a stone mortar-and-pestle used to make all manner of pastes. Sambal Oelek is essentially raw, red chilli peppers, salt, and rice vinegar pounded together with a mortar and pestle.

Another popular word- pairing is sambal belacan, referring to the shrimp paste which is fried or burned to kill its pungent smell as well as to release its aroma. Shrimp paste is central in many Asian cuisines. The photo below is taken from a visit we made to one of Cambodia's fishing villages, where fishermen were seen drying out the shrimps.

Carpet of dried shrimps

The rise of the Capsicum in South-East Asia

What I find extremely fascinating, is that the Capsicum chilli, which has been used to make sambal for centuries, is not native to South-East Asia. It is, instead, native to the New World, where South Americans have been cultivating and trading them for at least 6,000 years. This is not to say that Indonesians didn't have their own variety of hot spice. A spice called called cabya, the Javanese long pepper or Balinese long pepper, is documented circa 10th century, as being widely popular. Another 14th-century Indonesian manuscript details a spice called Red Lombok, available on Lombok island. The Andaliman wild pepper was another source of heat and contributed towards the ancient form of sambal, followed by the introduction of black pepper from India, circa 12th century.

Yet the Capsicum chilli slowly became the mother-of-all-chillis, once these fiery pods made their way to

Asian shores, brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Chillis became ever so popular because they were affordable and added flavour. It wasn’t long before nations were seduced by the hot and addictive sensations chillis brought about. Today, chilli is almost synonymous with Asian cuisine, easily disguising the original roots of the capsicum.

Sambal’s ubiquity in Indonesian cuisine

Nasi Goreng and fresh fruit

Sambal can be found in pretty much every dish, from their nasi (rice) to their grilled sate (satay) dishes and their fresh seafood. In most cases, the condiment comes separate but with rice dishes, it will be incorporated as can be seen in the example of nasi goreng, above.

Commercialised Sambal and its Westward journey

When the Capsicum chilli was discovered, Europeans initially weren't that enamoured with the new spice that Columbus brought back from the New World. Chillies were grown more as curious ornamental plants than as sources of a fiery flavouring. However, little did voyagers from the West know, how they would change the course of culinary history in the East. In Thailand, a short-lived Portuguese presence failed to convert the locals to Christianity but succeeded in revolutionising the Thai kitchen. Meanwhile, European traders introduced the spice to Japan. As chillies were added to the cooking pots of Asia, they also entered existing local trade routes and were taken to Indonesia, Tibet, and China. The speed of their spread was phenomenal. Within a half-century of chilies arriving in Spain, they were being used across much of Asia, along the coast of West Africa, through the Maghreb countries of North Africa, in the Middle East, in Italy, in the Balkans, and through Eastern Europe as far as present-day Georgia.

Things are different today, with the availability of pre-packaged goods. The West has started to develop a taste for the oriental and with that comes chilli. It's no longer hard to find ready-to-use sambal at your nearest Asian supermarket or your local supermarket (e.g. Waitrose). Nevertheless, you will notice the difference between bottled and fresh sambal, with the former often have a finer texture, and thicker consistency, due to the machine-driven manufacturing process., whilst traditionally made sambals ground in a pestle and mortar usually have a coarse texture and consistency.

Health Benefits of Sambal

So why is Sambal Oelek a healthy relish? Sambal Oelek's source of its heat is the compound capsaicin, but there is more to it than just flavour. Capsaicin offers a variety of health benefits that include the fact that it can fight the cells of certain cancers.

According to other research, capsaicin also lowers cholesterol levels while blocking a gene that causes arteries to contract. By preventing artery contractions, capsaicin may make blockages of blood flow less likely and thus reduce your risk of heart attack and strokes. 

is also a good source of protein and vitamins D and B, and is low in saturated fat. Red chillies are a good source of vitamins A, K and C, and lime is alkalising

Along with the healthy compounds in it, sambal oelek also has no cholesterol, which means that it will not increase your risk of clogged arteries and the health issues — like strokes and heart attacks — that can result from them. It also typically uses palm sugar which is a healthier form of sugar than refined sugar. Some sambals even ditch the sugar altogether. This sugar-free alternative makes it a healthier option than other sauces like ketchup and sriracha. On top of that, sodium levels are way lower than those found in commercial salsa dips and other chilli sauces like Thai Chilli.

Now that I know how easy it is to prepare sambal, I'm definitely opting in for the home-made variety. And don't mind me if I go ahead and create one more version to add to the thousands that already exist.

About me

Claire is an easily excitable Maltese who is a great travel companion until she loses half her things.

On the plus side, she does love to organise trips and lives up to her expectations (so her mother says). 


She will only be friends with you if you like to eat or if you like to travel to do a great deal of eating. 


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