Around any Indonesian table, sambal is a hot favourite - wherever you are in the island archipelago, indeed if I had my way – wherever you are in the world – because sambal is an experience everyone should enjoy. It’s a condiment, it’s a hot sauce and an essential pleasure at mealtimes.
There are many varieties - as many as 300 to choose from - both in fresh, raw combinations as well as cooked. Each region of Indonesia offers its own favourite sauce.
At the heart of any great sambal is the chilli pepper – an ingredient now available in abundance in the UK. A farmer I talked with at Cambridge market the other day grows no less than 28 different types, the spiciest being 'Carolina Reaper' measuring 2.2 million SHU (Scoville heat unit).
The sambal ‘Dabu-dabu’ has both fruity and tangy flavours. A mix of green tomato salsa with chopped shallots with generous servings of birds-eye chillies, lemong cui or calamansi juice, salt and coconut oil Dabu-dabu is irresistible with grilled or baked fish, in fact any kind of seafood.
In many ways Sambal is the signature for Indonesia’s culinary arts
Sambal roa is a mixture of dried, ground roa or garfish, finely chopped shallots, garlic and chillies cooked into a wonderful fragrance with a delicious umami flavour. It provides an extra dimension of flavour for both sweet and savoury dishes. Indonesians love it with banana fritters or the vegetable porridge known as Bubur Manado – the inspiration for my Manado (N. Sulawesi) style risotto. Serve sambal roa with droplets of basil oil with any white fish – pan fried, gilled or steamed.
Another cooked sambal is Rica-rica a refreshing combination of fried chillies, shallots, ginger with tomatoes and a finishing touch of lime, for roast chicken, pork or fish.
Sambal is a wonderful partner for modern world cuisine. Try Angel hair pasta with Bali sambal matah and seafood. The zest from thinly sliced lemongrass, chopped chilies, shallots, tangy lime juice, a touch of shrimp paste, and the fragrance of extra virgin coconut oil makes a delectable, unique taste experience.
Indeed sambal offers so much more than simple condiments. Add it to noodles, a warming soto (Indonesian soup), or even a serving of hot fluffy rice and see and taste the difference for yourself.
To make your sambal you’ll need a pestle and mortar. The Indonesian pestle is a true grinding tool with its distinctive curved handle to facilitate a rocking grinding action in order to produce the right texture. For me, the best sambal is made with care to achieve the perfect balance, not too overpowered by chilies, yet bringing out the freshness and flavour of all the other ingredients. Traditions aside, sambal making is not difficult nor time consuming. What could be simpler than sambal kecap? It’s a mixture of sweet and salty soya sauce with slices of green or red chilies and add lime juice or chopped tomato, for extra layers of flavour. Sambals from unripe tropical fruits such as mango and pineapple evoke a touch of zest, while papaya or ginger flowers add a ‘bite.’ Typical good tasting examples include sambal mangga from South Borneo, sambal nanas from South Sumatera or sambal bunga papaya, popular on Sumba island. There are many ways to enliven your senses with sambal.
Interestingly the powerful and diverse chilli, a feature in every sambal, was never indigenous but an import from South America. Suffice to say it is now part of any Indonesian meal, directly and via sambal sauces. The lure of Indonesia’s spices brought the chilli to our shores, with the likes of Vasco de Gama, the sixteenth century Portuguese explorer. De Gama traded ‘red peppers’ as he called them, in his quest for Indonesia’s cloves and nutmeg. This is also how other ingredients such corn, peanuts, potatoes and tomatoes arrived in the archipelago. Perhaps it’s time again for the humble sambal to reach out and conquer new markets, for as they say, history often repeats itself!