For Indonesians it’s spice that is the variety of life. Nothing better demonstrates this than sambal, an indispensable part of any meal. The addictive power of this delightful hot condiment is evident across Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, in as many as 300 varieties, every region having their own favourite. 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.
In Manado, in the north of the island of Sulawesi and my birthplace, Dabu-dabu, sambal roa, rica-rica and sambal bakasang were traditional sauces often a little too spicy for my young palate back then, but a vivid memory. Dabu-dabu is a mix of green tomato salsa with chopped shallots, a generous serving of birds-eye chilies, lemong cui or calamansi juice, salt and often coconut oil has both fruity and tangy flavours underneath the power of chili. It is perfect with barbecued seafood and with a local rich red bean and pork soup with nutmeg, cloves.
Sambal roa is a great way to shake up your taste buds. A mix of dried and pounded roa (local garfish), finely ground shallots, garlic and chilies it cooks into a wonderful fragrance, with a delicious umami flavor. Sambal roa suits both sweet dishes such as banana fritters and savoury, including vegetable porridge, known as Bubur Manado. Serve it with white snapper or barramundi fillet, a sweet potato straw and some basil oil; simply divine.
As is becoming obvious, sambal comes in both raw and cooked combinations. Sambal Rica-rica is a mixture of fried chilies, shallots, ginger with optional tomatoes and a finishing touch of lime. The essence of Sambal Bakasang is fermented skipjack tuna eggs, similar to shrimp paste but in liquid form with added raw chilies ground together with tomato, shallots and calamansi juice.
Sambal names normally reflect the second main ingredient, after the ubiquitous chili pepper. In several cases the name refers to the technique used in preparation, for example Sambal Ulek, referring to the ulekan (pestle and mortar) used to grind up the ingredients. Sambal Bajak alludes to the farmer’s plough or bajak, and the traditions of farmer’s wives bringing out lunch to the fields.
The pestle and mortar are the essential tools in traditional sambal making but are very different from their typical cousins used in European or US kitchens. The Indonesian pestle is distinctively shaped with a curved handle, while the mortar stone is flatter. Grinding is achieved with a gentle rocking motion from the wrist blending the ingredients into the right texture.
Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta captures the best of so many favourite sambals among street stall ‘warungs’. It is so much more than a simple condiment making a bowl of noodles special, enlivening a warming soto or sprinkled over a serving of hot fluffy fried-rice. Traditions accepted, sambal making need not be difficult nor time consuming. The most simple is sambal kecap, a mixture of sweet or salty soya sauce with slices of green or red chilies. Adding extra ingredients such as lime juice or tomatoes, creates layers of flavour.
Do it yourself sambals - to suit your own taste
You can create your own contemporary sambal combining chilies with ingredients such as as apples, strawberries in season, pineapple and many more. My affair with sambal gathered pace as I started writing about Indonesian food 15 years ago and it leaves me curious to learn more about the important role of this family of sauces in Indonesian gastronomy. Sambal is all about individual preferences and personal taste. Each person becomes a chef for themselves!
Photo credits: Petty Elliott.