Sambal Ulek: A Globetrotting Condiment

story by May Tien

 

The origin story of sambal ulek, a much-loved condiment from Indonesia, is as complicated as it is intriguing for even the most ardent of Indonesian foodway disciples. From its humble origins in the archipelago, to its presence on almost every Dutch dining table, to its rising popularity in modern American cuisine, sambal ulek may be on its way to becoming a universally recognized and appreciated condiment.

Sambal is indistinct from Southeast Asian cuisine, but it is quite interesting to consider many of the ingredients that compose this popular condiment were once as foreign as the galleons on which they were brought. Yet, with the vast collection of narratives regarding the violence that surrounded the extrication of spices from the archipelago to other parts of the world (and the beginnings of European dominance over maritime trade routes and colonialist rule in the region), scant details have been offered on one of the more popular ingredients to land in Southeast Asia—the capsicum annuum, more commonly known as the chile pepper—and how it was transformed into sambal ulek and consumed with zeal by the islands’ inhabitants.

Dutch galleon

The speed with which the chile pepper plant emigrated from its home in the Americas to people around the world is rather astonishing, considering the times—within fifty years from Christopher Columbus’s discovery, the chile pepper had made its way to Southeast Asia and secured a valuable position within the world of spices used in local cuisines. (1) Palates quickly adapted to the capsaicin-induced heat, and chiles (or some form of them) became indispensable during mealtimes. Over the next 300 years after its introduction, in what is now modern Indonesia, chile peppers—in the form of fresh and bottled sambals—have made a circuit back around the world, adding flavor and spice wherever they are welcome.

Before Sambal Ulek, There Was Rempah and Bumbu

Very few accounts of traditional Indonesian dietary culture can be found in the travelogues, merchant accounts, and transcripts written by Arab, Indian, and Chinese traders and emissaries; their cultural influences in the Southeast Asian region account for close to half a millennium prior to the arrival of Europeans. (2) It is understood from these accounts that foreign and native spices most commonly found in bumbu (spice paste) production had already been in the Indonesian diet for centuries prior to the introduction of chile peppers; rempah-rempah (spices) and ingredients such as cumin, saffron, coriander, cardamom, ginger, galangal, turmeric, nutmeg, clove, garlic, shallots, candlenut, tamarind, ginger, and black pepper all contributed to multilayered flavors in the cuisine. 

As European appetites for foreign spices grew and prices drove explorers such as Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan to search for new trade routes, the discovery of capsicum annuum may have been one of the catalysts that forever changed the trade. (3) This was a plant that bore fruit as attractive as it was rich in nutrients. (4) More importantly, it was also easily transported via dried seeds, with the fruit preserved for consumption through drying or pickling. As most Western Europeans studied chile peppers for their medicinal qualities and turned an appreciative eye towards the colorful fruits in gardens (5), people in other parts of the world were quickly extracting and incorporating the stimulating, sweet chile heat into their cuisines. Many food historians, botanists, and archaeologists agree that the chile pepper plant may have been one of the first successfully globalized food products in modern history.

The chile pepper is a fruit that masqueraded as spice, which people from various socio-economic backgrounds could now easily obtain and grow, and—unbeknownst to those who consumed it—it delivers as many nutrients as a large serving of a fruit or vegetable. Rich in antioxidants and vitamins A and C, they provided an easy source of nutrition that grew in abundance (6) in the equatorial climate and robust volcanic soil in Indonesia—near-perfect conditions for the chile pepper plant to thrive. However, above and beyond the nutritional and health benefits, perhaps the one defining quality was that one needn’t use much to make a simple meal taste flavorful. 

The various indigenous groups living in maritime Southeast Asia had in their grasp the necessary tools and cooking utensils to help transform the chile pepper into a delicious condiment. With the help of an ulekan (pestle) and a cobek (mortar), cooks worked different spices and herbs into bumbu, and it was most likely this particular method of preparation that led to the development of the first spicy sambals. One could argue that sambal was a subset of bumbu once the chile pepper was introduced, but modern linguistic usage implies that both would be correct for describing a type of sauce that is used as a base in some Indonesian cookery. However, the inverse does not apply, and only sambal (the condiment) can be found on the table as an accompaniment to an Indonesian meal. As James Oseland, author of Cradle of Flavor, the winner of the James Beard Foundation Book Award in Asian Cooking, states, “Indonesian cuisine is the anti-France in cookery. The French mean to codify, name, categorize everything—ingredients, dishes, sauces. . . . For Indonesian cuisine, all bets are off. It is one of the mysteries and pleasures of this cuisine.” 

Cobek

The Indonesian language is at times both fluid and rigid, frustrating many a novice speaker. Appropriately, the condiment that we know as sambal ulek (occasionally spelled oelek) was named after the grinding stone that helped cooks achieve uniformity by blending, grinding, and releasing flavors from each of the ingredients. Sambal asli, on the other hand, is the viscous, bright-orange liquid form of the chile pepper sauce that many people also recognize; it is a manufactured and commercialized sauce, a sweeter version of sriracha. Thus, it could be noted that although sambal is the generic term for the spicy condiment, sambal ulek is its chunkier, paste-like version. Even though the word asli means “original” in Indonesian, it is merely a marketing ploy, as homemade sambal ulek was the first type of sambal created based on traditional methods of cookery. Author of the acclaimed Indonesian recipe book Senirasa, Rima Sjoekri, explains, “Indonesians value homemade sambal ulek as an essential part of the meal. Handmade sambal always tastes different from the manufactured versions; every region, every family has a different style. The best are made fresh and just before eating.”  

Sambal Ulek in Indonesia

One of the earliest mentions of sambal ulek in English is in a piece written by the famed British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java. In it, he dedicates a small section to explaining how people prepared and ate this condiment:

The most common seasoning employed to give a relish to their insipid food, is the lombok; triturated with salt, it is called sámbel, both by the Maláyus and Javans, and this condiment is indispensable and universal. It is of different kinds, according to the substances added to increase or diversify its strength or pungency; the most common addition is trási, denominated by the Maláyus, bláchang. The name lálab is given to various leaves and kernels, mostly eaten raw with rice and sámbel: many of these substances possess a pungency and odour intolerable to Europeans. (7)

Raffles’s description of the lombok chile pepper combined with a few other ingredients reveals a very basic method of preparation during that period. His personal views on common Javanese cuisine are far from complimentary but demonstrate the sharp contrasts of preference for varying levels of spice between the European and Javanese palates. However, it is clear that by the early-nineteenth century, sambal was already an “indispensable and universal” condiment for the native inhabitants, despite a slow decline in the European spice trade over the previous century. The spices that were highly fashionable during the Middle Ages fell out of favor as more trade routes opened, spice production increased, and prices dropped in a saturated market. No longer a symbol of luxury and wealth, traditional spices also faced new competition from coffee, chocolate, tobacco, and tea. (8) Diets were more diverse with vegetables and staple crops from the Americas, but aesthetic flavors also became de rigueur amongst the European elite—most likely a backlash to the ever-increasing availability of spices to the masses. (9)

As these styles of taste transformed and spread in the West, many other parts of the world held fast their desire for intense flavors and the multilayered spicing of their cuisines, perhaps as a result of their affordability and fecundity in regions still struggling under the weight of colonialism. Food preservation was also much more important in the heat and humidity of the equatorial regions, and stronger spices allowed certain foods to be palatable even after freshness eroded and spoilage could be detected. (10)

At its core, sambal ulek is a condiment that consists of ground chile peppers and salt with other interchangeable ingredients. In Indonesia, there could be as many varieties of sambal as there are ethnic groups, of which there are many—more than 300 native indigenous ethnicities and numerous foreign groups that have emigrated over the centuries who now call this region home. The name denotes the way in which the paste is made, usually by hand-grinding and rubbing chile peppers with a comma-shaped ulekan in the wide, shallow platter of an Indonesian cobek. This unique, wide-faced mortar is typically made from volcanic stone with naturally occurring indentations. Not only does the uneven surface abrade and grind fibrous stalks, dried spices, and hard nuts, it is also very effective in breaking up the cell structure of chile peppers and forcing the release of their water content, transforming the fruit into a uniformly coarse and wet paste that works well as either a condiment or an ingredient for sauces. 

For sambal ulek traditionalists, this method is still best when compared to those that use modern kitchen appliances such as a food processor or blender. The time and energy saved by machines may be justified when simmering or frying large batches but often produce questionable results in consistency and homogeneity in raw versions. Food processors are effective for slicing and chopping, whereas blenders transform solids into liquids, neither of which produce the chunky consistency of a perfect raw sambal ulek. Considering the various other types of ingredients, the best sambals are still worked by hand with an ulekan and a cobek.

As Oseland describes in Cradle of Flavor, sambal falls into two distinct categories: raw and cooked (11). From there, hundreds of combinations of ingredients can be made into this condiment, from tempeh, to lemongrass, to dried anchovies, to the stink bean. The one common element is almost always the chile pepper. The versatility of sambal can be seen in the way it is used in the kitchen. Cooks enjoy using sambal as a base for sauces or stir-fried in dishes such as sambal goreng buncis (stir-fried green beans with sambal) or sambal goreng kentang (stir-fried potatoes with sambal). Other varieties of sambal are ladled as a sauce over grilled fish as in ikan bakar sambal dabu-dabu (grilled fish with sambal dabu-dabu, a chopped raw sambal with green and red tomatoes, calamansi juice, shallots, bird’s eye and red lombok chile peppers, sugar, and salt) or atop fried Asian eggplant in terung balado (fried eggplant with balado, a type of sambal used as a cooking base by the Minang of West Sumatra, Indonesia). There is sambal for every kind of dish, but many Indonesians still enjoy a simple meal consisting of a mound of rice or starch such as lontong (boiled and compressed rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves) with a dollop of sambal ulek.

Sambal Ulek in the West

Spicy condiments of all sorts have managed to endure the fickleness of consumer demands over the centuries. What is surprising is the rate of the growing trend towards spicy foods in the West, specifically the United States. Firms that specialize in food and restaurant trends conduct annual polls that suggest Americans’ interest in spicy food is increasing—specifically in the areas of ethnic spices and condiments. (12) Ironically, what was once a staple ingredient in the ancient Americas is back again, this time in bottled form through the lens of a very different people. 

The first area where sambal has made an impact in cuisine outside of Southeast Asia can be found in Sri Lanka, where pol, katta, and seeni sambol are popular. Many of the same spice ingredients are used with local variations. In the case of the popular pol sambal, freshly grated coconut is the main ingredient. Seeni sambal, a sweet onion-based condiment, is almost the consistency of English chutney. Katta sambol incorporates dried Maldive fish as a main ingredient.

The most popular bottled sambal ulek in the United States is currently produced by Huy Fong Foods, Inc. in Southern California. Consisting of ground red jalapeños, salt, vinegar, and preservatives, Huy Fong’s sambal is rather basic and an adaptation in the sense that it uses jalapeño peppers, which are not commonly found in Indonesia. It is well liked for its medium-high spice intensity. However, in respect to flavor, it has very little to add besides heat. Most consumers prefer their sriracha, for which they are famous. Homemade sambal ulek has a much brighter, vibrant, piquant flavor than Huy Fong’s version. It provides almost a refreshing mouthfeel, with a slight hint of sweetness from the chile pepper that is not found in bottled varieties. 

Surprisingly, popular Indonesian brands of bottled sambal are difficult to locate in the United States. ABC, a highly recognizable household brand and condiment producer based in Indonesia, markets a few varieties of bottled sambal in Indonesia. However, their presence is limited to mainly bottles of sambal asli and kecap manis (thick and sweet soy sauce) in the United States. In the Netherlands, by contrast, supermarket chains such as Jumbo carry a dizzying array of bottles from which to choose: sambal badjak (a fried sambal with red chile pepper, galangal, garlic, nutmeg, palm sugar, shrimp paste, shallots, and tamarind), sambal manis (a raw sambal with tamarind, salt, Javanese sugar, and red chile pepper), and sambal trassi (a fried sambal with salt, shrimp paste, red chile pepper, palm sugar, tomato, shallots, garlic, and oil, also known as sambal terasi) can all be seen prominently displayed. It would seem that Dutch cuisine has been impacted by their colonizers as much as Indonesia has been over time (13), as many Dutch households use sambal as frequently as they do ketchup or mustard. 

If Western cooks ever discover the incredible diversity of sambal and the applications for its use, it is quite reasonable to assume that sambal might feature more prominently in modern Western cookery and surpass its current identity as second sibling to the more famous Southeast Asian spicy condiment, sriracha. Time will tell whether the popularity of sambal ulek and other spicy condiments will rival that of ketchup or soy sauce; one thing is for certain, people’s love of spices will ensure that sambal ulek remains forever relevant as a cherished accoutrement to cuisines throughout the world.

RECIPE: Basic Chile Sauce (Sambal Oelek)

Footnotes

(1) Simon Robinson, “Chili Peppers: Global Warming,” Time, June 14, 2007, http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1628191_1626317_1632291-1,00.html.

(2) Akira Matsuyama, Traditional Dietary Culture of Southeast Asia, trans. Atsunobu Tomomatsu (Routledge: London, 2009), Kindle. 

(3) John Keay, The Spice Route (London: Murray, 2006).

(4) A. Rosa et al., “Antioxidant Activity of Capsinoids,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 50.25 (2002): 7396–7401.

(5) Nils-Bertil Wallin, Chili: Small Fruit Sets Global Palettes on Fire (New Haven: Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, 2004), http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/chili-small-fruit-sets-global-palettes-fire.

(6) Linda Perry, et al. “Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum spp. L.) in the Americas.” Science 315 (2007): 986–88.

(7) Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java (London: Murray, 1817), https://books.google.com/books?id=jcL9PiSdU_sC.

(8) Ian Burnet, The Spice Islands (Australia: Rosenberg, 2011), 176.

(9) Maanvi Singh, “How Snobbery Helped Take the Spice Out of European Cooking,” The Salt: NPR, March 26, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/26/394339284/how-snobbery-helped-take-the-spice-out-of-european-cooking.

(10) Davide Gottardi, Danka Bukvicki, Sahdeo Prasad, and Amit K. Tyagi, “Beneficial Effects of Spices in Food Preservation and Safety,” Frontiers in Microbiology 7 (September 2016): 1394, doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2016.01394.

(11) James Oseland, Cradle of Flavor (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006), 117–18.

(12) Andrea Hayley, “Ethnic Food Trend: Why Gochujang and Ghost Pepper are Hot Items,” Epoch Times, February 17, 2016, https://www.theepochtimes.com/ethnic-food-trend-why-gochujang-and-ghost-pepper-are-hot-items_1967443.html.

(13) Karin Engelbrecht, “A Look at Culinary Influences on the Dutch Kitchen,” Spruce, June 6, 2016, http://www.thespruce.com/culinary-influences-on-the-dutch-kitchen-1128374.