The story of the Indonesian obsession with Sambal

The story of the Indonesian obsession with Sambal
Indonesian sambal ©

Indonesia is known for its rich and diverse culinary heritage, which includes a plethora of spicy dishes. Chili is an integral ingredient in Indonesian cuisine and plays a significant role in shaping the flavor profile of many traditional dishes. The love affair between Indonesians and chili can be traced back to several factors, including the country's geography, history, and cultural traditions.

Geographical factors have played a crucial role in shaping Indonesia's culinary landscape. The country is home to more than 17,000 islands, each with its unique food culture. The fertile volcanic soil of Indonesia provides ideal growing conditions for chili plants, which thrive in the country's warm and humid climate. As a result, chili has become a ubiquitous ingredient in Indonesian cuisine, with almost every region using it in their dishes.

The historical influence of Indian and Chinese traders on Indonesian cuisine also contributed to the love for chili. These traders introduced various spices and herbs, including chili, to Indonesian cuisine. Over time, chili became a staple ingredient in many dishes and was embraced by Indonesians.

Indonesian cultural traditions also play a significant role in shaping the country's love for chili. In Indonesia, food is not merely a means of sustenance but is also a reflection of the country's cultural and social heritage. Indonesian cuisine is diverse, with many dishes being prepared for special occasions such as weddings, religious celebrations, and festivals. These dishes often contain chili, which adds a unique flavor and heat to the food.

Chili is also believed to have several health benefits, including aiding digestion, reducing inflammation, and boosting metabolism. Indonesians believe that consuming chili can help to ward off illnesses, and many traditional remedies include chili as an ingredient.

Indonesia's love for chili is evident in its cuisine, with many traditional dishes featuring chili as a key ingredient. It is common practice for locals to add sambal to their main foods.

Sambal comes from the Javanese word sambel, and is defined as a “chile paste” or “relish.” In fact, any condiment that counts chiles as an ingredient can be deemed a sambal. While ubiquitous all over Southeast Asia, sambal is thought to have originated in Indonesia. In Indonesia, a sambal can be a paste of red or green chiles ground together with any number of other ingredients: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, tomatoes, and/or shrimp paste. Other sambal varieties include sambal kacang, a chili-flecked peanut sauce served with satay, and sambal kecap, a more liquid version featuring chopped bird’s eye chiles floating in Indonesian sweet soy sauce that’s drizzled over fried or grilled fish.

There are over 200 different kinds of sambals, each unique to regions and families, according to, the online portal of a major national newspaper in Indonesia. However, sambals are generally classified into two types: raw and cooked. Here, we'll concentrate on the most basic of the former: sambal ulek.

Sambal ulek (spelled "oelek" in Dutch on green-capped Huy Fong jars offered in all U.S. supermarkets) is an example of a raw sambal. Technically, any sambal prepared with the cobek (mortar) and ulekan (pestle) could be considered sambal ulek. It typically refers to a simple sambal with only three ingredients: fresh red chiles, lime juice or vinegar, and salt. I prefer to make small batches with my mortar and pestle, but if you're making big batches, there's no shame in making sambal ulek—or any sambal—in a food processor.

It's nearly impossible to locate the exact chiles used in Indonesia in the United States. There are, however, simple alternatives. Cabe keriting and cabe Lombok (red Lombok chilies) can be substituted for Korean red chiles, red Fresnos, or cayennes. Cabe hijau (green chiles) can be substituted with jalapeos and serranos, while Thai Jinda chiles are identical to cabe rawit (bird's eye chiles), albeit less spicy.

There is no need for a formula to make sambal ulek. To prepare a small amount, add a couple of fresh red chiles (and a Thai Jinda chile or two if you want more heat) to your mortar with a good pinch of salt, which helps to generate the friction needed to break down the chiles. (If you have a low capsaicin threshold like me, feel free to remove as much of the seeds and membrane from the chiles as desired before they go into the mortar.) Grind until you have a rough slurry. Adjust the seasoning with fresh lime juice and salt to taste. A uncooked sambal like this should be consumed within a day or two.

Sambal ulek goes well with almost everything. Scoop some into the soupy soto ayam Madura and combine. Alternatively, a dollop can be added to a bowl of rice, meat, or veggies. When raw red chiles aren't available, I stir sambal ulek into my stir-fries as a spicy substitute. But I wouldn't end there. It can be used to enhance marinades, soups, stews, and salad dressings. Sambal ulek mixed with mayo also creates a delicious dip for french fries! I urge you to try this simple chile paste as an introduction to the vast world of Indonesian sambal.

In conclusion, chili's popularity in Indonesia can be attributed to several factors, including geography, history, cultural traditions, and health benefits. Indonesians' love for chili is reflected in their cuisine, which includes a wide range of spicy dishes. Chili is an integral part of Indonesian culture and will continue to be a beloved ingredient in the country's culinary landscape.


  1. Indonesia Investments. (2021). Indonesian Food and Beverage Industry: Spices and Seasonings. Retrieved from

  2. Ahmad, R., & Alimuddin. (2021). Indonesian Spices and Herbs: A Comprehensive Guide. Jakarta: PT Penerbit Buku Kompas.

  3. Spice Up Your Life: Understanding Indonesian Spices. (2021). Retrieved from

Akhyari Hananto

I began my career in the banking industry in 1997, and stayed approx 6 years in it. This industry boost his knowledge about the economic condition in Indonesia, both macro and micro, and how to More understand it. My banking career continued in Yogyakarta when I joined in a program funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB),as the coordinator for a program aimed to help improve the quality of learning and teaching process in private universities in Yogyakarta. When the earthquake stroke Yogyakarta, I chose to join an international NGO working in the area of ?disaster response and management, which allows me to help rebuild the city, as well as other disaster-stricken area in Indonesia. I went on to become the coordinator for emergency response in the Asia Pacific region. Then I was assigned for 1 year in Cambodia, as a country coordinator mostly to deliver developmental programs (water and sanitation, education, livelihood). In 2009, he continued his career as a protocol and HR officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya, and two years later I joined the Political and Economic Section until now, where i have to deal with extensive range of people and government officials, as well as private and government institution troughout eastern Indonesia. I am the founder and Editor-in-Chief in Good News From Indonesia (GNFI), a growing and influential social media movement, and was selected as one of The Most Influential Netizen 2011 by The Marketeers magazine. I also wrote a book on "Fundamentals of Disaster Management in 2007"?, "Good News From Indonesia : Beragam Prestasi Anak Bangsa di dunia"? which was luanched in August 2013, and "Indonesia Bersyukur"? which is launched in Sept 2013. In 2014, 3 books were released in which i was one of the writer; "Indonesia Pelangi Dunia"?, "Indonesia The Untold Stories"? and "Growing! Meretas Jalan Kejayaan" I give lectures to students in lectures nationwide, sharing on full range of issues, from economy, to diplomacy Less
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