First off, I admit to not being an expert on Sambal, the exalted chile-based condiment originating from Southeast Asia. But I do know good taste, and I’m convinced that food traditions that have endured hundreds of years deserve a closer look. After all, they have a proven track record, and a presumably large following of perhaps millions of people throughout centuries, and Sambal is a terrific example of one of these cherished culinary traditions. Another great thing about this paste is that it’s versatile, and can be used on, and in, many different foods, and it is a condiment where one’s creativity can run wild in its creation (within reason). One of the “restraints” of preparing Sambal is that it should feature peppers as its primary base. Indeed, this is part of the essential nature of Sambal, and a major part of what defines its essence.
There are many recipes and variations for preparing Sambal, and it’s relatively simple to make, which is a huge advantage in and of itself, with the ratio of effort to enjoyment being very much on the side of enjoyment. And though most dishes that are homemade are preferable to store bought, mass-produced sauces, much depends on the freshness and quality of ingredients available. If the ingredients available in your area are not up to your culinary standards, then there’re premade options available at many local stores and Asian markets.
This happens to be the case in my home state of Oklahoma where local produce is hit-and-miss (and my pepper plants aren’t producing yet!). So not too long ago I picked up a jar of Huy Fong’s Sambal Oelek along with their Garlic Chile Sauce, at a national chain down the street. I’m including Huy Fong’s Garlic Chile Sauce for comparison because it’s made with garlic, and may actually be closer in taste to traditional Sambal. (As you may already be aware, Huy Fong Foods, located in Rosemead, California, is largely known for its ubiquitous, yet mostly beloved Sriracha.)
Now, there are all kinds of peppers that can be used in creating Sambal, but Huy Fong uses red jalapeños as its base, along with salt, distilled vinegar and preservatives. I’m also not sure of the precise ratio of peppers to other ingredients, but the heat of this sauce is rather mild for the intimate spicy foods lover, yet the taste is pretty remarkable; pungent, vibrant and bold, with fresh pepper flavor and a noticeable, but not overbearing saltiness. And, the all natural color is truly mesmerizing; almost like looking into the flames of a campfire, though not nearly as hot. When pondering what foods this chile paste would enhance, fish immediately came to mind, but it would also be delicious on eggs, Asian noodles, and pizza.
Here I’ve tried it on a no-brainer: egg rolls. The savory herbs and spices in the egg rolls provide a desirable backdrop to the pungent peppers and saltiness of the Sambal. There are also traces of vinegar in this preparation, and it also gives just the right amount of zing so as to not overpower the rest of the flavors.
I love both of these products, and would enthusiastically recommend them. Both are bursting with vibrant, earthy flavor, with the Garlic Chili Sauce being more savory and less fruity than the Sambal Oelek. If, however, I had to pick only one to take to a deserted island, I would probably pick the Garlic Chili Sauce. Not only is it most likely closer in taste to traditional Sambal, but I’m one of those people that think that garlic is the bacon of the herb world, and that there isn’t much that garlic cannot make better.