Three Sambal Recipes to Spice Up Your Boring Meals

You haven't really had chili sauce until you've had these Eastern Indonesian specialties.
March 23, 2018, 10:25am
Three Sambal Recipes to Spice Up Your Boring Meals
All photos by by the author

In Indonesia, a meal without sambal—chili sauce—is a meal wasted. Krupuk is way too bland without some sweet, savory, and sambal kecap (spicy chilis with soy sauce). Yogyakarta's signature dish gudeg absolutely needs to be eaten with sambal terasi (chili paste with shrimp). And fried tofu is incomplete without a sweet and spicy sambal petis.

Sambal is an elemental ingredient in Indonesian cuisine. Chili has been considered a hot commodity in Indonesia since as early as the 8th century, Titi Surti Nastiti, an archeologist, told me. Back when the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was in charge of Indonesia, slaves who could make delicious sambal were actually valued by more their Dutch masters, she explained.


Sambal is a national treasure, but there is also no one sambal. Every part of the country has its own version of this national dish, and, of course, everyone has their own opinions about who makes it best. I'm Javanese, so that means I grew up eating sweet sambal terasi—a chili sauce that still contains chilies, but isn't exactly spicy (at least by Indonesian standards).

So how would I stand up against some spicer sambal? That's what I wanted to find out. The provinces of Eastern Indonesia are supposed to have some of the spiciest sambal out there, so I was pretty excited to get the chance to try three of them—sambal from Bali, Maluku, and Lombok—during a recent tasting at Kaum, in Central Jakarta.

My favorite was sambal plecing—a savory and spicy combo from the island of Lombok. But you can make all three and try them out for yourself.


Sambal plecing is best served with vegetables like kangkung. It’s got a flavor thats savory and hot, and it perfectly compliments the freshness of boiled veggies. Just don’t forget the side rice.

Servings: 4
Prep time: 20 minutes

Ingredients 40 grams of peeled red onions
175 grams of seedless cabai merah besar (big red chilies)
20 grams of red peppers
65 grams of local red tomatos
2 grams of sea salt
8 grams of brown sugar
70 grams of oil
6-8 grams of lime juice
8 grams of roasted shrimp paste

Directions 1. Peel the red onions. Then cut the chilies and the red peppers into half and throw away the seeds. Cut red tomato into four pieces then cut them again into thin slices. 2. Get your mortar and pestle ready to grind all the ingredients together. You're supposed to grind harder at first to make sure you crush the chillies down (their skin is pretty tough). After that, you can throw in slices of the red peppers and the salt. Continuing working pestle until the mixture turns powdery. Then add the sliced tomatoes. 3. Once everything looks like a powder, get your oil ready and heat it up. If you can, use a low-cholesterol corn oil. When it’s hot enough, add in all the mashed ingredients and wait until it’s all cooked. 4. Once it’s finished, add more salt, the roasted shrimp paste, and the brown sugar. Stir until everything is evenly mixed, then add the lime juice. Stir it again for good measure and serve.


Sambal colo-colo is usually served with satay or fish. For me, it's best mixed with some white rice and fried fish. That combination of the sweet and spicy sambal and the crispy fish is just perfect.

Servings: 4
Prep time: 20 minutes


Ingredients 40 grams of peeled red onions
8 gram of cabai rawit (bird's eye chilies)
10 gram of cabai rawit merah (red bird's eye chilies)
140 milliliters of kecap manis (sweet, sticky soy sauce)
15 grams of lime juice
50 grams of red tomatos Directions

1. Cut red onion into long slices

2. Cut cabai rawit into round slices

3. Cut cabai rawit merah into round slices

4. Cut red tomato into 4 chunks and throw away the seeds, then cut the tomato into small cubes

5. Get a round container and mix the two chilies with the red onion, and tomato, and then add the kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and mix it all together.

6. Serve it with a protein of your choice.


Bali's sambal matah (sometimes called sambal bongkot) is a spicy, but fragrant sambal that's a bit more more salad than sauce. It's also plenty delicious. Sambal matah is typically served with fried fish or duck, but you can also have it paired with a cocktail. Just add some sambal matah to emping—a bitter cracker—and eat it alongside a ginger flower martini. The salty, but spicy flavors of the sambal and crackers pair well with the fragrant ginger flower martini.

Well, when I say it pairs well I mean that it pairs a bit weird, but in a totally good way. It's a combination of salty, savory, hot, and sweet that will linger on your tongue and throat long after you've finished the drink.

Servings: 4
Prep time: 20 minutes

Ingredients 45 gram of peeled red onions
30 gram of seedless cabai besar
20 gram of small red peppers
25 gram of ginger flowers
30 gram of lemongrass stem (it's the white bits)
2 gram of lime leaves
4 gram of sea salt
45 gram of coconut oil
28 gram of lime juice
9 gram of roasted shrimp paste

Directions 1. Cut the pre-peeled red onion into long, thin slices. Then cut the red chilies into two, get rid of the seeds, and cut them into long, thin slices. 2. Clean up the ginger flower’s skin, and then cut it into thin slices. 3. Cut the insides of the lemongrass stems (the white parts) into long, thin slices. Then get the lime leaves ready and remove the stem from leaves. Cut those into long, thin slices too. 4. Rough-chop the roasted shrimp paste. 5. Get a round container ready and mix all the ingredients together except the coconut oil. Heat up the coconut oil, then pour it into the mix. Stir until it’s all mixed up and then leave it to steep for 30 minutes. Serve with emping on the side and a protein of your choice.