Sambal Ulek

Sambal Ulek

No, that innocent blob of red sauce isn’t ketchup, it’s
sambal ulek – Indonesian chilli paste, a fiery mix of raw
red chillies and terasi (belacan) – toasted shrimp paste.

Sambal was originally an Indonesian word, but today the term is used across the region, and even as far afield as Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Now integral to Indonesian cooking, the condiment owes its existence to the spice trade from South America to Spain and Portugal and on to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia. This was how the chilli first arrived in Asia, and Asian cooking was never the same again.


You’ll need
4 tbs vegetable oil
20 fresh red chillies, sliced
10 shallots, peeled and
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and
1 fresh tomato, chopped
1 tsp toasted shrimp paste
1 tsp salt
1½ tsp palm sugar

Cooking Method
1 Heat oil in a wok and add the chilli, shallots and garlic. Fry until the chillies and shallots are soft.
2 Add the tomato and continue to fry for another minute, then transfer the mixture to a pestle and mortar.
3 Crush and grind the ingredients together with the toasted shrimp paste, salt and palm sugar, and work the mixture into a coarse paste.
4 Transfer to a jar and keep in the fridge until needed.

Tasting notes
Taste it tentatively, is our advice. You may find a dollop of this culinary napalm on the side of your plate, or in a bowl or dish on your table. Do not be lulled into false sense of security. This is not the local ketchup, this is preserved fire. As you deposit the first morsel into your mouth, you can expect a hammer-blow hit of chilli, and the heat will be even more ferocious if the sambal is freshly prepared. Then you’ll notice the other flavours: the salt and sugar, the garlic, and the fishy tone added by the terasi (belacan). The trick is to take small blobs with each forkful; stirring a spoonful into your meal is unwise...

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