You’ve probably seen it before, and there’s a chance you weren’t sure what it was (or maybe you thought it was something else). Huy Fong Foods, the makers of such recognizable delights as sriracha, basically have the U.S. market cornered for not only sriracha but their chili garlic paste, as well as sambal oelek (pronounced zam-bahl U-lek). They all have a rooster on them, and they all have green caps, so someone who’s not familiar with all three could easily mistake one for the other. But really, truly, sambal oelek is different from the other two.
Sambal oelek has roots in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking. While there are actually hundreds of types of sambal, each with its own blend of chilis and seasonings, in the U.S., sambal oelek is the most common. It’s also called sambal ulek (“oelek” is technically the Dutch spelling of the word, but global colonial history is a subject for another time), referring to the ulek, a mortar and pestle–type device that’s used to make it. The stone mortar (ulekan) is shaped like a shallow bowl, and the pestle (ulek-ulek) is made from either cured bamboo or stone. The person making the sambal uses the ulek-ulek by applying pressure and grinding in circular motions to mash the ingredients into a paste. While sambals can become quite complex, sambal oelek is the most basic — it’s just crushed raw chili peppers frequently used as a base for making other types of sambal. The resulting paste is one of the best ways to add heat and chili pepper flavor into a dish without the sugar, vinegar and garlic you get from other preparations.
Just a brief primer on the other two, for differentiation:
• Sriracha is a smooth hot sauce made out of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. It’s become the “next big thing” in condiments over the last few years, and it’s the most prominent hot red food product in a clear plastic bottle with a rooster printed on it and a green top.
• Chili garlic paste is like sambal oelek, with the addition of vinegar, garlic, sugar and other seasonings. It’s sort of like a chunkier, spicier version of sriracha, with less sweetness and a bit more heat.
Add a dollop of sambal oelek to stir-fries and cook for another minute before plating, use it as a condiment for noodle dishes, grilled meat, fish and tofu, burgers or pizza (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it), or even substitute it for hot sauce in your favorite chicken wings recipe. Sambal goes where hot sauce goes.