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Spice Blend: Homemade Sambal Oelek (Simple Chili Paste)

Sambal Oelek 1

Chili pastes of one stripe or another are common in many cuisines. Some are fairly straightforward, containing little more than chili peppers, while others are considerably more complex and include a variety of other ingredients, such as garlic, ginger, or other spices. Not that many years ago, the Indonesian variety of simple chili paste known as Sambal Oelek (or Sambal Ulek) was relatively unknown in the west but this has changed in the last decade or so and one brand or another can be found in most supermarkets nowadays, with the Cock Brand, by Huy Fong Foods (makers of the popular Sriracha Sauce), being one of the most common.

Sambal Oelek is a very versatile paste that keeps well and is very easy to make. Strictly speaking, the basic version is nothing more than ground fresh chilies, but salt is also generally added, [particularly if the resultant paste is not to be used immediately). If you scan for recipes on the Internet, you will find many that include other ingredients as well but, since there are a myriad of Indonesian Sambals, all with different names, those that contain additional spices are not, in my opinion, true Sambal Oeleks. Vinegar (or even lime juice) is often included, particularly in commercial preparations, but, while this does enhance the shelf life somewhat, it also changes the finished product considerably. It also, to my mind, detracts from and diminishes the fresh chili taste, which, with just a little salt to act as a preservative, keeps surprisingly well in the fridge. For the version I will be sharing with you here, we will be using nothing more than fresh red chilies, salt, a little sugar to round out the tastes as the  pastes ages, and some oil for grinding and preservation…

The Ingredients

Sambal Oelek 2

You can use any sort of hot red chili you like to make a Sambal Oelek, but the Thai Bird’s-eye variety you see pictured above is quite commonly used and will produce a pretty fiery paste. Beyond the chilies, our rough ingredient list is as follows:

  • Salt (non-iodized) –  1 to 1 ½ teaspoons per cup of chopped chilies;
  • Sugar – About half the amount of the salt;
  • Vegetable Oil – Approximately 2 – 3 tablespoons per cup of chopped chilies.

The Method

Sambal Oelek 3

First, chop the chilies coarsely. If you like, you can remove the seeds and the white pith from inside first as this will make for a much prettier end-product (especially with larger chili varieties), and will also tone down the heat a little, if that is a concern. I am omitting that step here, though, as the seeds in these chilies are relatively small and it would be extremely time consuming to clean them all completely. In compromise, I simply swept away any seeds that escaped as I chopped each chili and didn’t get fanatical about removing each and every one. All in all, I probably removed about a third of the total and even this took me a good hour to accomplish.

Sambal Oelek 4

Once you are done, add the salt, mix well, and leave the chilies to sit for a couple of hours to soften.  I ended up with a little over 2 cups of chopped chilies and chose to add 4 teaspoons of salt. You can use less, but the paste will keep longer with more.

Sambal Oelek 5

When you are ready, add the chilies and any accumulated juices to the bowl of your food processor along with the sugar (about 2 teaspoons in this case). Pulse well and, as you do so, add oil at about a tablespoon at a time to keep the blades turning nicely. Continue until the paste is as smooth as possible. To be really traditional, you can grind by hand in a mortar. This produces the smoothest result (and some insist that it makes a tastier product) but, while I would do this for a small amount for immediate use, doing large bulk amounts is far easier with some mechanical help.

Sambal Oelek 6

Finally, transfer the paste to a suitable receptacle and let it settle, allowing excess oil to rise to the top. If there isn’t much visible after letting the paste sit for a while, and if you wish to store for a lengthy time, then it is a good idea to add just enough oil so that there is a thin layer covering the surface.

Store the paste in the fridge and then use as you would any chili paste. It will be relatively salty (depending on the amount you used) so bear this in mind and adjust for total salt in any recipe you are following. You can freeze the paste if you wish (in which case, the oil is not really necessary) but it keeps very well in the fridge and can taste almost as fresh as new after several months.



21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on The Chilli Pad.

    February 10, 2013
  2. Wah…very very hot….even by looking at the pictures! Lee kam Kee cannot compete with you, because its chili paste ism’t that great!

    February 10, 2013
    • This is definitely one to use sparingly…

      February 10, 2013
  3. Looks wonderful! And I agree: keep it nice and fresh. Also, this is a great idea to use up those massive bags of bird’s eye chilies that I never seem to ever finish.

    February 12, 2013
    • For sure …. My wife pickled quite a few in vinegar with Habanero peppers too 🙂

      February 12, 2013
  4. Indonesian food is so common here that it is strange to see it featured like this 😉

    February 12, 2013
    • I gathered there was quite an Indonesian presence there because of the Dutch East Indies…. must be some great restaurants!

      February 12, 2013
      • Yes, although many of them have “Dutched down” the heat of the food. The famous “rijsttafel” was even invented by the Dutch. The dishes that it consists of are in fact authentic though, it was just serving them all at once in a huge spread to impress one’s guests that was a Dutch invention.

        February 12, 2013
      • P.S. Also interesting to see that you use the Dutch spelling: oelek rather then ulek. (“oe” is Dutch spelling for an “oo” sound in English)

        February 12, 2013
  5. I think I read that that was the Dutch spelling before!

    February 12, 2013
  6. I have had several dishes recently call for chili paste, and I haven’t quite known what direction I should go. This is a great help! I am intrigued that you say it can last that long in the refrigerator. I am somewhat “funny” with my food so perhaps freezing it is the answer, but I’ll play around! I’m so thrilled to have a good recipe. 🙂

    February 13, 2013
    • The salt keeps it very well … it may undergo a bit of lactic acid fermentation. I have some chopped chillies that did…. it adds a bit of sourness and preserving quality. I haven’t had my plain chili pastes do that as far as recall, but I use them quite quickly, so that may be why.

      February 13, 2013
  7. Amanda #

    This looks very tasty! I recently went to Indonesia on a business trip and tried a lot of different Indonesian foods, Sambal oelek included. I wanted to try to make some at home but it’s difficult to find the ingredients around here. I found has a lot of the spices and sauces i need to make these delicious dishes. Check it out 🙂

    March 19, 2013
    • Thanx… good link. Actually, I just returned from Ottawa… had a profitable trip to Chinatown foodwise 🙂

      March 19, 2013
  8. Tasman #

    Hi. I have frozen chillies. Can they be used instead of fresh (they were freshly frozen).
    would i have to defrost them or can i chop them in a food processor whilst frozen or slightly thawed.

    June 11, 2017
    • Hmmm …. I haven’t used frozen. I would be inclined to let them thaw then coarsely chop and salt them. After they have sat for a while I suspect they will have thrown off a bit more liquid than the fresh type… maybe just give them a bit of a squeeze before doing the final chopping/processing.

      June 11, 2017

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