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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.