“I can’t eat without sambal”

If you hear Indonesian saying that, they probably are telling the truth because Indonesian people have endless love for sambal. When they go abroad, they often manage to bring sambal with them, including me. Why millions people of Indonesia love this dish so much? In this article, I will discuss what sambal is and the reason why Indonesian people have strong fond with this cuisine.

What is Sambal?

Let’s start with the definition of sambal. Sambal is an original chilli sauce from Indonesia. Although sambal is still unfamiliar for most of foreigners but in fact it is already included in the Oxford Dictionary since 2014. Oxford Dictionary defined sambal as (in oriental cooking) hot relish made with vegetables or fruit and spices.

So what distinguish sambal from chilli sauce from other countries? I think the difference lies two aspects. The first aspect is the making process. Most of the original sambals from Indonesia are made by pounding the chilli and other ingredients in mortar called cobek. Although sambal can also be made by crushing the ingredients in blender, most people prefer the traditional making process by cobek.

This is how sambal looks like:

Bugil [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The second aspect is its rich variety. The main ingredients of sambal are chilli and salt. But thanks to the richness of spices and creativity of Indonesian people, Indonesia has hundreds varieties of sambal.

Variety of Sambal

Based on the research by Professor Mudjiati Garjito from Gadjah Mada University (UGM), there are 322 varieties of sambal in the country. And he mentioned that only 257 of 322 are used in common cuisine across the country. Prof. Mudjiati also stated that 119 kinds of sambal are not cooked (raw) and the other 138 kinds are cooked. As Indonesian, I am also surprised by the abundant kinds of sambal. I did not know that my country has that many kinds of sambal until the result of that research is released.

Among hundred varieties of sambal, there are three most popular sambals. They are the original sambal, sambal Padang, and sambal terasi. The original sambal is the most basic sambal which can be found easily in almost every restaurant. Sambal padang is usually made from green chilli which you can find in every rumah makan Padang (Padang Restaurant). And sambal terasi is combination of chilli and terasi (fermentation of fish and/or shrimp).

History of Sambal

As I said in the beginning, Indonesian people has endless love and strong fondness for sambal. This does not happen overnight. The Indonesia’s strong fondness for sambal has been built for a long time ago. Indonesian archaeologist, Titi Surti Nastiti stated that chilli came to Indonesia in the tenth century. And the earliest document recorded that chilli consumed as sambal is poem written by van Overbeke in 1669 which stated, “Soybeans, ginger, garlic, and chilli cause stomach ache because they are so spicy”

Since then, Sambal became a-must-have-dish in almost every household and the recipes of sambal is inherited from generation to generation until now. Sambal plays important roles in eating culture of Indonesian people. Most Indonesian people cannot eat without sambal. This makes sambal easy to find in almost every part of Indonesia. You can find the spicy sauce in different flavors and variations in almost every restaurant in Indonesia. You can find it both in cheap and expensive restaurants. Sambal is also easily found in street food vendors or famous franchise outlet in malls.

Sambal in Everyday Life

The inseparable connection between sambal and Indonesian people even led McDonald’s to release special menu of sambal. The franchise restaurant released special menu of Ayam Kremes Sambal Matah (Crispy Chicken Sambal Matah) in June to July 2018. Sambal Matah is original sambal from Bali. It contains chilli and red onion as the main ingredients.

While McDonald’s served special menu of sambal temporarily, there are numerous Indonesian restaurants specializing in sambal. One of the most well known restaurants good at sambal is Waroeng Spesial Sambal (Special Sambal Restaurant). This restaurant provides more than 30 choices of sambal in its 85 branches across Java and Bali island.

Waroeng Spesial Sambal can approach wide customers more widely with its franchise system, Bu Rudy Restaurant uses a different approach. Bu Rudy Restaurant only can be found in Surabaya, East Java. Although the restaurant only can be found in Surabaya, you still can find its sambal on online marketplace. Depot Bu Rudy provides its sambal in bottled packaging which can be bought online. Just type “sambal bu rudy” on Google and you will find marketplace or online store which provide Bu Rudy’s sambal.

depot bu rudy

Bu Rudy Restaurant (Depot Bu Rudy). I ate lunch at this restaurant when I visit Surabaya in April 2018

Although sambal is not as famous as Gochujang (Korea) or Wasabi (Japan), I believe it still has strong potential to go international. I hope sambal can get more international recognition so that everyone in any part of the world can taste the strong flavor and spiciness of sambal.

By Ilham Mubarok, ASEAN Correspondent from Indonesia