Weird Food of the Week: Sambal Oelek

If you do a lot of cooking with Asian flavors or ingredients, you’re probably already familiar with sambal oelek. It’s a pretty common condiment used to add spiciness to lots of different types of dishes. Regardless, there is an unspoken rule that any food beginning with two consecutive vowels is eligible for “Weird Food of the Week” status. I bought some to use in my Spicy Turkey and Green Bean Stir-Fry, and since I’d never heard of it prior to making that recipe, I thought I should learn more about it so I can figure out how to use the rest of the jar.

Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek with the recognizable rooster label.

If you’re not familiar with it, sambal oelek is a chile paste made of red cayenne chiles flavored only with salt, sugar, and vinegar. It originates from Indonesia, where “sambal” refers to any kind of chile-based condiment and “oelek” means “mortar” or “pounded in a mortar.” So its name literally just means chile paste. Other variations include “olek” or “ulek,” depending on the type of mortar and pestle the chiles were ground in.

Actually, sambal oelek is a close relative to sriracha and chili garlic sauce. All three are Asian sauces made from chile peppers. The main differences are in the added ingredients and the consistency to which the chiles are ground. Sriracha, which I only just discovered in January but now love to eat on steamed vegetables, has the most liquid consistency of the three and is more often used on its own as a condiment, a dipping sauce, or a means to add heat and flavor to pretty much any food imaginable. It seems to be the most well-known and widely used of these sauces, even winning last year’s Condiment Smackdown Bracket Championship.

Chile peppers being ground into sambal

Chile peppers being ground into sambal. That looks like it would hurt your arm after a while. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sambal oelek is a very versatile sauce that is described as having a “dark, fiery flavor” and can be used in everything from soups to salad dressings to pasta sauces to marinades for meat. Cooking Light even suggests putting it on a peanut butter sandwich. It is a little bit chunkier than sriracha and you can see the pepper seeds, which are not visible in the former. It is made almost completely out of chile peppers, so it is more commonly used to add heat rather than flavor and is most often used in cooking rather than as a sauce on its own.

Chili garlic sauce is the only one I haven’t tried, but it seems so similar to the previous two sauces that I don’t see much point it buying it. It has a consistency similar to sambal oelek, but (supposedly) has a more prominent garlic flavor. It seems like combining the flavor from the sriracha with the heat of the sambal oelek would give you pretty much the same thing you would get in a store-bought bottle of chili garlic sauce.

Since I love spicy foods, I think I’m going to start experimenting more with these items to make my own hot sauces, especially for foods like steamed vegetables, which are so bland on their own. I might throw some sambal oelek into my next batch of salsa, which I can never get hot enough by just adding jalapenos. It was great in my ground turkey stir-fry, and will probably be a permanent addition to anything I stir-fry from here on out. So if you’re in the market for something to give your food a spicy kick, give sambal oelek a try! The rooster is never wrong.

Recipes Using Sambal Oelek from the World of WordPress

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2 thoughts on “Weird Food of the Week: Sambal Oelek

  1. enjoywithjoy says:

    I love sambal oelek, this is one of the many I keep in my cupboard. I too love spicy food I keep dried chilies, preserves, frozen, & fresh, you name it I have it:-)

  2. Alison says:

    Sounds delicious! I used to just throw cayenne pepper or chili powder on everything, but I’m trying to experiment a little more now.

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