How to Prepare Spicy Sambal

Cut limes, red chilies, garlic bulbs and ginger root on a table in front of a mortar and pestle.

Sambal is a chilli sauce or paste, and widely used as a condiment in many tropical countries, especially Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Sri Lanka. It is typically made from a variety of chilli peppers (cayenne pepper and bird’s eye chilies) with secondary ingredients like shrimp paste (terasi in Indonesia or belacan in Malaysia), garlic, ginger, shallot, onion, coconut or palm sugar and lime juice.

The word ‘sambal’ originated from Jawa (Java), Indonesia. In Javanese, the word sambel means ‘sauce’. Sambal is commonly served as a hot and spicy condiment for many dishes, such as nasi goreng (fried rice), mee goreng (fried noodles), ayam goreng (fried chicken), and ikan goreng (fried fish).


Although sambal is a common condiment in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, there are differences among them. Indonesian sambal is more on the hot and spicy scale, Malaysian sambal is on the sweet side, while Sri Lankan sambal is heavy on the use of grated coconut flesh with a hint of spiciness.

Growing up in Malaysia, I love to have this hot and spicy relish to add some flavour to my meals, especially when I am having some fishcakes or fish burgers. Every household could have their own secret home-made sambal recipe. Here are a few of my favourite sambal recipes that originated from Indonesia. They are easy to make and great to stir up your appetite on those hot and humid days. Just be careful, don’t rub your eyes after chopping the chilies. You have been warned!

Sambal tomat paste on a dish in front of a small food blender.

Sambal Tomat (Tomato Sambal)

This is the entry level sambal for anyone who would like to venture into the world of spiciness of sambal. Tomato is used to give the flavour of sweet and sour when mixed with chilis. It is the least spicy and is always the beginner sambal for kids living in Bali or Indonesia who want to start spicing up their meals. It is also always used as a sauce for nasi campur (Indonesian mixed fried rice).


  • 4 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 to 2 big medium size tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • Red chilies 40g, sliced
  • Red bird’s eye chilies 50g, sliced
  • Shallots 40g, sliced
  • Garlics 20g, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon terasi or belacan, toasted (optional to give that umami touch)
  • ½ tablespoon lime juice
  • Salt to taste


  1. Heat 4 tablespoons of coconut oil in a wok or pan.
  2. Put the garlics and shallots into the wok and sauté until fragrant.
  3. Then put in the tomatoes. Sauté until the tomatoes are roughly soft.
  4. Put all the cooked ingredients in a blender or grind them into paste using a mortar and pestle. Add in the terasi or belacan (optional) and salt. Blend or grind all the ingredients into fine paste.
  5. Mix in the lime juice when serving.

Sambal goreng in a dish

Sambal Goreng (Fried Sambal)

This is a simple but appealing sambal soaked in heated oil. To bring up the flavour, it will be best to use coconut oil instead of using other cooking oil. If terasi is being used, a small pinch is more than enough.


  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil or cooking oil
  • Red bird’s eye chilies 20g, sliced
  • Green bird’s eye chilies 10g, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon terasi or belacan, toasted and crushed (optional)
  • Salt to taste


  1. In a bowl, mix the sliced red and green bird eye chilies.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a wok or pan.
  3. Pour the oil into the bowl until the chilies are immersed in the oil.
  4. Add the salt to season.

Sambal matah in a dish.

Sambal Matah (Raw Sambal)

This sambal originated from Bali, Indonesia. This is my favourite sambal and the most popular sambal on the island. You can find this sambal easily on the tables of many local eateries. The Balinese will use this sambal as a condiment to any rice dishes.


  • 4 tablespoons coconut oil or olive oil
  • ½ tablespoon calamansi or lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon terasi or belacan, toasted and crushed (optional)
  • Red chilies 20g, sliced
  • Green bird eye chilies 10g, sliced
  • Red bird’s eye chilies 10g, sliced
  • Shallots 50g, sliced
  • Garlics 10g, diced
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass, use the white parts, sliced
  • 1 calamansi leaf, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon calamansi zest
  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste


  1. Put all the ingredients in a big bowl and mix well. I prefer to mix the wet ingredients first (especially when terasi is in the ingredient list) and then mix in the dry ingredients.
  2. Season with salt and black pepper.

All freshly made sambals can be stored in air-tight containers in the fridge for up to five days. In the freezer they can be stored for up to several months.

All images: © Pooh Ling E




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