A sambal [sahm-bahl] is a relish/condiment originating in Malaysia and Indonesia. Mostly it is not cooked, and could include ingredients such as fresh chillies, shallots, shrimp paste, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, salt or soy sauce. In Cape-Malay cooking, a uniquely southern African (Capetonian even?) cuisine style originating from when south-east Asian slaves were brought to South Africa, sambals always accompany main dishes (in the way you are usually served lime pickle, mango chutney and mint yoghurt with Indian food).
A glut of chillies on the farm had us wondering what to do with them – dry some, add some to stews and sauces, give some away – after all you can only eat that many fresh! These were also not mild mild ones – as you can see from the picture they are bullet, bird’s eye and thai bullet!
We also happen to have lemongrass and vietnamese coriander growing alongside, so with some shallots, garlic and a couple of spices thrown in, a recipe originated! Sambal oelek it would be – although I later realised that if we had just dried the lot, north African zhug would’ve worked well too.
Sambal oelek (Dutch spelling, ‘ulek’ is Indonesian) traditionally consists of only chillies with salt and sugar to temper the chillies and preserve them, but as recipes go, everybody has their own version, and shopbought samples are often full of preservatives. (Potassium sorbate is available in 1L bottles in Asian grocery stores should you feel the need to put your kidneys through their paces.) The recipe that we now make at home is uniquely ours, as is tradition in Java, I believe.
Simply destem your chillies (about a cup of them), and deseed if you’re looking for a milder trip. (Use gloves, or else, that’s all I’m sayin’), now blitz in a food processor with about 6 garlic cloves, a knob of ginger, 2 pieces of lemongrass thinly sliced (cleaned, lowest 10cm of stalk only), and 2 peeled shallots. Add a good splash of vinegar/lime juice (sweet black vinegar is good), a teaspoon of palm sugar and a teaspoon of sea salt flakes. Then slowly drizzle in oil as the blender runs to get all the ingredients to come together (I used mild olive oil). Lastly add a few vietnamese coriander leaves for something different.
Now taste a very tiny bit, because tasting options with this recipe are limited to about 2 – after which your mouth will feel annihilated. You should taste a creamy combination of all the ingredients – not chilli vs onion vs vinegar vs salt. If it tastes weird, add a little more of what you think it needs and then bottle – as compound pastes go it will mellow, improve and come together upon standing (in the fridge) for a while.
Which is an important point, because you should only start using this as a condiment/ingredient after at least a week. Obviously, try not to slather it all over everything you eat daily (which could happen), because then you will forget what food tastes like, chefs in restaurants will get angry at your chilli-on-the-side requests and your digestive tract will start resembling a dried-out root.