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10 of the best Indonesian sambals

Before even tasting her lunch of soto ayam (aromatic chicken soup) Hanna, 24, immediately grabbed the sambal container from the food court table and added five spoonfuls to her steaming hot dish.

"I can't live without sambal. If the food is not spicy enough, I can't eat it," said Hanna who is a native of Medan, North Sumatra.

She then added another two spoons of sambal after finally tasting the soto ayam and deciding it was just right.

Many Indonesians are like Hanna, spiciness is an integral element to their food. Even if the main course is sweet, such as gudeg (jackfruit stewed in coconut milk), they will add sambal to complement the taste.

Almost every region in Indonesia has its own special chili sauce, in fact, there are so many that making a top ten list seemed like a herculean task.

Fortunately, master food connoisseur Bondan Winarno offered to share his ten favorite Indonesian sambals.

Bondan is a renowned TV personality whose program, Wisata Kuliner (Culinary Journey), is immensely popular. In it, he tours restaurants and makes his audience's mouths water by describing how the dishes taste. Sometimes, he talks about the history of the dishes as well.

He also took part in a culinary working group formed by The Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry to create a list of 30 iconic Indonesian dishes to promote to the world late last year.

Here is Bondan's list to test your tongue and, perhaps, courage.

1. Sambal Kandas Sarai from Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan

For the locals, this sambal, made by mixing shredded smoked catfish and thinly sliced lemon grass in chili paste, is usually treated as the main dish instead. The taste is a combination of spicy and sour.

2. Sambal Matah or Sambal Bejek from Bali

Typical ingredients of this variant of sambal are shallots, cabe rawit (bird-eye chilis), bongkot or kecombrang (torch ginger), crushed with a pinch of salt, shrimp paste, lime juice and coconut oil. It is usually served with grilled fish or chicken, adding a unique spicy and fresh taste to the dish.

3. Sambal Bajak from Central and East Java

Best described as sauteed chilli paste with strong blacan (shrimp paste) accent, sambal bajak is a perfect companion for fried foods such as chicken, fish or meat thanks to its spicy and rather sweet taste. "My favorite is when cubes of deep-fried beef liver is added," said Bondan.

4. Sambal Wijen from Central and East Java

When in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java, the area’s most popular dish pecel (mixed vegetables with peanut sauce) is delicious with sambal wijen, which is made from roasted sesame seed. While it may look not too tempting, the combination of spicy, sweet, savory and a little bit bitterness will leave you wanting more.

5. Sambal Tumpang from Central and East Java

Created using fermented tempe (3-5 day-old soybean cake) cooked with galangal, chillies and beef tendons, this sambal is a must-try for those visiting Kediri, East Java. Its spicy, sweet and salty taste is preferred by locals as the sauce for pecel, combined with peyek kacang (peanut fritters) or peyek teri (anchovy chips).

6. Sambal Dabu-dabu from North Sulawesi

Prepare to be unprepared if you are eating this explosively spicy and sour sambal for the first time. Made of coarsely chopped green tomatoes, chilies and shallots, crushed with a pinch of salt and the juice of a calamansi, this fresh sambal is a perfect match for dishes like grilled seafood and fried chicken with soy sauce.

7. Sambal Bawang Batak from North Sumatra

A perfect match for dishes like grilled chicken, sambal bawang is created from young shallots sauteed with chili paste in coconut oil and offers a delicious combination of spicy, salty and savory taste.

8. Sambalado Tanak from West Sumatra

A cross between a curry and chili paste with the addition of jengkol beans, sambalado tanak is a popular condiment among the Minangkabau in West Sumatra, so much that you may find a lot of different versions of this particular sambal throughout the province. It is usually served together with anchovies, prawns, eggs or eggplant. Like most dishes from the region, the savoriness of this sambal increases with each re-heating.

9. Rica Roa from North Sulawesi

Basically shredded smoked fish sauteed in fiercely hot chili paste, rica roa is so pleasant that people usually treat it as their main course and eat it with a plate of hot white rice. Its delectable spicy taste also makes it a popular condiment for bubur Manado congee.

10. Sambal Ratcha Mangga from Makassar, South Sulawesi

This spicy sambal, made with thinly sliced young mango mixed with fresh chili paste, is a preferred condiment for fish head (usually snapper), soup which is one of Makassar's most popular dishes.

Read also:

6 signature Jakarta breakfast dishes

Endless varieties of Indonesian rice dishes



Share your thoughts about our article

  • Waluyo Ibn Dischman 3 yearss ago

    i love sambal.....

  • Kurt Nelson 3 yearss ago

    I can never stand sambals too. But I love other Indonesian foods! And I love eating with my bare hands too!

  • Michelle Clark 3 yearss ago

    One thing I never get about Indonesian people is how they're really fancy of sambal! It's so spicy! Once I ate just with a tip of it, and my stomach ached for like 3 days! lol

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