Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Joy (And Pain) Of Sambal...

Today's post is dedicated to sambal, that ubiquitous chili-pepper concoction that spices up Indonesian cuisine. There are probably as many different types of sambal as there are islands in this archipelago (17,000), but today will stick with some of the basics. But before we get started, there are a couple of precautions one needs to take before embarking on a sambal odyssey. The first thing you need is water. Lots of it. Sambal is spicy stuff, and the effect only increases the more you eat. Cucumbers are a handy thing to have around as well, as they dull the spiciness. Next, it's best to have your schedule planned out for the next 12 to 18 hours or so. You want to be someplace comfortable, like your home or office. You don't want to eat a bunch of sambal before hopping on the Medan-Lampung bus. Sambal for the most part is pretty basic stuff; the main ingredients are chili peppers, onions, garlic, and salt. Additional ingredients are blended to created specialty sambals, but they are all based primarily on chili peppers. And despite the simplicity of sambal, it adds a whole new dimension to your meal. Sambal transforms a simple bowl of rice into a main course.

I did extensive research for this post (consisting of eating dinner) by visiting a couple of restaurants specializing in sambal. There are a number of these around town; I visited Pedas Abas on Jalan Gatotkaca and Pondok Cabe on Jl Gejayan (you can also try Cabe Nusantara, but I've not yet eaten there). These places have an ala-carte menu featuring vegetables and various fried/grilled dishes, but the main attraction is the wide variety of sambals on offer: Pondok Cabe has 16 and Pedas Abas has 23 varieties, all prepared fresh daily. You order off the ala-carte menu and pick the sambal you want to accompany your meal. These places are great for sampling new flavors, and you can have a filling meal for around US$3. Pondok Cabe is a larger place and features a fancier setup with nice ambiance, whereas Pedas Abas is a bit simpler and seems to cater more to the university crowd. However, at Pedas Abas you get to eat off banana leaves, which for me personally never gets old. Order the tofu (tahu sutra) and the grilled beef along with a vegetable; my favorite is kangkung, which is a type of spinach (better at Pedas Abas than Pondok Cabe).

I tried several varieties over the course of several meals, including the following:

1. Sambal Gunung (Mountain sambal). This is a slightly sweet sambal that rates "medium" on the spiciness scale. It's made with whole green chilis and has bits of beef mixed in.

2. Sambal Penyetan. This also rates "medium" on the spiciness index; it's quite pleasing and has a certain tanginess.

3. Sambal Bawang. This is a popular sambal and is one of the spiciness. Delicious, but not for the tender-tongued. For me this sambal mixed with rice makes a meal in itself, and it's a sure fire way to make sure I'm drinking enough fluids.

4. Sambal Kecap. This is a sweeter, oily sambal made with soy sauce and small red onions. If you enjoy milder tastes, this is the one for you.

5. Sambal Terasi Segar. This sambal is made of chiles and shrimp paste and is a bit spicier, but very very tasty with rice.

And for those of you that would like to try this at home, I asked my friend Fina for a couple of sambal recipes, which I've included below. You should have no problem finding the ingredients, but remember, don't forget the water!

Sambal Bawang

--5 red or green chilis, depending on whether you prefer "spicy" or "super spicy", according to Fina.
--1/2 clove garlic
--1/2 teaspoon salt
--1/2 teaspoon sugar

Put all the ingredients in a mortar-pestle (see illustration to the left) and smash them up according to your preference for blended or chunky. That's it. Fina recommends enjoying this sambal with fried tofu or fried tempe

Sambal Tomat.

--5 short chilis
--5 long chilis
--3 red onions
--2 cloves of garlic
--1 tomato
--1/2 tablespoon shrimp paste
--1/2 teaspoon salt
--1/2 teaspoon sugar.

Heat a bit of oil in a wok or skillet. Put all the ingredients except the sugar and salt. Saute until tender. Remove from heat; drain. Smash the sambal with the mortar and pestle and add sugar and salt. Voila!

So there you have it. A primer to sambal. I've always found that adding a bit of Aloha Gold premium soy sauce, the one that comes in the silver bottle with the picture of Kristy Yamaguchi, adds a nice touch as well. The beauty of sambal is that the simple, basic formula allows for a high degree of experimentation and culinary expression.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Keith,

    Great blog on sambal and all things Indonesian! It brings me back there!

    For all the kids watching back at home in Hawai'i, you would recognize kangkung or water spinach as Ong Choi, the heart shaped leaf green that always sells out at the KCC farmers market in the early morning hours due to its popularity with all Southeast Asia cultures here- Thai, Lao, Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Indonesian!

    And a tip on reducing the heat of the sambals— the compound that makes chilis spicy, capsaicin, is oil soluble, not water soluble. So like mixing oil & vinegar together where they just sit on top of each other and don't combine if left to their own devices, the water doesn't mix with the spice and just passes over the capsaicin on your tongue (or worse spreads it over more of your tongue!). So to really quell the heat quickly, it's best to eat or drink something oily or starchy like milk, rice, bread, taro, avocado, potato, or chocolate.

    Hopefully that'll let you eat Sambal Bawang in peace and have a better defense against it!


    Nat Bletter, PhD
    Chocolate Flavormeister