DIY 1-Ups: Sambal Oelek
Foodie magazines are always writing about the latest trendy condiments (which often reads as a co-opting of items that have been staples in non-Eurocentric cooking and dining for ages). Sriracha, harissa, fish sauce, gochujang, kimchi. I can’t make any predictions about national trends, but I can report on stuff that’s getting a lot of attention in my home. This past year, sambal oelek - a raw chili paste with a bright vinegar flavor and hefty bite - has been the condiment obsession. Sambals, in general, are common to various South/Southeast Asian cuisines, such as in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. According to Wikipedia, it’s even found in the southern Philippines - news to me!
At some point, Criminy was pouring the bright red sambal oelek straight out of the tiny plastic bottle and onto tortilla chips, not even stopping to put it on a plate! (Maybe that speaks more to my partner’s snacking habits, but that’s neither here nor there). After going through at least one container per week, we stopped to look at the nutritional information and (expectedly) were aghast at the amount of sodium, not to mention how stupidly simple the ingredients are - Chiles, salt, distilled vinegar. Then there are the add-ons: Potassium sorbate and sodium bisulfite as preservatives and xantham gum (probably used as a thickener).
Considering that people in Southeast Asia have been making sambals forever with just the simple ingredients, mortar and pestle, and none of the fluff, why couldn’t I make this at home? So I did, and it is just as easy as the list of ingredients. The recipes I found on the internet all seemed to agree. This blog, High Over Happy, seems to know what she’s talking about, and it reports that sambal oelek is usually made with red serrano chiles (7,000 to 25,000 Scoville units - for reference, a jalapeno is about 5,000 units). Now, I love spicy food but I’m also a big wuss. So, I compromised and made this with red jalapenos and a few Thai chiles thrown in for good measure. My recipe was inspired by the one at High Over Happy, but this is definitely not a precise science. Experiment with the level of acidity, texture, and heat you like. I made another batch of this with fresh garlic cloves, and though not technically sambal oelek (which is really more of a base for other additives), it was still really, really good.
And good it was. The vinegar makes for a bright backdrop for the assertive heat and chili flavor, which is uncompromisingly fresh.
Sambal Oelek / Ulek
1 lb. Fresh chiles (serrano, red jalapeno, or Holland)
2 Tbsp. to 1/4 cup Distilled white vinegar
1 tsp. Kosher salt
Optional: fresh garlic cloves
Old school version - Mortar and pestle
Modern version - Food processor or Immersion stick blender
Slice the chiles, removing the center veins and seeds (unless you want it super, duper hot - then leave some or all of these. Smash/chop/blend the chiles up, which may require adding a few tablespoons of water to get things grinding. The texture should be a thick paste. On medium-high heat in a wok or pan, cook the chile paste for about 10 minutes, adding the salt and some of the vingar once the paste heats up. Stir regularly. You may want to add more vinegar after tasting it to your liking and finding a consistency that’s acceptable to you. I like it somewhere between thick paste and thin-and-runny.
TL;DR version: Make sambal oelek yourself. It’s easy, and it’s much cleaner, brighter, and fresher tasting than the storebought kind.