Best 8 Sambal Oelek Substitutes
Sambal oelek (sometimes just called sambal) is a wonderful, spicy condiment originating in Indonesia. It has now become popular worldwide, especially in Asian countries as well as in North America and you will likely be able to find a jar of it anywhere you buy Asian condiments.
Sambal is used to spice up everything from eggs to noodles, fried rice, meats, seafood, and soups. Sambal Oelek is made from red and green chilies (typically cayenne) which are slowly simmered with ginger, garlic, shallots, scallions, palm sugar, lime juice or zest, and sometimes tomato, tamarind, and shrimp paste. There is a raw version of sambal that is made in a mortar and pestle, called sambal mentah.
It is often left with the seeds left in, rather than being a smooth purée like other hot sauces tend to be. It is bright red in color and the homemade versions often have an oily texture and visible oil on the top. Because this sauce doesn’t typically contain vinegar or acid, it is best kept in the fridge after opening.
As mentioned, you will likely be able to find sambal at any grocery store (it is most commonly sold in clear plastic jars with a green lid!) as there are over 200 known varieties of sambal. But if you cannot get hold of it and want to keep your life spicy, here are some great substitutes for sambal oelek!
1. Thai Hot Sauce (Sriracha)
Probably the closest substitute to sambal is the world-renowned hot sauce sriracha! Similar in ingredients, sriracha and sambal both contain chilies, garlic, and salt. But sriracha also tends to contain sugar and vinegar. It is also puréed until smooth so it is pourable and tends to be a little less spicy than sambal.
People are split on which of these two famous Asian hot sauces is superior. If we go by sales, then sriracha is the winner. But if we go by how passionate people are about their hot sauces, then sambal is a close contender!
Either way, sriracha will work to suffice sambal in almost all recipes and is likely something you already have on hand. If you don’t, it is very affordable and does not need to be refrigerated, making it an ideal addition to your pantry!
3. American Hot Sauce
Hot sauce is one of the most popular condiments in North America, so it will be easy to find in any grocery store, and probably very affordable. Most American hot sauces are less spicy and contain a lot more vinegar, making them more acidic than sambal.
These hot sauces come in a variety of brands, are something more orange in color, and will work for most recipes that require sambal.
You may not be able to replace sambal with American hot sauce at a 1:1 ratio because American hot sauces are much more acidic or sweet, so make sure you taste-test your recipe as you go.
4. Tomato Sauce (Plus Spices)
Canned tomato sauce has a similar consistency and color as sambal, but is obviously not spicy at all. But you can add cayenne pepper, chili powder, hot sauce, or chili flakes to create your own chili sauce, which will be similar to sambal!
Another great tomato product to use would be tomato paste thinned out with water and mixed with spices. As a last resort, you could use tomato salsa! Made popular by Mexican cuisine lovers, salsa is often made with cooked tomatoes, cooked chilies, onion, garlic, and sometimes additional acid or sugar.
Any one of these tomato substitutes will work well in place of sambal, but keep in mind that these ingredients may contain ingredients not traditionally found in sambal, such as peppers (as in the case with salsa) or Italian herbs (as in the case of tomato marinara sauce.)
In any case, feel free to spice up the tomato product as much as you see fit and use it in place of sambal.
The main ingredients in traditional harissa include chilies, cumin, coriander, caraway, olive oil, and salt, making it similar to sambal. It uses very ripe chilies and has a signature bright, dark red color and higher oil content.
Harissa, like sambal, includes chili seeds and skin and is never puréed so there is more texture to this sauce than to other ones on this list.
Harissa is almost always raw, so it spoils quickly. It is often prepared with a thin layer of oil on the top to keep it from spoiling, which means it can sometimes be expensive. But, if you can find good harissa (check a specialty store!), it will make a lovely substitute for sambal and offer a special depth of flavor and color to any recipe.
This spicy Korean chili paste is added to soups, rice, and meat dishes and is known for being full of heat and umami. It has such depth of flavor because, unlike the other options listed here, gochujang takes months to make.
Guchujang’s primary ingredient is fermented rice, soy, and barley malt, which are aged and mixed with chilies.
The result is a paste that has a depth of flavor that you cannot get from typical hot sauces. Gochujang can range from mild to very spicy, so take note when using this as an alternative to traditional chili paste. This condiment is famous in Korea for making even the blandest dishes, like steamed rice, into elevated powerhouses of flavor!
7. Cayenne Pepper
Cayenne peppers are a common ingredient in sambal, so it is natural to use them as a replacement for sambal. When using fresh cayenne, make sure you are careful as the seeds and pith are very spicy! You may want to add a little at a time and test for heat rather than adding fresh cayenne 1:1 for sambal.
If you’re using dried, ground cayenne pepper, you may want to mix it first with a bit of water to make a paste, or simply sprinkle the powder (or red chili flakes) onto whatever you are eating that needs a little extra spice.
This is an excellent way to add heat in a pinch but will not have as much depth of flavor as a delicious sambal, so you may want to consider adding cayenne pepper in combination with another item from this list for maximum flavor!
8. Make Your Own Sambal
If you have a mortar and pestle, or a small food processor, you can acquire most of the ingredients and quickly whisk up your own sambal. The only ingredient you might have a hard time finding is shrimp paste, but you can make sambal without it.
Grind up the peppers, garlic, ginger, sugar, salt, and whatever else you are using until you have a sambal-like consistency, and then store in an airtight container. This sauce can also be cooked or puréed, so feel free to play around a little until you get your sambal recipe just right!
Sambal oelek is an incredibly popular Indonesian ingredient and if you’ve ever tried it, you will know why! Sambal has a depth of flavor that is not achieved by plain chili paste or hot sauce and is an excellent way to spice up just about any recipe. It is a great ingredient to have on hand for all your spicy recipes!
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