In Indonesia, no meal is without sambal, a hallowed chili paste that sits at the center of the table during every meal. All other dishes are arranged around it, taking a supporting role to the fiery condiment that’s dabbed onto each bite.
Yet sambal is no singular sauce. In researching her cookbook “Coconut and Sambal,” Lara Lee found a historian who had documented at least 352 iterations across the nation’s 6,000 inhabited islands. Variations on sambal abound—cooked or raw, finely chopped or mashed, made with fresh or dried ingredients.
But one ingredient is constant: chilies. In West Sumatra, they might simmer green chilies with anchovies. Raw red chilies are combined with tomato, lime and basil in Manado, while Bali red chili sambals might use lemon grass, ginger and garlic.
Sambal alone consumes 20 pages of Lee’s book, which is part remembrance of her Indonesian grandmother, who spent hours with her as a child grinding sambals.
“The fragrance of those stayed with me long into my teenage years and into adulthood,” says Lee.
Her go-to sambal is one that’s known throughout Indonesia and is relatively simple, though it includes a whopping 20 fresh chilies to make about 2 cups, plus tomato, tamarind, palm sugar, ginger, shallots and garlic. She blitzes the mixture in a food processor before cooking it in a skillet, concentrating the flavors as the sugars caramelize.
The spicy-sweet sauce takes only 20 minutes to make—time well spent to avoid the flat-tasting bottled versions found in most supermarkets. And it goes particularly well in the common Indonesian side dish sambal goreng kentang, or deep-fried potatoes.
The crispy, mild potatoes are an ideal foil for the spicy sambal, which we toned down by increasing the ratio of tomatoes to chilies. Fish sauce stands in for the umami depth of commonly used shrimp paste. And rather than dulling the flavor with added fat from deep-frying the potatoes, we jump-start them in the microwave, then coat them in a fine layer of cornstarch. When baked in a 450°F oven, the potatoes come out ultracrispy with creamy interiors.
With the more manageable heat level, we were left with an addictive, sweet and sour side, fit for the center of the table.