Sambal from Indonesia

By martin Mendiola….
Upon arriving from an extended Asian vacation, my daughter proudly announced that she had brought me some sambal pecel from Bali. Of the many things I would love to get from Bali, sambal pecel was not one of them, especially since I could not recognize the name and much less figure out what it was.

After graciously accepting a brownish block of what looked like old semi-dried ground meat that had fallen on the floor and picked up dirt and small stones, I simply had to ask what it was. She proceeded to tell me that by adding a bit of hot water it becomes a sauce made of peanuts, chilies and spices which is used as a condiment throughout Indonesia. With an attitude, she continued to tell me they had been using it almost like ketchup and that the reason for the gift was that she vividly remembered when we once had it as a salad dressing and my comments as to how different and tasty it was. Much to my surprise, she was right; it was at a local Thai restaurant where it is the house dressing.

Please note that we are referring to a processed almost ready to serve version of the sambal pecel. One of the many recipes to make it from scratch calls for peanuts, garlic, red chilies, bird’s eye chilies, galangale, lime leaves, tamarind, shrimp paste, coconut sugar and sugar. Westerners have a bit of a problem with the semantics of the names due to the fact that the literary translations do not necessarily explain what it is and a more meaningful explanation is required. The issue comes from the fact that sambal is a chili based sauce used as a condiment and pecel is a sauce based on chilies, peanuts, tamarind and coconut sugar.

The way I understand it, is that sambal is a base sauce made of chilies (to simplify it, think of it as an Indonesian “Tabasco” sauce) which may have many different flavors and potency depending on the type of chilies used. The difference between using Cayenne Peppers and Cabe Taliwangs represents several thousand Scoville heat units on the scale. The Scoville scale is a measurement of the spicy heat or piquance of a chili pepper. It indicates the amount of capsaicin (a chemical compound that stimulates chemoreceptor nerve endings in the skin) present. The Cabe Taliwangs are much hotter than the Cayenne Peppers; they are near identical in heat as the Naga Jolokia Chilies which have been recognized as the hottest peppers in the world.

In order to recognize the over 300 varieties of sambal in Indonesia, knowing the language and understanding the culture is almost imperative. When you take the base (sambal) and mix in products such as gandaria (a fruit native to Southeast Asia, related and similar to a mango), it becomes sambal gandaria. Pencit means young mango in Indonesian, so when you add it to the base, you get sambal pencit.

Regretfully the simplicity of adding a product and coming up with the name gets complicated when several products and spices are added. For example, when you add sweet soy sauce, tomato bits, shallots and lime it acquires a “sweet” taste and is called sambal kecap manis (manis is the Indonesian word for sweet). If you added honey instead of all the other products, it would not be a manis, it would be called something else.

Interesting enough, the sambal dabu-dabu is very similar to the Mexican salsa sauce since it has coarsely chopped tomatoes, lemon cui, shallots, basil, vegetable oil and salt. Our sambal pecel is made with peanuts, palm sugar, chili, salt, garlic, citrus leaves, galingale and tamarind. When you take the chilies and start adding whatever comes to mind, the varieties that can be created are unlimited and in Indonesia at least 300 of them are recognized.

Sambal is traditionally made using a stone mortar and pestle where the different products are incorporated as they are pounded into a paste. Water is later added to achieve the consistency desired depending on the final use. There are times when these sauces are made and served separately, partly so that the individual may control the heat. We strongly recommend using this method whenever possible since the chef’s concept of “hot” may be totally different and depending on the chilies used, unbearable.

Indonesian dishes like the sambal offer very interesting and tasteful flavors, different from the Indian, Chinese or Thai food we are used to, even though the influence from these countries is quite obvious. Regretfully, in the Miami area we do not have many choices, to the best of my knowledge, there are only three restaurants that have a partial Indonesian menu and are mostly Japanese oriented. The one in Miami Beach is closed until mid October.

There are many other things I still would rather have from Bali, but the sambal pecel will do for now.

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