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Global Pantry: Cooking with Sambal Oelek

Meet your new favorite hot sauce—with a range far wider than Asian applications. By Naomi Duguid
Image Credit: Photo: Johnny Autry

Sambal Oelek (sometimes written "sambal ulek") is a chile paste made of pounded or chopped fresh red cayenne chiles flavored with salt, a little sugar, and vinegar, but with no garlic or spices—so its taste is that of pure hot chile essence. It’s originally from Indonesia, where a “sambal” is a chile-based condiment sauce (there are many kinds of sambal), and “oelek” means mortar or pounded in a mortar.

If you’ve bought a jar of sambal oelek to use in Indonesian or other Asian food, you’ll soon find it has a place in many other parts of your repertoire, from salads to sandwiches. One fabulous everyday use that will have you buying more in a hurry is in peanut butter or almond butter sandwiches. (I also love it on cheddar cheese.) Spread the nut butter on your bread or toast; then smear on a little sambal oelek. Top with another slice of bread or toast, or eat open-faced: a very adult peanut butter sandwich!

Sambal oelek is also a versatile kitchen friend. Try tossing in a spoonful to add punch to a soup or to a tomato sauce for pasta, or include some when you are marinating meat (it’s particularly delicious in a marinade for lamb). Put some out as a condiment (in a small bowl with a small spoon) with practically any meal; its fresh red color is very decorative.

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