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The Fiery, Fascinating World of Sambal

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"Sambal," chef William Wongso told me when I arrived in Jakarta in the summer of 2016, "is a state of mind."

At first, I thought I knew precisely what Wongso, the 73-year-old chef and Indonesian TV personality who happens to be the island nation's chief culinary diplomat, meant—because sambal was my state of mind.

Sambal ingredients
Sambal ingredients

Photo by Eva Kolenko / Food Styling by Marian Cooper Cairns / Prop Styling by Natasha Kolenko

I'd flown there on a hunch: that the sambal oelek I'd been eating for years—the delectable chile paste from Huy Fong Foods, maker of sriracha—was not the be-all and end-all of sambal. The term sambal, I knew, referred to the spicy condiments found across Indonesia (and Malaysia and Singapore), and because Indonesia is made up of 17,508 islands with individual culinary traditions, I hoped to encounter and begin to understand an untold diversity of fiery riches. Over the course of two weeks, I'd bounce from the capital, Jakarta, on the island of Java, to paradisiacal Bali, to the tip of Sulawesi, to the hills and forests of North Sumatra, tasting every sambal I could dip a spoon into. Along the way, perhaps I would start to understand what sambal meant to the 271 million people in this enormous, mostly Muslim nation.

I started to get a sense on a stroll through a quiet corner of otherwise frenetic Jakarta, when I glanced inside a tiny storefront and saw sambal being, well, "oeleked"—that is, pounded. In a foot-wide granite mortar called a cobek, an older woman had mostly red chiles, some green ones, shallots, and garlic, which she was mashing nonchalantly with a yard-long wooden pestle called an ulekan. From this proto-sambal rose the heady and unmistakable fragrance of terasi, a fermented shrimp paste that lends umami depth to dishes across the archipelago.

From this proto-sambal rose the heady and unmistakable fragrance of terasi, a fermented shrimp paste that lends umami depth to dishes across the archipelago.

Everywhere I went and ate in Jakarta, there was a version of this sambal, called sambal terasi, often cooked down in oil. It was there with street-cart satay, and late-night congee, and breakfast fried rice—providing just enough spicy bite to wake up all the other flavors. As Wongso and others told me, sambal is one of three essential components of a meal, along with rice and krupuk, the fried crackers as airy as cheese puffs. Take one of those away, and you're not really eating at all.

When I got to Bali, an island east of Java that is primarily Hindu, the sambal took a turn for the piquant. Bali's signature is sambal matah, an uncooked almost-slaw of chiles, shallots, makrut lime or Key lime juice, and coconut oil, often mixed by hand. It's hot, slightly crunchy, tart, rich, and an ideal base for other ingredients, which, depending on the cook's preference, might include terasi, lemongrass, or (my favorite) sweet and floral torch ginger buds. But that was just the beginning. A lunch at the house of photographer Dewandra Djelantik featured 10 sambal made by his mother, including one with green chiles that had been braised in the drippings from chicken grilled over coconut husks.

Once upon a time, Djelantik hadn't even really liked sambal. But after he got married, his mother-in-law kept feeding him spicy dishes, and his state of mind shifted: "I said to my wife, 'Why haven't we made any spicy food at home yet?' 'Because you don't like any spicy food!'" He grew to love it so much that he helped organize a local chile festival starting in 2010, which today features 156 different sambal, some of them semi-mythical, like one from Bali's Payangan district made with grilled eel bones. I searched for it but never found it.

"That kind of sambal is not in the market," Djelantik said. "It's only in the family."

In Ubud, Bali, I found a shop called Hot Mama Sambal that sold sauces from all over the country, including a West Javanese one with tiny anchovies. In the rugged but placid mountains near the northeastern tip of Sulawesi, I tasted a sambal cakalang of chiles, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, and smoked skipjack tuna, all deep-fried together, ground, and then refried to absorb the oil. It was so full of flavor—heat, sweetness, meaty depth—that I would've been happy just to eat it on plain rice (with krupuk, of course).

In North Sumatra, I sampled a sambal that upended everything I thought I'd learned. It was just green chiles, salt, and andaliman, the juicy green local relative of numbing Szechuan peppercorns, pounded together. This sambal was powerful and almost overwhelmingly refreshing—an ideal complement to a fatty marinated pork dish beloved by North Sumatra's Batak tribes. The 8.5 million indigenous Batak people are a mix of Christians and Muslims, but many retain traditional religious beliefs, with a special emphasis on the power of the number three: three primary gods, three primary colors (red, white, and black), and three flavors—spicy, salty, and sour. "These three flavors are fundamental to our society," said Rahung Nasution, a Batak chef and adventurer who led me through the region. I ate this sambal over and over again, nowhere more satisfyingly than with breakfast at a market stall on the shores of Lake Toba, where a man grilled slabs of pork belly, basting them with butter from a can. Genius.

After two weeks, I formed a theory: that in a nation as vast and varied as Indonesia, sambal functioned as a uniting principle, perhaps the only thing some groups had in common. William Wongso wasn't so sure. "This is a local wisdom," he cautioned. "Every place has their own, and one might not like it." Still, he noted, Indonesians had just started to travel domestically, and they seemed eager to try new flavors. So maybe, someday, the chiles would burn down those divisions, and spice would become the national state of mind. E pluribus capsicum!