What Is Sambal Oelek, Really?

Huy Fong Foods may sound Asian, but it actually has a real American story. Its founder, David Tran, was a sauce maker who fled his native Vietnam in 1979, and he eventually settled in Los Angeles. It wasn't long, though, before Tran thought of picking up where he left off, and he began making his chili sauces in 1980, in a site near LA's Chinatown (via Huy Fong). 

"I had nothing when I came to America," Tran tells the South China Morning Post. "I had my wife and children to look after. I saw peppers and I started making the sauce. All I needed was $2,000 a month. But I earned more than [that] in my first month. I did nothing special but make chilli sauce. What I got was way beyond what I have ever asked."

But while Huy Fong's Sriracha is globally recognized, less is known about the company's take on sambal oelek, an Indonesian-inspired chili sauce.

Sambal oelek has Indonesian roots

Sambal is Indonesia's answer to hot sauce — and there are as many different variations of sambal as there are households with grandmothers that can cook (via Curious Nut). Of the hundreds of sambals in existence today, the one most commonly found in the U.S. is sambal oelek — the Dutch version of the word "ulek," or mortar and pestle. Sambal oelek is literally made of chilis mashed into a paste with this traditional, stone-made kitchen gadget, and this type of sambal is used as a base for making other types of chili sauces (via Food Republic).

Huy Fong's version of this classic Indonesian chili paste is enhanced with a bit of vinegar and salt, and works both as a condiment as well as an ingredient to add into cooked foods. Unlike sriracha, sambal oelek is thick, rich, and full of jalapeno seeds — think of sambal as a thicker, heartier sriracha without the added bells and whistles of garlic or other condiments (via Sriracha2Go). 

Bon Appetit says the addition of sambal oelek makes a dish taste like you might be cooking with fresh chilis. To use, you might want to start with about half of what you think you need, and add more as desired.