10 Best Substitutes For Sambal Oelek

The Indonesian condiment sambal oelek is becoming a more common sight on grocery store shelves thanks to the soaring popularity of sriracha hot sauce, according to Food Republic. In fact, what you'll likely see in stores are the green-capped, rooster-bearing jars of sambal oelek made by the same producer of sriracha, Huy Fong Foods. So what is this sauce exactly? Food Republic says that sambal sauces are numerous and quite common in many Southeast Asian countries, and sambal oelek is the most basic of them all. It's a chili paste that consists simply of red chili peppers and a little salt, ground together using a mortar and pestle-like tool called an ulek. Sambal oelek can be used to create more complex sambals that contain vinegar, garlic, sugar, and spices. It's also delicious when used on its own as a condiment like sriracha, to add hot pepper heat and flavor to everything from burgers to fish to ramen.

Bon Appétit says that when you're shopping for sambal oelek, look for it in the Asian food aisle on the shelf where sriracha sauce is stocked. No luck at the stores in your area? The good news is that for recipes calling for sambal oelek, there are 10 great substitutes you can use in a pinch. 

1. Chili garlic sauce

According to Substitute Cooking, when you can't find sambal oelek you can look instead for bottled or jarred chili garlic sauce, which is similar in texture and flavor. Food Republic explains that sambal oelek is made of just chilies and salt — in contrast, chili garlic sauce includes garlic and vinegar, and it may have sweeteners and other seasonings, too. The two sauces are similar in consistency, which means you can make an equal substitution of chili garlic sauce for sambal oelek. 

Huy Fong Foods, the company popular for their sriracha sauce makes both sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce, according to their website. The packaging for the two sauces is very similar: If you do see these jars at your store, check the labels carefully so you know which one you're getting. And the good news is that even if you grab chili garlic sauce by mistake, you can still use it in place of sambal oelek, as long as you don't mind the additional garlic flavor. Other brands that make this sauce include National, Lee Kum Kee, and A Taste Of Thai, according to Amazon.

2. Tabasco sauce

When searching for an easy-to-find substitute for sambal oelek, tabasco sauce is a great choice considering that bottles of the hot sauce can be found in most stores, large and small. The Spruce Eats shares that tabasco sauce is made from tabasco peppers that are ground and then blended with vinegar to make a sauce. Tabasco peppers are quite spicy, with between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville Heat Units, according to Chili Pepper Madness. The sauce is aged over several months to develop its signature flavor and fiery heat.

According to Pepperscale, because tabasco sauces have such a strong vinegar flavor as compared to sambal oelek, you should use less of it to avoid overwhelming your dish with vinegar. Begin with a quarter of the amount your recipe calls for of sambal oelek, then taste your recipe before deciding to add more. The good news is because tabasco packs a wallop of tongue-searing heat, if your goal is just to add spiciness to your dish, the smaller amount of tabasco may be enough anyway (via Pepperscale).

3. Sriracha hot sauce

This is another sauce that should be easy to find because it's become such a popular condiment in the last few years. Substitute Cooking shares that sriracha hot sauce is a great choice as a substitute for sambal oelek. Although the two products are different, they share a similar flavor and also the same, bright red hue. (Perfect for dishes that you need to garnish or finish with the sauce.) 

According to Taste Of Home, sriracha sauce is made from fully-ripened red jalapeños, which are spicy, but only moderately so since the peppers aren't too high on the Scoville Heat Units scale. Along with the peppers, sriracha sauce includes garlic, sugar, vinegar, and salt. This "rooster sauce" is similar in sweetness to regular ketchup and also has a thicker consistency when compared to other vinegar-based hot sauces. If your recipe will work fine with the thicker consistency of sriracha, use the same amount as called for of sambal oelek. Substitute Cooking notes that you can also add a bit of vinegar to sriracha if you want it to be more paste-like. If garlic is listed in your recipe, you can use less of it than called for since sriracha has garlic blended in. 

4. Harissa

If you need a substitute for sambal oelek that has a similar chili paste consistency, then harissa is a great ingredient to use. Substitute Cooking shares that the texture of the sauce as well as the spiciness is comparable to sambal oelek, but keep in mind that the flavor will be different. 

Bon Appétit says that harissa is a chili paste originally from Tunisia and that's now popular across the Middle East. It's made by drying chili peppers and then reconstituting them in olive oil. The peppers are ground along with other ingredients like garlic, vinegar, citrus juice, toasted spices, and sometimes tomatoes. The spices may include cumin or caraway, which, along with the other ingredients, give harissa a flavor that's distinctly different from sambal oelek. Harissa will add lots of color and flavor, and it's a great choice as long as the flavor blend will work with the ingredients in your recipe. Harissa is sold in both mild and spicy varieties, so check the label closely when you buy it. Because the flavor is so strong, Substitute Cooking suggests adding it just a little bit at a time to your dish (start with a quarter to half of the amount noted for sambal oelek) until you're happy with the taste. 

5. Gochujang chili paste

Sambal oelek is a chili paste, and if you're hoping to find another chili paste to use as a substitute then gochujang is a good option, according to Substitute Cooking. As with harissa, however, the flavor of the paste is a little different. Bon Appétit shares that what gochujang has in common with sambal oelek is the rich, red color and the main ingredient of spicy red peppers, but from there gochujang goes in a much different direction. A condiment used in Korean dishes, gochujang is made with dried flakes of chili pepper, sticky rice, salt, and soybeans that have been fermented. Once ground together, the mixture is stored in clay pots and fermented even longer. The finished gochujang sauce is sweet, very spicy, and has a savory flavor. 

Though the spicy-sweet flavor of gochujang won't work with every dish, Substitute Cooking says it's especially delicious with meat dishes and in marinades. Because the flavor is so different from that of sambal oelek, begin by adding in only half the amount your recipe calls for, then taste and adjust your dish from there.  

6. Homemade sambal oelek

When trying to find a substitute for an ingredient you can't find at the store, going with a homemade version isn't always easy or convenient. However, in the case of sambal oelek, Substitute Cooking shares that going homemade is an option you should definitely consider. It only requires a couple of ingredients, and it's quick! To make it, you'll need plenty of hot chili peppers, so head to the produce aisle for those, and you'll also need a blender or food processor.

In their recipe for homemade sambal oelek, Serious Eats calls for one pound of red chili peppers like serranos, or red jalapeños if you can find them. You'll also need a small amount of regular or rice vinegar and a pinch of salt. Place everything in your processor or blender, then process until you have a thick pepper paste. That's it! This recipe makes one and a half cups, and you can always cut the recipe by half or a quarter to make less. Store your homemade sambal oelek in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to two weeks. 

7. Chili Crisp

Today shares that the Chinese condiment spicy chili crisp has a "cult-like following" among fans of chili pastes and chili oils. This popularity means there might just be a jar of it in your pantry now! And that's great news if you're looking for something to use in place of sambal oelek. In an article on their website, Asian grocery store Karman Foods says that chili crisp and sambal oelek are great choices to substitute for one another. 

Just in case you haven't tried chili crisp yet, according to Today, it's an oil-based condiment with pieces of hot chili peppers, garlic, onions, scallions, and other seasonings. The chili pepper bits keep some of their crunchiness, which is why the sauce has the name "crisp." It's full of flavor and because it doesn't contain lots of vinegar like tabasco and other hot sauces, you won't have worry about balancing the other flavors in your recipe against that acidity. 

As with some of the other substitutes on our list, while the texture and heat of chili crisp is close to that of sambal oelek, it has more ingredients and flavors. Consider how and if these additional flavors will work with your recipe, and then start by using half as much chili crisp as your recipe specifies for sambal oelek. Taste your dish and add more if you wish. 

8. Jalapeños

This sambal oelek substitution idea doesn't come from the pantry, but rather from the garden or produce aisle: fresh jalapeño peppers. According to Substitute Cooking, using the fresh peppers in your recipe will replace some of the heat of sambal oelek, and they'll bring a fresh, crunchy texture as well. When looking for jalapeños at the grocery store, it's all but certain that green peppers are what you'll find, according to Pepper Scale. Green jalapeños are actually underripe versions of the pepper; sauces like sambal oelek and sriracha are made from fully ripened red jalapeños. The green peppers are less spicy than ripened red peppers, but they should still give your dish a good dose of spiciness. Red chili peppers sold at groceries are typically other types like serranos which are much spicier, so check the labels carefully. 

Plan to use one small jalapeño for every tablespoon of sambal oelek called for in your recipe. Pepper Scale's guide to jalapeños says that they're typically between two and three and a half inches in length. If a larger jalapeño is all you can find at the store, plan to use only a portion of it. 

9. Thai chili paste

According to PepperScale, if you have a bottle of Thai chili paste in your pantry, it can be used as a substitute for sambal oelek, bringing some of the same qualities along with a unique flavor profile. The sauce, which might be labeled as Thai chili jam, Thai chili paste, or nam prik pao, is used as a condiment in Thai recipes whenever a boost in flavor and spiciness is desired (via Serious Eats). Dried chilies, shallots, and garlic are cooked down and charred before being ground into a paste with oil, tamarind, sugar, fish sauce, and shrimp. The paste has a strong flavor with lots of sweet-savory umami. It's especially perfect for Thai soups and stir fries.

PepperScale notes that because sambal oelek and Thai chili paste are very similar in terms of spiciness, you can use an equal amount as your recipes calls for of the sambal. It will have a stronger flavor, however, from the savory ingredients like shrimp and garlic. If you think these savory flavors might overwhelm your recipe, use a quarter to half as much of Thai chili paste, knowing that you'll lose a bit of the heat as well. 

10. Crushed red pepper

Bon Appétit shares that crushed red pepper flakes, that seasoning that you always see in shakers at pizza joints, is made primarily from dried, ground cayenne chili peppers. This simplicity of ingredients and spicy heat gives crushed red pepper flakes some traits in common with sambal oelek. However, because this is a dry spice, PepperScale says that it should be considered a last-resort substitution for the chili paste. 

The pepper flakes will bring heat to your recipe, and they also have the advantage of being an easy-to-find spice that you may already have in your kitchen. But if your recipe calls for sambal oelek and relies on the moisture of the paste to help bring the dish together or to create a certain texture, then red pepper flakes won't do much to help you. When using pepper flakes, Substitute Cooking recommends using just a quarter of the amount your recipe calls for of sambal oelek because the pepper flakes are so much spicier. You can try adding a little vinegar or fish sauce along with the flakes to replicate the sauciness of sambal oelek.