10 Delicious Varieties of Sambal to Try in Indonesia

Ayam penyet with sambal belacan, tempeh and tofu
Ayam penyet with sambal belacan, tempeh and tofu | © Aris Setya / Shutterstock
Edira Putri

Spiciness, succulence and umami: a helping of sambal is the secret to Indonesian cuisine’s delicious reputation.

Sambal is essentially a spice paste made with chilli and has long been a cornerstone of Indonesian dining. The earliest known account of sambal in Indonesia was written in 1814, listing 46 varieties. Most recently, a team of researchers registered 322 sambal recipes from across the archipelago. No matter what kind, this traditional spicy condiment is an essential part of Indonesian meals, in the same way ketchup is to fries. Here are 10 delicious varieties of sambal to try in Indonesia (and how to best enjoy them).

Sambal cabe ijo

Sambal cabe ijo (green chili sambal) is a beloved fixture in Padang cuisine. Padang dishes like rendang or gulai are already a bit spicy, but adding a spoonful of sambal cabe ijo is still a must to make the taste complete. Thankfully, this sambal is usually only mildly spicy since the dishes are already very zesty.

Enjoy with: Coconut milk-based dishes in Padang cuisine.

Sambal lado mudo

Sambal bawang

One of the most simple and ubiquitous sambals in Indonesian cuisine, sambal bawang is really straightforward to make. The recipe only involves garlic, shallots and red cayenne pepper, along with salt and sugar to taste, fried with a little vegetable oil. The shallot adds a certain umami to the whole mix, while garlic helps to bring out the piquant aroma.

Enjoy with: Anything! Even simple side dishes like ayam goreng (fried chicken), tofu and tempeh.

Sambal bawang and sambal tomat

Sambal terasi

The game-changing ingredient to this sambal is terasi, or shrimp paste. Terasi is characterised by a strong fishy aroma matched only by a well-seasoned taste. The other ingredients are chilli, shallots and tomato. The level of spiciness can be arranged by the ratio of chilli versus tomato, but most ready-made sambal terasi range from fairly to very spicy.

Enjoy with: Fried fish, fried chicken, sayur asem, raw vegetables (lalab).

Sambal mangga

This sambal owes its unique taste and freshness to a tropical secret ingredient: mango! The distinct flavour is a combination of young mango’s sour taste and chilli’s hotness, combined with salt, palm sugar and sometimes shrimp paste. The vivid yellow and red colour is in itself an appetising sight.

Enjoy with: Grilled fish, fried side dishes.

Sambal mangga

Sambal kecap

Sambal kecap uses fresh, uncooked ingredients to make a tasteful, no-fuss condiment. Green chillis, cayenne peppers, tomatoes and shallots are sliced and then drenched in Indonesia’s own sweet soy sauce. The result is an invigorating sweet and spicy taste to boost even the simplest meal.

Enjoy with: Grilled side dishes (fish, chicken), tofu, tempeh.

Tempe mendoan

Sambal dabu-dabu

This sambal recipe originated from Manado, a coastal town known for spicy dishes and fresh seafood. Aside from the usual chilli, tomato and shallots, this recipe uses basil and lime juice for added freshness. Ingredients are sliced instead of pestled, so you can feel the crunches of shallot and tomato in your mouth, along with the savoury sambal juice.

Enjoy with: Fresh seafood dishes.

Ikan bakar dabu-dabu

Sambal kacang

The main ingredients for this sambal are roasted peanut and chilli. But many other herbs and spices are also essential in making a delicious sambal kacang with a good balance of spiciness, sweetness and savoury taste. A lot of traditional dishes come with this, especially the ones from Java. The right level of thickness is also a factor in creating an excellent sambal kacang – too thick and it becomes too dry to blend with the food, too watery and it becomes difficult to handle.

Enjoy with: Satay, Indonesian vegetable salads such as gado-gado, pecel, karedok.

Sayur pecel with peanut sauce

Sambal matah

Originally from Bali, sambal matah is now a popular companion to grilled seafood across the archipelago. The defining characteristic of this semi-raw sambal is its spiciness and freshness. Lime leaves, lime juice and lemongrass give the recipe its vivifying taste, drenched in cooking oil as the sambal juice results in a pleasant and delicate texture to excite the tastebuds.

Enjoy with: Grilled seafood, roasted duck.

Sambal matah

Sambal petai

Despite its notorious smell, Parkia speciosa or the stink bean is still a much-loved food in Indonesia. For those who love it (or dare to try it), stink bean is actually an excellent ingredient for a piquant sambal recipe. Chillis and other spices are ground before they’re stir-fried with the bean, giving the sambal a unique spiciness and enticing crispy texture.

Enjoy with: Grilled or fried side dishes, raw vegetables (lalab).

Petai sambal

Sambal bajak

Usually found around Central Java, this sambal is only mildly spicy. Ingredients are first stir-fried before being crushed and ground with shrimp paste and palm sugar, giving it a tempting greasy texture and taste that is more sweet than spicy.

Enjoy with: Fried dishes.

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