Vittles 2.16 - Sambal

The Power of Sambal, by Lara Lee

Yesterday The Times ran an article by its food editor covering the recent Bon Appetit fiasco, as well as the reaction to it from British recipe magazines such as BBC Good Food and Olive who are commissioning audits into their website to hunt down rogue ingredients. The article (which I wont bother linking to because it’s behind a paywall) was an excellent example in subtly moving the goalposts until it looks like what is being argued for is absurd. BA is reported as being accused of “ethnic erasure in its promotion of international dishes and ingredients” and of “commissioning white chefs to record video guides on making pho”.

Writer MiMi Aye puts up a good fight in the mid-section, talking about lack of diversity and why cultural appropriation was never the issue, but by the end it’s clear this is the route the article wants to go down, with the editorial arguing that “that recipes should adhere to cultural authenticity is surely nonsensical. The history of food is one of constant appropriation and evolution.” Cue about 10,000 comments by people asking if they’re allowed to make curry at home. The real lede — the culture of racism, the lack of diversity, the pay discrepancies — were all buried at a point where the average Times reader would already be too enraged and engorged to care. It is certainly much easier to invent a version of your opponent’s argument you can easily ridicule than give up even a modicum of power.

An audit was never anything anyone asked for, but I did my own version of it in anticipation of today’s newsletter on sambal by writer Lara Lee. Sambal is a condiment that has escaped the gravitational pull of its original context in Indonesia and Malaysia, and is now used by recipe writers with abandon. Out of 10 recipes on Good Food’s site that called for it only one was written by a Malaysian chef. Out of 15 recipes on the Guardian not cribbed from cookbooks, again only one was by a Malaysian chef. Very few of the others sought to contexualise the dish, or platform someone who knew the dish intimately. It’s also worth noting the bigger problem: that there isn’t a single person of colour on the entire editorial team of BBC Good Food. So who gets to be platformed and profit off these recipes? When the structure of your magazines and websites are set up to reward white writers interpreting the food of the rest of the world at the exclusion of those who are the experts, can recipe writing be anything more than a colonial exercise?

My main objection to all of this is that actually it is such a boring way to do things. It breeds lazy, disinterested writing; it reduces food to a set of dispassionate instructions to be followed. In Lara’s new book Coconut and Sambal, there are seven recipes for sambal (and more using it as an ingredient) each one contextualising it with Indonesian geography and personal history. Any of them are infinitely richer and more interesting than the recipes I came across during my brief audit. Maybe those are the goal posts we can move: yes diversity is important, but really, don’t you just want better writing?

The Power of Sambal, by Lara Lee

“I’d love your homemade sambal though if you have it…” read the message from Sri Owen, an 85-year-old Indonesian cookery writer based near Wimbledon. The UK was entering its third week in lockdown and Sri and her husband Roger were facing stricter rules inside their care home, where they have lived for 18 months. They could no longer leave the front doors of the home under any circumstances; nor could they roam the extensive gardens that surround the home’s estate or visit the library or restaurant on the floors below them. Sri would be celebrating her birthday that week in the confines of her room under the most extreme conditions of quarantine.

In times of isolation, our detachment from the world has left us on a journey without a navigator, a weightlessness that makes us yearn for the foods that ground us and brings comfort. For some, that food may be as simple as a cheese toastie; for others like Sri and myself - and many Indonesians who crave the food that reminds them of home – that comfort is sambal. 

Indonesian food writer Kevindra Soemantri once described sambal to me as “the flaming passion of the Indonesian table”. Sambal is a spicy, hot condiment with chilli as its star ingredient but you will find vastly different sambals depending on which region you visit in Indonesia, all with differing cooking techniques, varying ingredients and a range of spice levels that spans from mild to a not-for-the-faint-hearted heat that will bring your body to full attention. It may be raw or cooked, sliced or ground into a paste, made with fresh or dried ingredients. What is consistent across the archipelago is that sambal sits at the heart of every meal, served alongside rice, a multitude of vegetable, fish or meat dishes and kerupuk, an Indonesian cracker which stimulates the appetite. Sambal exists to complement food, rather than overpower it, and Indonesians will eat a little sambal with every bite, using it to season food the way we use salt and pepper or tomato ketchup and mustard to enhance the flavours of a meal in the West.

The joy of sambal comes with its ability to transform even the dullest of meals into a triumph. In my London kitchen, I’ll inauthentically add a spoonful of sambal next to scrambled eggs for breakfast, eat it alongside sweet potato chips and seared ribeye steak or drizzle it over a takeaway pizza already laden with jalapenos. I simply cannot eat nasi goreng without it and a generous dollop will always be plonked into the centre of my homemade soto ayam (a fragrant Indonesian chicken soup). Some poorer communities will eat a plate of hot white rice with just a serving of sambal on the side. Its versatility makes it ubiquitous: sambal can be served as a condiment, as a stir-fry paste in recipes such as sambal goreng tempe, served with raw or cooked vegetables in a salad known as lalapan, or as a sweet, spicy and savoury sauce combined with ingredients such as ribs or aubergine known as balado

Originating on the island of Java, there are 352 kinds of sambals recorded in historical Indonesian texts, according to culinary researcher Professor Murdijati Gardjito. That doesn’t include the thousands of unofficial variations spread across the country, where every home cook proudly boasts their own family recipe and knows that “my sambal is better than yours”. Long before the introduction of chillies to Indonesia in the 16th century by the Spanish and Portuguese, Indonesians made sambal using native ingredients such as ginger, the tongue-tingling andaliman pepper (a distant relative of Sichuan pepper from northern Sumatra) and the long pepper that grows in the mountainous highlands of Bali. While the most basic sambals can be made with just chillies and a little salt, a thousand years of embracing fiery sambal means that today far more complex varieties exist, supplemented with quintessential Indonesian ingredients such as garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, tamarind and lime leaf.  

Indonesian cuisine is as diverse as the natural landscape that stretches across the 17,500 islands that form the archipelago, spanning everything from volcanic terrain with life-giving monsoon rains to emerald rainforests and geometric rice paddies. Flavour profiles vary with sweet, sour and spicy characteristics giving each region its own distinctive taste. In west Sumatra sambal hijau Padang gives immense textural pleasure, being made of caramelised ground green chillies, perfumed with lime leaf, citrus, garlic and shallots, and crushed fried salted anchovies. All over Indonesia you will find the ground red chillies of sambal ulek seasoned with just a little salt, and sometimes with a little vinegar. Travel further east to the Hindu island of Bali and their sambal matah is served sliced, raw and fresh with finely shredded lemongrass, chillies, ginger and garlic coated in lime juice and a sprinkling of salt. In Manado on the narrow, spider-shaped volcanic island of Sulawesi is a raw chilli, tomato, lime and lemon basil sambal called dabu-dabu that is so delicious that I often eat an entire bowl of it on its own. Indonesia’s national motto, “bhinneka tunggal ika,” translates to, “out of many, one” which means unity in diversity. From a culinary standpoint, what unites them all is sambal.

I was introduced to sambal from a young age when my Indonesian grandmother, who we called Popo, relocated from Timor, an island at the southern end of the archipelago just north of Australia, to live with us. The taste of her tomato sambal, which she flavoured with ginger and tamarind, was too hot for a five year old’s tender palate but its presence symbolised a cherished moment I looked forward to everyday – our family dinner. My father immigrated to Australia from Timor at the age of 22 and after meeting and marrying my Australian mother, he worked two jobs to support us: a full-time job in the day and another second job late into the evenings. During dinner was the only time I got to see my father midweek, and it was also when my own connection to Indonesia began, through the migration of Popo’s recipes to our table. I remember the juices from her Balinese chicken dribbling down my chin as I eagerly ate every morsel, the smell as she took the steaming tray out of the oven having wafted out of the kitchen into every room of the house. The fragrance of spice pastes lingered long after she and my mother had finished cooking our evening meals. The dishes changed daily but always standing proud at the centre of the table was her sambal, radiant and scarlet, the colour of blood and fire, a constant reminder of that precious hour at home together surrounded by the platters of food that we shared between us.  

Popo not only gifted me a culinary identity, but through her food she gave me my strongest ‘memory’ of Indonesia, a place I had never visited before adulthood. As I grew older and developed a ferocious affection for chillies, the love of sambal was kindled in me. When I finally set foot on Timorese soil for the first time, the garlic, shallot and lemongrass fragrance of my childhood surrounded me as street food vendors fanned the kecap manis-laced smoke that rose from the grills. Years later, my cookbook Coconut & Sambal acted as a gateway to explore, understand and celebrate my Indonesian heritage and I spent half a year travelling across the archipelago in search of recipes from my family and generous locals who invited me into their kitchens. In London a friendship formed with Sri Owen, the doyenne of Indonesian cuisine, and I trained under her mentorship. Amongst the many dishes we cooked together every week was sambal. Traditionally it is ground in a cobek and ulekan, a flat Indonesian version of a mortar and pestle, but Sri taught me hers using a food processor. This technique takes very little effort and time, often less than 5 or 10 minutes, and I wholly encourage you to follow suit if you’re short of time or without traditional equipment.  

This tomato sambal, which draws inspiration from my cooking sessions with Sri and the sambals that graced our family dinner table, is the recipe I made for Sri the day she messaged me from her care home. Jars of carefully wrapped frozen tomato sambal were stacked inside a cardboard postal tube and a special courier delivered it to her on the morning of her birthday. The addition of the tomatoes gives this sambal its umami-rich flavour, one that is balanced with the sourness of tamarind and the sultry heat of the chillies. I make it in large batches, as it lasts a week in the fridge and 3 months in the freezer. 

The power of food to nourish the soul is never more profound than in times of need and isolation, for it offers passage to the past. Eating sambal I am transported to a time from before; the hum of motorbikes whizz past as I sit on a pastel-coloured plastic stool at a laminate table in a small restaurant in Kupang, Timor. A rickety ceiling fan above my head provides little respite from the heat as the fragrance of caramelised shallots and garlic wafts out of the kitchen with the burning sting of chilli, and a small bowl of sambal is laid before me. When life’s basic freedoms are out of grasp, the need for transportive comfort has never been greater. For Sri and I, and many Indonesians who are far from the tropical isles of their motherland, sambal has the power to transport us, to provide escape in that brief moment when its piquant heat dances on our tongues.

Sambal Tomat

Makes 250g (about 16 portions) 

20 long red chillies (about 250g), deseeded and sliced 

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

4cm piece of ginger (about 20g), peeled and sliced

2 small banana shallots or 4 Thai shallots, peeled and sliced

180g cherry tomatoes

1 tsp tamarind paste (or 1 tsp lime juice mixed with 1 tsp brown sugar)

½ tsp palm sugar or brown sugar

Sea salt and black pepper, to taste 

Coconut oil or sunflower oil, for frying

Place the chillies, garlic, ginger, shallots and tomatoes in a food processor and blend to a semi-fine paste, retaining a little texture. 

Place a frying pan over a medium heat and add 4 tablespoons of oil. Add the paste to the pan and cook, stirring continuously, for 10–15 minutes or until the sambal darkens, is fragrant and reduces to a thick consistency. Season with the tamarind paste, sugar, salt and pepper. Leave to cool.

Lara Lee is an Indonesian and Australian chef, food writer and cookery teacher. She trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine and now runs an event catering business called Kiwi and Roo, serving delicious food to high-profile guests including the royal family and the Australian prime minister; and at venues such as the Natural History Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts. She also holds supper clubs that celebrate her heritage with both Australian and Indonesian cuisine all over London. Coconut & Sambal is her first cookbook. Find her on social media at @laraleefood

The collage illustration was done by Nick Wood, an architect and artist who is also the founder and director of How About Studio.

Both Lara and Nick donated their fee for this article back to Vittles.

Photo of sambal tomat courtesy of Louise Hagger/Bloomsbury Press.