The Fiery, Intriguing Globe of Sambal

“Sambal,” chef William Wongso explained to me when I arrived in Jakarta in the summer season of 2016, “is a point out of intellect.”

At initial, I considered I knew exactly what Wongso, the 73-12 months-outdated chef and Indonesian Television personality who takes place to be the island nation’s main culinary diplomat, meant—because sambal was my point out of head.

I might flown there on a hunch: that the sambal oelek I’d been having for years—the delectable chile paste from Huy Fong Foodstuff, maker of sriracha—was not the be-all and finish-all of sambal. The phrase sambal, I knew, referred to the spicy condiments identified across Indonesia (and Malaysia and Singapore), and simply because Indonesia is built up of 17,508 islands with unique culinary traditions, I hoped to encounter and start out to recognize an untold diversity of fiery riches. More than the course of two weeks, I’d bounce from the funds, Jakarta, on the island of Java, to paradisiacal Bali, to the suggestion of Sulawesi, to the hills and forests of North Sumatra, tasting just about every sambal I could dip a spoon into. Together the way, most likely I would get started to have an understanding of what sambal meant to the 271 million men and women in this great, primarily Muslim nation.

I started to get a feeling on a stroll via a quiet corner of otherwise frenetic Jakarta, when I glanced inside a tiny storefront and saw sambal remaining, perfectly, “oeleked”—that is, pounded. In a foot-extensive granite mortar referred to as a cobek, an older girl had generally red chiles, some eco-friendly kinds, shallots, and garlic, which she was mashing nonchalantly with a lawn-extensive picket pestle referred to as an ulekan. From this proto-sambal rose the heady and unmistakable fragrance of terasi, a fermented shrimp paste that lends umami depth to dishes throughout the archipelago.

Everywhere you go I went and ate in Jakarta, there was a variation of this sambal, known as sambal terasi, frequently cooked down in oil. It was there with avenue-cart satay, and late-night time congee, and breakfast fried rice—providing just plenty of spicy bite to wake up all the other flavors. As Wongso and others advised me, sambal is a person of 3 crucial parts of a meal, along with rice and krupuk, the fried crackers as airy as cheese puffs. Get a single of those absent, and you are not really taking in at all.

When I obtained to Bali, an island east of Java that is primarily Hindu, the sambal took a transform for the piquant. Bali’s signature is sambal matah, an raw practically-slaw of chiles, shallots, makrut lime or Crucial lime juice, and coconut oil, usually blended by hand. It’s hot, somewhat crunchy, tart, wealthy, and an perfect foundation for other ingredients, which, based on the cook’s desire, could contain terasi, lemongrass, or (my favorite) sweet and floral torch ginger buds. But that was just the starting. A lunch at the home of photographer Dewandra Djelantik showcased 10 sambal designed by his mom, like just one with inexperienced chiles that had been braised in the drippings from hen grilled more than coconut husks.

Once upon a time, Djelantik hadn’t even seriously favored sambal. But soon after he received married, his mother-in-legislation retained feeding him spicy dishes, and his point out of intellect shifted: “I claimed to my wife, ‘Why haven’t we made any spicy food items at house nevertheless?’ ‘Because you never like any spicy food stuff!'” He grew to really like it so a great deal that he assisted manage a local chile pageant starting off in 2010, which today functions 156 diverse sambal, some of them semi-mythical, like just one from Bali’s Payangan district made with grilled eel bones. I searched for it but in no way identified it.

“That sort of sambal is not in the sector,” Djelantik said. “It really is only in the household.”

In Ubud, Bali, I identified a store called Very hot Mama Sambal that sold sauces from all about the place, which includes a West Javanese a person with little anchovies. In the rugged but placid mountains in close proximity to the northeastern idea of Sulawesi, I tasted a sambal cakalang of chiles, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, and smoked skipjack tuna, all deep-fried jointly, ground, and then refried to absorb the oil. It was so total of flavor—heat, sweetness, meaty depth—that I would’ve been joyful just to eat it on basic rice (with krupuk, of training course).

In North Sumatra, I sampled a sambal that upended anything I imagined I’d figured out. It was just eco-friendly chiles, salt, and andaliman, the juicy green community relative of numbing Szechuan peppercorns, pounded alongside one another. This sambal was highly effective and almost overwhelmingly refreshing—an great enhance to a fatty marinated pork dish beloved by North Sumatra’s Batak tribes. The 8.5 million indigenous Batak men and women are a combine of Christians and Muslims, but numerous keep standard religious beliefs, with a exclusive emphasis on the electricity of the selection three: three key gods, a few most important colours (purple, white, and black), and three flavors—spicy, salty, and bitter. “These 3 flavors are essential to our culture,” stated Rahung Nasution, a Batak chef and adventurer who led me through the area. I ate this sambal in excess of and over once again, nowhere much more satisfyingly than with breakfast at a market stall on the shores of Lake Toba, in which a person grilled slabs of pork belly, basting them with butter from a can. Genius.

Just after two weeks, I shaped a theory: that in a country as huge and diversified as Indonesia, sambal functioned as a uniting principle, potentially the only detail some teams had in widespread. William Wongso was not so sure. “This is a neighborhood wisdom,” he cautioned. “Every single position has their very own, and a person could possibly not like it.” Still, he pointed out, Indonesians had just started off to journey domestically, and they appeared eager to attempt new flavors. So possibly, someday, the chiles would burn off down these divisions, and spice would become the nationwide condition of brain. E pluribus capsicum!