I’m going to try and get through this without too many puns and references to a certain And1 player but I can’t promise anything. I want to talk to you today about a particular and highly developed section of Indonesian cuisine: sambal. Really the direct translation of sambal, condiment, doesn’t do its Indonesian equivalent much justice, nor does the often-synonymous term, ‘sauce’.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word condiment? Probably ketchup, which is actually germane since the word originates with the Indonesian-Malay word kecap[i] – originally a pickled fish sauce from China – that was brought to the American colonies by English sailors in the 18th century. Then there’s mustard and pickle relish and even HP sauce for those partial to Anglo cuisine[ii]. You might go so far as to include hot sauces or their erstwhile opponent, mayonnaise. You would have to include all of these, their varieties, and more to approach the breadth and value of sambal to the Indonesian kitchen.
I’m going to admit right here that I am not an expert on sambal and to write in any sort of real depth on the subject requires a good deal more education and/or experience than I have. I will say this; sambal is some delicious shit. Most frequently sambal is tomato-based but only in the loosest of terms because really it’s more pepper, hot peppers, spicy peppers, extremely spicy and hot peppers, than anything else. Then there’s probably some garlic, maybe onions and definitely oil and salt that give sambal’s spiciness a great depth of flavor. Everything is ground, traditionally with mortar and pestle, then simmered and left to cool.
But I only just described one type of sambal. There are dozens of types and then thousands or millions of recipes because every ibu worth her weight in salt has her own special recipe, or seven, with each tailored to whatever dish she is serving. I say ibu[iii], but men and even bulés are known to cook sambal. Yes, I’ve tried my hand at it, twice, and I wasn’t unsuccessful either time.
Frying almost completely blind (I’m sorry), I bought some tomatoes and peppers, collected the spicy little green buggers that warungs give out with gorengan (fried food), grabbed a couple cloves of garlic and then threw in some elbow grease (mortar and pestles aren’t for weak). The result was an overly-chunky version that went pretty well with on an egg sandwich.
With obscure hot sauces like Sriracha becoming vogue, if not passé, I think the Western foodie market is ripe for a new edition to the condiment pantheon. Why not a product that literally means condiment in another language? So let this be the official call for investors in my latest venture: Semawang Sambal™.
[i] ‘C’ is always pronounced with a ‘ch’ here.
[ii] I’m not going to get into the trans-Atlantic debate about ketchup being called ‘tomato sauce’ or even more absurdly ‘red sauce’ nor the ketchup-catsup debacle.
[iii] Ibu is translated directly mother but is more frequently used to mean ma’am or Mrs.