Ask any Asian and they will tell you that however delicious a dish is, they need a sambal to really enjoy it to the full. Sambal provide a sort of counterbalance to the main flavours and tastes, much like the different notes in a piece of music complement each other. You can buy sambals, pickles, condiments, and chutneys in a jar but the best thing by far is to make it yourself at home. The key ingredient in sambal is chili peppers. Secondary ingredients can include: shrimp paste, anchovy, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallot, scallion, sugar, lime juice, calamansi lime juice, and vinegar.
Traditionally sambal are made with a stone pestle and mortar (which gives the finished product a slightly coarser finish than a blender) and eaten on the same day that they are made.
Sambal vary across the region. Indonesia could be considered the home of sambal as the same one comes originally from Java. There are more than 300 varieties of sambal in the Indonesian archipelago, ranging from quite mild to mouth-wateringly hot. Sri Lankans love sambal too as an accompaniment to curry and there the classic dish is pol sambal. It consists of scraped coconut (pol means coconut in Sinhala) onion, green chili, red chili powder, and lime juice with crumbled, dried Maldive fish. It’s mixed very thoroughly by hand until it’s completely blended. When some one’s making a mess of something, Sri Lankans tell them they are making “a pol sambal of it” meaning that everything is becoming muddled up.
Malaysians are attached to sambal too and one of their favourites is sambal belachan. Wrap an ounce of shrimp paste in foil and place in the oven for about 20 minutes until it’s dry and flaky. This will remove its rather harsh smell. Now pound in a pestle and mortar with 8 red chillis which have had their seeds removed and are coarsely chopped. Grind the mixture until you have a fine paste. Heat oil in a wok and fry the sambal at medium heat until it begins to dry out. Cool and serve with calmansi lime which can be squeezed into the sambal. Tomatoes and mangoes are optional ingredients. Many Malaysians, especially those who have been brought up in the baba nyonya tradition, simply can’t eat a meal without this sambal on the table.