Fresh Sambal / Chili Dipping Sauce


I spent several years in Indonesia and it was there that I learned how to eat food with chili. Serious chili. Considering that Southeast Asia probably didn’t have chilies before the Spaniards brought them from Central America 500 odd years ago, it’s amazing how quickly and intensely sambal2certain cuisines have adopted them and made them an essential ingredient. Can you imagine Thai food without chili? It must help that the things are considered to be addictive and once bitten by the spicy bug, one craves more and more. When I first moved back to Asia, I lived in Singapore, then moved to Indonesia and worked in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and elsewhere in the region. I was always too busy to see much of these countries but I did get to try some spectacular food. During my first year I started to dabble in chilies and by my second year in the region, I sought them nearly every meal I had. For a while, I was eating my fried chicken with chili. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the most common way to experience the chili was in the form of sambal…

Sambal refers to several kinds of chili dipping sauces, condiments, additions to soups and stews that are made with chilies, tomatoes, salt, lime, shrimp paste, etc. Every home makes their preferred version and almost all of them are wickedly hot and spicy. Some sambals are cooked, others are fresh. Here is a very easy fresh sambal that we do here at home in Manila, typically served with an Indonesian chicken sotanghon soup. In a mini blender or more traditionally, a mortar and pestle, blitz or mash several red siling labuyo, tomatoes, salt, a touch of sugar and lime juice. It should have a thick-ish consistency and not be overly watery. Remove tomato seeds and watery portions to reduce moisture content. This dipping sauce has serious zing, but once you get used to it, you will keep coming back for more…

It is incredibly curious to me why The Philippines has veered away from a more spicy cuisine and instead, in recent years, seems to have focused on sweeter and sweeter food. I understand that “less fortunate” or “economically challenged” economies tend to have rather spicy or sweet or salty food, probably to make up for the lack of abundance or quality of food; however, I often wonder why we seem to have gone the sweet rather than spicy route (the salty route is a no-brainer as it is used to preserve foods for the long haul) … With the exception of some regional food (Bicolano, Ilocano), the use of chilis locally is rare and there are whole legions of folks who find them downright impossible to eat. Siling Labuyo as part of a dipping sauce is relatively common, but serious chilli use in stews, stir-fries, etc. is generally not. You can definitely count me in with the camp of folks who like serious spice every once in a while!


21 Responses

  1. MM,

    Most koreans poo-poo’ed our siling labuyo in terms of spiciness. Until I met one guy who spent his honeymoon in Boracay. He had siling labuyo and actually shuddered at the memory when he first bit into one. He said that felt like steam was coming out of his ears and the top of his head.

    Me? I’m too chicken for spicy stuff. Heck, kimchi is spicy for me. I’ll stick to sweet/savory stuff. LOL

  2. Hello, Mr. Marketman! I found your site while randomly trolling food blogs sometime last week, and what can I say? Hooked, addicted, since reading my first Market Manila post (great writing, fantastic photography, and admirable dedication to posting like it’s part of your breathing pattern)!

    I miss the chili peppers that we have in the Philippines. Maybe it’s just me, but I find most chili varieties available in my neighborhood stores quite plump and watery, than the chili peppers I remember growing up in Bicol. For heaven’s sake, I cannot even bring myself to make a proper linutong balaw (Bicol Express) that often because I prefer to shred my coconut, like to have my balaw (alamang in Tagalog)fresh from the local markets – canned and stashed in suitcases on return flights, and finding really good green chili( I think it’s called siling haba) and a nice slab of fresh pork,and a few choice pieces of daing, then slaving over it on a wood-fed fire pit for about an hour or so. The recipe my dad gave me called for a 2:1 ratio for chili and pork (e.g., 2# chili for every pound of cubed pork). It is really good and worth all the hard work. Before prepping, I sun-dry the chilis for about half a day to kick up the hotness score a notch.

    Have you ever heard of kurakding? that tiny fungus popular in Bicol markets? They look like tiny “dog-ears” (commonly found in Asian markets)but much more flavorful. I soak it for about an hour, then throw it into my linutong balaw. Yum!

  3. We eat within or beyond the parameters of our taste bud. Our taste bud is submissive to what it is accustomed. Taste buds can also be exploited to some degree but when it is too much it will be offended. With our ever evolving cuisine the new generation will develop a keen for spicy food. Regrettably to say we are still used to tempered cuisine except for other parts of the country. It is interesting to learn how Sambal is made. Incorporating Sambal to barbecue marinates will heighten the flavor of the meat. Sambal is one of the key ingredients in Singapore Chili crabs I suppose. Sambal is also good to be eaten on the side as a dipping sauce. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  4. Sambal rocks! i have it on my homecooked nasi goreng and even mix it when i fry dilis. i always buy sambal from the Asian shops here but i’ll try your version, MM.

    Kimchi? love that stuff! sarap with crispy pritong isda or bbq’d meat, and rice. ahh. gastronomical heaven. :)

  5. It could be too that most Filipinos are extra-sensitive to chilipepper that is why we limit ourselves to just its gracile flavour ever so lightly accenting paksew, sinigang, dinuguan and various coconut-milk dishes and leaving the stinging heat of labuyo to iron-clad palates on the side and strictly optional.

    So Sam, it was called nilutong balaw then huh, a trick as old as cooking itself this slapping of glamorous names on workday dishes in which the Chinese and the French are the evident masters.

  6. I think it’s a matter of personal taste. I am for accentuating food, not masking them with either too sweet or too hot and spicy. I’ve had very very hot Bicol express that I couldn’t enjoy it but I’ve tried one that is mildly hot that I can still savor the pork, alamang, and gata. I think Vietnamese and Italian cuisine also bring out the flavor of ingredients.

  7. hi MM, i didn’t like spicy food til i lived in san francisco for a couple of years. one of my best friends was an indian guy and i learned to like spice from him. ever since then, i’ve been a hot-n-spicy food convert…

  8. Hi MM– hay naku, I can completely relate with what you said about getting addicted to the chili zing. Two years ago I started hanging out with this Singaporean guy who introduced me to the wonders of Sing cuisine (via Lolo Mao, Banana Leaf, various hotel buffets), and since then I can never go through the day without eating at least one super-spicy meal!

    Love ’em labuyos!

  9. i think most visayans and mindanaoans and are also partial to chili and spicy food. could be because of the proximity to borneo. i remember my lolos and titos having dipping sauces of vinegar, soy sauce or patis with the ubuquitous chili mashed with gusto just before the meal.Every meal.

  10. i eat chili with every possible meal i can. i have a friend from brunei who used to ship me bottles of various types of homemade sambal (some using fresh chilies; some using grilled). and i always have a stash of various chili sauces at home (thanks to Metro gaisano supermarket!) but nothing beats the simplicity of prik nam pla; basically a thai sauce made with patis and sliced labuyo. lots of it

  11. I would like to grow my own lime plant. Where’d you recommend me to go to look for a plant I can buy? Can it be grown here in Manila?

  12. Never could eat spicy food. I’ve tried so many times but always ended up with lips that felt like mushrooms not to metion several trips to the bathroom. I don’t really like too sweet or too salty stuff. I’m with corrine, I don’t like masking my food. But hubby Kulas likes food his really spicy. So we compromise. He has this sili plant that have really small peppers. He and everyone else who tried it says it’s hotter than labuyo.

  13. sam, are the kirakding bigger than tenang daga? I didn’t notice them in Bicol but I will look out for them the next time. erleen, the larger limes should grow in Manila. Real dayap might be harder. I think you can get lime plants are larger nurseries. If I’m not mistaken there are some fruit tree vendors at FTI at Taguig or perhpas at the Manila Seedling Bank in QC.

  14. wow. . . I’m just used to buying “sambal oelek” at Santis. . . I’ll be trying to make my own now. . .

  15. I’ve often wondered about why we don’t use as much chili either, MM. Maybe we tend to like to the cooler flavors considering the climate can get so intense.
    One thing I can’t come to love is the sweet tomato sauces, spaghetti and pizza sauce, that dominate in the Philippine fast food industry, ‘sides Shakey’s (happens to be a favorite):) .
    Anywho, I think instead of chilies we are more attached to sour and bitter foods; unripe fruits, vinegars, bitter melon, and leaves. Espicially in Ilocano dishes like Dinengdeng (chili can be added).
    One last note, the Thai food that we know has been throughout history totally different than that of the food served to the Thai Royal family who could not be seen experiencing the effects of a spicy cuisine.

  16. Marketman, the kurakding is smaller than “tengang daga”. The best ones are about the size of a dime or smaller, usually fan shaped or a bit like curly gingko leaves. It has the same color range as that of a quail eggshell. Kurakding has a subtle earthy, nutty scent, with a firm texture (unlike tengang daga whih is a bit spongy), and best when bought fresh, although the dried ones may be available in some markets. The markets of Legaspi and the weekly markets in towns sorrounding the Mayon area are good and reliable sources. I think the purveyors source kurakding from natural growth forests, and I am uncertain if they even cultivate it commercially.

    It’s more of a delicacy that goes well with other ingredients like pork, shellfish, chili peppers, and coconut cream. Pointers: before cooking, pinch or snip off the tough pointy tip and soak the kurakding in cold water for a few minutes, strain, then squeeze out excess water before throwing it into the pot.

    Hope you find kurakding soon! It’s not as prized or flamboyant as its cousin the truffle but just as delightful.

  17. you should come down to zamboanga where some people eat siling labuyo as ulam. some tausugs have bunches of chili branches laden with the red and green fruits on their tables so that they can just pick a few (or a lot) of fresh pieces as they eat. much like having apples as your centerpiece then eating them as side dish as you progress through your meal.

  18. can’t wait to try my hand on this one. tasted this when we were in singapore and how we loved this so this is a joy for me and my hubby bubbly.
    thanks MM!

  19. My Javanese wife who LOVES sambal.
    I like it too, but not as much as she does.
    Indonesian really do love spicy food.
    They eat small bites of cabe*, in between bites of lumpia.

    My favorite is sambal terasi.

    *cabe looks like siling labuyo to me.



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