What's the Difference Between Sambal Oelek and Other Chili Pastes?

This spicy Indonesian sauce is the next condiment you should add to your shopping list.

Closeup of three spoons with chili pastes
Photo: Dotdash Meredith Food Studios

With its intense flavor and bold heat, this Indonesian chili paste is a winner in most savory dishes. The best part: it's a simple switch for many of your other favorite hot sauces. So what are you waiting for? Read to find out more, then add it to your cart.

What Is Sambal Oelek?

Sambal Oelek is a Southeast Asian condiment, both spicy and umami-rich. It adds a punch to many savory dishes, from pasta to ground meats, and even scrambled eggs if you're feeling adventurous. Made with a combination of Thai or red chile peppers, vinegar, and salt, this basic yet flavorful concoction can be found in your local (well-stocked) supermarket in the Asian section, or of course, is always available online.

"Sambal" is the Indonesian term for chili sauce, or a hot relish, and "oelek" refers to the crushing that happens of said sauce in a mortar and pestle—the traditional method for preparing this condiment. The most popular and common brand available is Huy Fong, instantly recognizable in a bright green lid with a red paste visible underneath. There are hundreds of variations, each unique to the geography and population.

What Does Sambal Oelek Taste Like?

With a sparse ingredient list, peppers shines through in this sauce. More relish than ketchup (or Sriracha, but we'll get to that later), the sauce is a reduced-down, thick chili spread. It gives a punch of heat that should be used sparingly. A tablespoon or two is likely all you'll need. Keep the jar in the fridge after opening, and you'll have it for months.

According to various sources—and who you ask—the paste provides a mild heat without much flavor otherwise. One tablespoon can be swapped with (or for) a small jalapeño. If you're in a pinch, dried red pepper flakes or cayenne are also great substitutes. Your favorite hot sauce may have a similar ingredient list, but we'll advise you when and how they differ from sambal oelek (hint: some are sweeter, have more vinegar, or just a whole different set of spices which could really throw your recipe off).

While the most common brand available in the U.S., Huy Fong, has a relatively simple ingredient list, keep in mind that different brands have different ingredient lists and some may include garlic, fish paste, or lemon.

How Does It Compare to Other Sauces?

Chili Garlic Sauce

Strikingly similar to sambal, the notable difference in this chili sauce version is its inclusion of garlic (hence the name). These two can be swapped for each other if you find yourself in a bind. Some include sugar or different spice blends and are often described as "tangy." We love that the texture can be a bit runnier. Chili garlic sauce is delicious in adding some heat to your fried chicken; for example, this Korean fried chicken recipe uses it in the sauce.


Our favorite Korean chili paste, gochujang, has a texture almost like a jam and a sweet, garlicky, spicy kick that rivals none. Also distinct from sambal is a funkiness, akin to blue cheese, that can be tasted in the spread, coming from fermentation. It is equally delicious mixed into ground meat—think meatballs or hamburgers—or pulled pork. Both sambal and gochujang work well as bases for sauces, dressings, stews, soups, or curries and aren't typically used as dips or toppers as they are both pretty intense. Both rely on chile peppers for heat but the sweetness, fermentation, and added flavors like garlic help dilute some of the heat in gochujang.


This North African staple is essential for many dishes and is remarkably similar to sambal oelek. With starring ingredients including chile pepper, salt, and garlic, harissa also includes oil and spices, which distinguish it and give it a smoky taste. Some traditional spices in this condiment include cumin and caraway seeds which may or may not work with your recipe calling for sambal. Harissa is considered to have a comparable heat profile to sambal oelek and is delicious in a variety of dishes from grilled chicken, to hummus, to deviled eggs, and more.


With a smooth texture and pleasing kick of heat, Sriracha is often used as a dip like ketchup or mayo. Sriracha and sambal oelek have similar ingredient lists: chile peppers, vinegar, and salt, but Sriracha also includes sugar and garlic, making it more palatable for some to top a dish. If you're a big Sriracha fan, you're likely familiar with its sour, acidic flavor, which is absent in sambal.

How Do You Use Sambal Oelek?

Just as French cooking begins with onions, carrots, and celery to make a mirepoix, sambal is also a flavor builder for many Southeast Asian dishes. It is typically added at the beginning of a recipe. After heating the pan and adding the oil, cook any onions, garlic, or aromatics and then add the sambal. You can use sambal sauce to enhance or provide extra heat in any of your favorite recipes. In this chicken recipe, it adds heat and depth to a glaze. It's ideal for soups or stews, delicious when added to salsas or dressings, and perfect as a marinade for any type of protein. Sambal oelek also makes a tasty addition to mayo or tomato-based sauces for extra pizzaz.

How Do You Make Sambal?

Making your own sambal is as easy as throwing chile peppers in a food processor (or mortar and pestle to be traditional) with a little vinegar and salt and puréeing it down to your desired consistency. Then it's ready to be jarred and used straight from the refrigerator. Cooking the paste down further is optional.

Check out this recipe for how to make a Green Chile Sambal at home, or this sambal sauce. Otherwise, you can pick some up on your next trip to the store and try this Spicy Sambal Shrimp or Stir-Fry Chicken and Broccoli.

Updated by Andrea Lobas
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