Just ran out of sambal oelek or can’t seem to track it down at your local grocery store? You’re in the right place! Here are our 10 favorite sambal oelek substitutes to add flavor to your favorite dishes!
Sambal oelek, a classic Indonesian condiment made with ground chiles, has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. Of course, we highly recommend you snag a jar of this delicious sauce, but let’s face it – sometimes, you just have to get creative with what you have on hand. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of 10 amazing ingredients that can work as a sambal oelek substitute, so you can confidently improvise in the kitchen and save a trip to the store.
All About Sambals
A sambal is a chile-based sauce or paste that originated in Indonesia. It comes in thousands of varieties, ranging from mild to fiery hot, and is an all-purpose condiment. The versatile relish can be used many ways, such as a dipping sauce or marinade, to add heat and flavor to any dish.
While secondary ingredients are often added (such as garlic, ginger, lemongrass or shrimp paste), today we’re looking at sambal in its most basic form: sambal oelek.
What is Sambal Oelek?
Sambal oelek is a type of sambal that is made with two simple ingredients: chiles and salt. However, some variations may include a splash of vinegar or pinch of sugar to balance the heat with a touch of acidity or bit of sweetness.
Traditionally, the chiles and salt are ground together using a mortar and pestle, or cobek and ulekan in the local language. And the word “oelek” that you’ll see on the jars sold is actually the dutch-influenced spelling of ulek. Now let’s talk sambal oelek substitutions!
The Best Sambal Oelek Substitutes
While you can find sambal oelek in most major grocery stores and it’s readily available online, sometimes you have to work with what you have in your pantry. Whether you’re seeking a similar flavor profile or looking to dial down the heat, here are 10 sambal oelek alternatives to try in your next culinary creation.
1. Crushed Fresh Chiles
Because sambal oelek is so simple, the very best alternative is to make your own! I recommend using bird’s eye chiles, red jalapeños or fresno peppers.
Simmer fresh red chiles in water for 5 minutes. Drain and cool. Use a food processor or mortar and pestle to crush the chiles with salt. Add a pinch of sugar or splash of vinegar if desired. For a more in-depth recipe, check out this guide.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1 tablespoon crushed fresh chiles.
2. Chili Garlic Sauce
Our favorite store-bought alternative to sambal oelek is chili garlic sauce. Huy Fong (the most popular brand of sambal oelek in the US) also sells chili garlic sauce. The two products are sold in similar jars both with green lids. Chili garlic sauce is slightly less spicy and has a distinct garlic flavor that will liven up your favorite recipes!
Any brand of chili garlic sauce will work, just make sure to adjust to taste as the spiciness will vary.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce.
Sriracha is a delicious and easy-to-find hot sauce that originated in Thailand. We always have sriracha on hand, which makes it a convenient sambal oelek substitute in sauces, dips and marinades!
Keep in mind that sriracha contains additional ingredients and has a slightly sweeter taste. Make sure to adjust your recipe accordingly.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1 tablespoon sriracha.
4. Chili Crisp
In addition to chili garlic sauces, you can also find chili crisps! Made with fried chiles, crisps feature a unique combination of fragrant spices and crispy add-ins such as fried garlic, shallots and sichuan peppercorns. They are an especially good option for drizzling and dipping.
Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp and Momofuku Chili Crunch are two of our favorites chili crisps.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1 tablespoon chili crisp.
5. Thai Sweet Chili Sauce
Sweet chili sauce is generally made with red chile peppers, vinegar, garlic and sugar. It has a sweet, tangy flavor and is much milder than sambal oelek.
This isn’t a direct sambal oelek substitute, but is something that can work as a condiment or dipping sauce if you’re seeking a less spicy alternative.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1 tablespoon sweet chili sauce.
Now we’re getting into the substitutions that may take your recipe in a different direction, but can still work as excellent substitutes in certain situations. Harissa is a hot chile paste popular across northern Africa. It’s spiced with ingredients such as garlic, coriander, caraway and cumin and can be used as a marinade or mixed into soups and stews. It also makes a great dip or spread.
The flavor of harissa varies heavily depending on the ingredients used. Start with a small amount and add more as needed.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1-2 teaspoons harissa.
One of our favorite alternatives is gochujang! The fermented Korean red chile paste has a complex flavor. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, savory and salty and will add a deep umami note to your dish. We recommend gochujang as a substitute for sambal oelek in soups, stews and marinades.
Gochujang is thicker than sambal oelek so start with less and add more as needed.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = ½ tablespoon gochujang.
8. Tabasco Sauce
While tabasco sauce isn’t a perfect sambal oelek substitute, it’s something you might already have in your pantry and can be used in a pinch. It’s made with ground tabasco peppers and vinegar and is a good option if you’re just looking for that spicy element.
Tabasco sauce can pack quite a punch! To avoid overpowering your dish, start with less tabasco sauce and add more as needed.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1-2 teaspoons tabasco sauce.
9. Red Pepper Flakes
There are various types of red pepper flakes on the market, with crushed red pepper flakes being the most readily available in the US. However, we typically find aleppo pepper flakes or Korean gochugaru to be a better replacement for sambal oelek in terms of flavor profile.
Red pepper flakes are a dry seasoning and will work well in dishes that don’t use sambal oelek as a binding ingredient.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes.
10. Chile Powder
And the last resort sambal oelek substitute is something you probably have in your cupboards: chile powder! To be clear, we’re not talking about the chili powder commonly found in the US, which is a mix of chile peppers with cumin and other spices. We’re talking about pure ground chiles, such as cayenne.
Again, chile powders are a dry seasoning and will work best in dishes that don’t need the binding element of sambal oelek.
1 tablespoon sambal oelek = ¼ – ½ teaspoon chile powder.
Substituting Sambal Oelek: FAQs
Huy Fong sells sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce in similar jars, both with green lids. Sambal oelek is a bit spicier, has a slightly chunkier texture and doesn’t contain any garlic flavor. They are great substitutes for each other.
The spiciness of store-bought sambal oelek will heavily depend on the brand. Huy fong sambal oelek can be quite spicy when served plain, but a tablespoon added to your recipe won’t overwhelm the dish.
You can use sambal oelek anytime you want to add a bit of depth and heat to a dish. Add a spoonful to stir-fries, drizzle it over noodles or mix it into soups and stews! I also love it served over eggs or mixed with mayonnaise as a spicy dipping sauce for fries!
And here are a few more handy substitution posts to ensure that no recipe is beyond reach!
- 15 Best Substitutes for Horseradish
- 12 Best Lemongrass Substitutes
- 10 Best Achiote Paste Substitutes
- 9 Best Sherry Vinegar Substitutes
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