Love the unique flavour of sambal, but you’re struggling to find sambal oelek in grocery stores? Don’t worry! I gathered all the best sambal oelek substitutes – and the ones you should avoid.
Your best option is homemade sambal oelek. But if you don’t have fresh chiles, you can rehydrate dried chilli pepper for a great sambal oelek substitute. Or, if you’re in a rush, we also look at some of the best store-bought alternatives for sambal oelek.
No matter your pantry or taste preference, you’re certain to find a suitable sambal substitute from our expansive list of best options.
What is sambal oelek?
Sambal is an Indonesian chilli paste or sauce with ground red chilli peppers as its main ingredient. The Indonesian stone mortar (cobek) and pestle (ulekan) is the traditional tool for the job.
There are two main categories of sambals in Indonesia. Sambal masak is a cooked sambal and sambal mentah is raw.
And sambal oelek is a simple raw sambal with a bright red colour containing only ground red chilli peppers, vinegar, salt and sometimes lime.
It’s one of many sambals – there are more than 200 varieties of sambal in Indonesia! The intensity ranges from mild to very hot. And some sambal ingredients include shallot, garlic, lemon or lime juice, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, terasi (a pungent shrimp paste), candlenuts and palm sugar. See more types of sambal (from Wikipedia).
Sambal oelek (or sambal ulek) is a key ingredient in Indonesian cuisine. It is served as a table condiment with traditional Indonesian dishes. But it can also form the base of other sambals. And it has become widely popular in the West.
Normally, you’ll find bottled sambal oelek in the Asian aisle of the grocery store. But in 2023 in the US, there was a shortage of sambal oelek (specifically the Huy Fong Foods brand) due to droughts in Mexico affecting chilli pepper yields. Luckily, it’s quick and easy to make authentic sambal oelek at home and there are many great sambal oelek substitutes to choose from.
Sambal oelek ingredients
Sambal Oelek is spicy, refreshing and salty. It’s a delicious accompaniment to noodles, rice, stir-fries, soups, stews or anything that needs a spicy kick.
Traditional sambal oelek has three main ingredients:
- red chilli peppers,
- vinegar, and
Some varieties may also add lime juice and fresh garlic.
It is the simplest of all the Indonesian sambals. And it makes a great base for other sambals by adding ingredients like shallot, garlic, lemon or lime juice, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shrimp paste, candlenuts and palm sugar. It is therefore also the most versatile sambal and a must-have if you enjoy cooking Indonesian food.
The best substitutes for sambal oelek
Sambal oelek is a delicious spicy condiment that adds that extra fresh spicy kick to any meal. If you know, you know!
Whether you’re interested in making your own sambal oelek, or you’ve just run out and desperately need a quick sambal oelek paste substitute, we’ve got the best options for you:
1. Quick sambal oelek with fresh chillies
The best substitute for shop-bought sambal oelek is, of course, homemade sambal oelek. Luckily, making sambal oelek at home is quick and easy.
You can use a blend of fresh chillies, or stick to a single type of chile. The best fresh chillies for homemade sambal oelek are fleshy with few seeds and moderate heat. Try it with red jalapeños or red serrano peppers.
If it’s too late, and your sambal oelek turned out too spicy for your taste, stir in a teaspoon of red pepper paste or tomato paste to mellow the sambal oelek.
To make sambal oelek from fresh chilli peppers: Destem and dice your chillies. Then grind them into a coarse paste with rice vinegar and salt. You can use a mortar and pestle or a small food processor.
Use half a teaspoon of rice vinegar and a quarter teaspoon of salt for every ounce (30 grams) of chillies.
Jump to the sambal oelek recipe if you’re ready to get started.
2. Sambal oelek substitute with rehydrated chiles
When you don’t have fresh chilli peppers, rehydrate dried chiles or chilli flakes for a great sambal oelek substitute. The resulting sambal oelek won’t be as fresh-tasting. It has a deeper, smokier flavour (depending on the type of chile). But it makes an excellent substitute for sambal oelek.
Make a sambal oelek replacement from dried chiles or crushed red pepper flakes:
- Rehydrate the dried chilli peppers.
- Roughly chop whole rehydrated chiles.
- Blend it with rice vinegar and salt.
To rehydrate the chilli peppers, soak them in very hot water for 15 to 30 minutes – use only enough water to cover the chiles or chilli flakes. Drain the water, reserving some to loosen your chilli paste if needed.
Roughly chop the rehydrated chillies.
For every ounce (30 grams) of rehydrated chilli peppers, add half a teaspoon of rice vinegar (or apple cider vinegar) and a quarter teaspoon of salt. Then blend the mixture in a small food processor or mortar and pestle.
Use this excellent sambal oelek substitute as a 1:1 replacement for sambal oelek. So, if your recipe calls for a teaspoon of sambal oelek, replace it with a teaspoon of your rehydrated chilli sambal.
3. Tabasco hot sauce
The hot sauce makes a surprisingly good option when you’re looking for a sambal oelek substitute.
Tabasco sauce is made with vinegar, salt and red peppers just like sambal oelek. The tabasco peppers measure between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville Heat Units on the Scoville scale – the same heat range as cayenne pepper.
While the hot sauce has a thinner texture, it has an instantly recognisable flavour similar to sambal oelek. My first taste of sambal oelek left me craving oysters which I always eat with a dash of Tabasco, the connection was instant.
You can also use other hot sauces. Look for those only containing something acidic, salt and chilli peppers. They’ll make the best sambal oelek substitutes.
It is best to drizzle Tabasco sauce over your finished dish and adjust it to taste when you use it as an alternative to sambal oelek.
4. Fresh red chillies
If you have fresh chillies, you already have the perfect sambal oelek substitute!
You can make sambal oelek which only takes a few minutes – jump to the homemade sambal oelek recipe for details. Or, if you don’t have a food processor or a mortar and pestle, dice the fresh chillies finely and add a pinch of salt and a splash of something acidic (like vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice).
Sambal oelek can range from moderate to quite hot – depending on the blend of chillies used. We measure the intensity of chillies in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The higher the number, the hotter the chilli pepper.
So pick a fresh-tasting red pepper that suits your heat tolerance for your personal best sambal oelek substitute:
- Red Bird’s Eye Chillies (50,000 to 100,00 SHU): Commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, these chillies are fiery with a sharp, piercing heat. Sambal oelek often contains these chillies mixed with milder peppers.
- Cayenne Peppers (30,000 to 50,00 SHU): These long, thin chillies pack a punch and are readily available in many countries. They offer a bright, tangy flavour.
- Serrano Peppers (10,000 to 23,000 SHU): These fleshy peppers have a fruity taste and moderate heat.
- Fresno Peppers (2,500 to 10,000 SHU): A tad milder than the previous options, fresno peppers add a fruity note, making them perfect for those who prefer a slightly less spicy substitute.
See Wikipedia’s list of Capsicum cultivars for more options.
Use your chosen red chilli pepper to substitute sambal oelek: Remove the stems and some of the seeds if there are many – this is up to you, but I prefer my sambal oelek with only a few seeds. Using a sharp knife, finely mince the chillies. Stir in a pinch of salt and add a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar.
Use your fresh chilli mix as a direct substitute for sambal oelek.
5. Red pepper flakes
Red pepper flakes make a good sambal oelek substitute if you’re in a pinch and don’t have access to fresh chiles.
The crushed red pepper flakes are a mix of different capsicum annuum peppers, ranging from sweet and mild to hot. The majority is often dried cayenne pepper chilli flakes.
To replace sambal oelek, use one teaspoon of red chilli flakes for every teaspoon of sambal oelek called for in a recipe.
And for an even better substitute, rehydrate the flakes and mix them with salt and vinegar as outlined. See how to make a sambal oelek substitute from dried chillies for detailed instructions.
Sriracha is a sweet and spicy fermented hot sauce from Thailand made from chilli, sugar, salt, garlic and vinegar.
It has a similar heat level to that of sambal oelek. But the flavour is sweeter and a touch more complex (thanks to the garlic). And sriracha hot sauce has a thinner texture compared to the chunky paste-like sambal oelek sauce.
Yet, despite their differences, sriracha makes a good substitute for sambal oelek when served as a table condiment or dipping sauce. Add sriracha to taste as you would sambal oelek.
7. Chilli garlic sauce
Chilli garlic sauce is a popular Asian condiment that is slightly sweet, moderately spicy and deliciously garlicky.
The sauce contains red chillies, garlic, vinegar, sugar and salt.
Unlike sambal oelek, this is a cooked sauce. And the resulting flavour is delicious and complex but not quite as fresh-tasting. It has a coarse paste-like texture similar to sambal oelek.
It makes an excellent sambal substitute in recipes and as a table sauce. Spoon it over finished dishes to taste for a spicy flavour boost.
8. Sweet chilli sauce
Sweet chilli sauce is a condiment made with red chilli peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar and other flavourings. Thai sweet chilli sauce is popular in Southeast Asian cooking as a dip, marinade, or even a sauce for noodles.
As the name suggests, sweet chilli sauce is significantly sweeter than sambal oelek and also not as spicy.
While sweet chilli sauce is not quite the same as sambal oelek, it is a suitable substitute for sambal oelek in cooking and as a table condiment when dishes can benefit from the added sweetness.
To use sweet chilli sauce as a sambal oelek substitute add chilli flakes to boost the spiciness, a pinch of salt or soy sauce for savouriness and a splash of rice wine vinegar for acidity.
9. Thai chilli paste
Thai chilli paste, also known as nam prik pao, is another chilli paste from Southeast Asia. Like sambal, it is made from pounded chillies but with added garlic, shallots, and other strong ingredients like shrimp paste, fish sauce or tamarind.
The texture is thick. And the flavour is more complex and pungent – almost like sambal bawang.
The fishiness of shrimp paste adds umami that is not present in sambal oelek.
And while the two Asian chilli pastes are actually quite different, you can use Thai chilli paste as an interesting alternative to sambal oelek in many dishes. The resulting flavour will be more complex, but not in a bad way.
10. Chilli crisp
Where would we be without chilli crisp? I add it to everything from eggs to noodles!
Chinese chilli crisp is a chilli oil with more crispy things than actual chilli oil. The crispy aromatics are typically fried chilli peppers, garlic, ginger, and other spices.
The flavour is garlicky with hints of ginger and sometimes has the mouth-numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns.
While chilli crisp has a much different flavour profile and texture, it is an incredibly versatile ingredient. And it makes a great alternative to sambal oelek as a table sauce.
In this case, I won’t suggest altering the chilli crisp to match the flavour of sambal oelek. Instead, embrace the flavourful, crunchy chilli oil as a table sauce, use it in dipping sauces, or spoon it liberally over your next bowl of noodles instead of sambal oelek.
Gochujang is a Korean chilli paste with a base of red chilli peppers, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, and salt. It has a unique sweet and spicy flavour.
Gochujang chilli paste is not a table condiment like Indonesian sambal – meaning it is typically not served at the table alongside finished dishes.
The texture is thick and smooth like miso paste. And the flavour is beautifully complex and slightly sweet, though it does not have the same zesty freshness of sambal oelek.
While the two chilli pastes are actually quite different in flavour and texture, you can use gochujang as a substitute for sambal oelek in cooking and sauces when you’re in a pinch – but not as a table condiment.
Mix a tablespoon of gochujang with a teaspoon of rice vinegar to use it as a sambal oelek substitute in sauces.
The not-so-great sambal substitutes
The list would not be complete if I did not add a few warnings. Tomato paste and harissa chilli paste are common recommendations for sambal oelek substitutes from around the internet.
Though I don’t quite agree, and here is why.
I often see tomato paste suggested as a non-spicy alternative to sambal oelek. But the flavour of tomato paste is, unsurprisingly, very tomato-y.
The purpose of sambal oelek is to add a zesty and spicy, fresh red pepper flavour to your final dish. If you don’t like spicy food, feel free to omit the sambal oelek in your recipe instead of using tomato paste.
Or, if you’re looking for a bit of colour on your plate without any of the heat, finely dice red bell peppers and mix them with salt and vinegar as you would in the sambal oelek recipe. This coarse red bell pepper paste is your best option for a non-spicy sambal oelek substitute.
If you hang out here often, you know I love harissa chilli paste. It is a Middle Eastern condiment made with a blend of red peppers, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, coriander and other spices. This paste has a deep, complex flavour and adds a nice kick to Middle Eastern dishes.
But the flavour is vastly different to Asian-style chilli pastes.
That said, if you are interested in exploring a Middle Eastern-Asian fusion flavour profile, feel free to experiment with harissa paste as a sambal substitute. Though be prepared for a completely different end result.
Frequently asked questions
Sambal oelek is an Indonesian raw chilli paste made from red chillies, vinegar, and salt. Substitutes for sambal oelek include fresh chopped chillies, sriracha sauce, and chilli garlic sauce.
Sambal oelek is a spicy chilli paste containing raw chillies, vinegar and salt. Substitute it with crushed red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, or chilli powder for a similar spicy kick.
No, sambal oelek and chilli garlic sauce are not the same. Sambal oelek is an uncooked spicy chilli paste made with red chillies, vinegar, and salt, while chilli garlic sauce is a cooked blend of garlic, chilli peppers, vinegar, and salt.
No, sambal oelek and harissa are not the same. While harissa is a spicy North African chilli paste made with red peppers, garlic, and spices, sambal oelek is a Southeast Asian chilli paste made with red chillies, vinegar, and salt.
Quick Sambal Oelek Recipe (+ Substitute)
- 2 ounces red chillies *
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Remove the stems from the chillies and roughly chop them.
- Grind the chopped chillies, rice vinegar and salt into a coarse paste using a mortar and pestle (molcajete) or a small food processor. If you don’t have either, simply dice the chillies very finely and mix them with the rest of the ingredients.
- Refrigerate your sambal oelek in a clean airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
- The best type of chile pepper for sambal oelek has juicy flesh with few seeds and moderate heat. Try it with red jalapeño or red serrano peppers. You can mix in some Thai bird’s eye chillies. But when you use only Thai chillies the resulting sambal oelek is insanely hot with too many seeds – best to remove some seeds if you’re brave enough to use only bird’s eye (I’m not, at least not again!).
- If you don’t have fresh chillies, you can make a sambal oelek substitute by rehydrating dried chile or crushed red pepper flakes. Soak dried chilli peppers in hot water. Then drain the water and blend the rehydrated chillies with rice vinegar and salt. See sambal oelek substitute for step-by-step instructions.
- See the full post for more sambal oelek substitutes you may already have around the house.
MADE THIS RECIPE?
I would love to see! Tag @non_guilty_pleasures on Instagram and use the hashtag #nonguiltypleasuresrecipe
If you love sambal oelek, you will also enjoy these spicy condiments: