|Staple spice: Sambal. — Photo Anggara Mahendra
by Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak
If an entry in the Oxford dictionary can be an indication of the widespread use of a word, then sambal is a global property.
Sambal, which the dictionary is described as a hot relish in Southeast Asian cuisine made of vegetables or fruit and spices, is not merely condiment that goes with food for Indonesians.
It has become an essential element in enjoying the complete experience of the nation's cuisine, which is based on rice supplemented by sauces – the spicier the better.
The all-time favourite Indonesian dish, nasi goreng (fried rice), for example, is always garnished with pickled cayenne peppers, shallots and cucumbers and, if you order from a nearby street vendor, you can request how hot you want your dish to be and the cook will add freshly ground chili accordingly.
The right way to eat rendang (beef in spicy coconut milk), at least according to local practice, is by adding a spoonful of sambal hijau (green sambal) made from plump green chilis stifried with green tomatoes and salted anchovies, stinky beans or eggplant, while sambal kecap – soy sauce with freshly cut chili, cayenne pepper and shallots – will add a savoury flavour to your plate of grilled satay.
For most Indonesians, though, the perfect accompaniment for fritters and other fried foods is the crunchy bird's eye chili - cabai rawit – eaten raw.
Demand for chili is high in the country and bad harvests and price hikes can cause public uproar.
According to data from the Agriculture Ministry, Indonesia produced 855,000 tons of chilis last year to meet domestic consumption of 799,000 tons. Although there seemed to be a surplus, fluctuating demand – generally spiking around the time of holiday feasts – caused a scarcity that pushed people to imports.
Earlier this year, the Trade Ministry announced that Indonesian sambal was also in high demand overseas. In 2013, the country exported 350 tonnes of processed chilis and sambal, up 197 per cent than the previous year.
The main export destinations for Indonesian sambal were Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore, which, incidentally, is where most of Indonesia's 6.5 million overseas workers live.
Former deputy trade minister Bayu Krisnamurthi said that the spicy products entering the overseas market included sambal pecel (spicy ground peanuts usually diluted with water to make a sauce for salad), sambal bajak (chili with garlic, shrimp paste and palm sugar) as well as the original sambal terasi (chili with shrimp paste).
"The demand for sambal is so high overseas," he said. "All kinds of sambal are welcome."
While there is no reliable data on the origins of sambal, common belief traces it to the Malay roots of Indonesians inhabiting the coast of the archipelago.
According to chef Haryo Pramoe, an Indonesian culinary expert, sambal was served as a relish to balance the "cool" taste of slow-cooked dishes that characterise Indonesian food.
"They added everything edible into sambal, even what animals would eat," he said.
The practice also explains the use of fermented durian to make sambal tempoyak in Lampung, walnuts for sambal kenari in Maluku and shredded catfish in sambal kaluku in South Sulawesi.
The health benefits of capsaicin, the enzyme contained in chilis, is a factor in the nation's sambal addiction that was only realised much later.
Sambal eaters who do not wish to bother grinding chilies with a mortar and pestle can get their daily supply from nearby supermarkets or place orders online, in a new trend of bringing special sambal from as far as Bali to your dinner table.
"It's said that Indonesians only sweat when they eat. I hate to admit it, but no food tastes right without sambal for me," said Cheni, 33, a mother of three who loves to cook spicy food for her family.
"I make my own sambal and pack it every time I have to go overseas," she said. — Jakarta Post