What is Sambal?

Photo of Ed Lee's Hot sauce on pile of spices surrounded by peppers

Recently Chef Edward Lee and Bourbon Barrel Foods have teamed up to create an original Sambal Hot sauce. It got us thinking that many consumers might not know the origin, varieties, and uses of this common condiment.

Sambal is commonly referred to as a hot sauce spicy paste, or relish that has been popularized in many countries across Southeast Asia. However, the category is vast and holds hundreds of different varieties of the recipe itself. Typically you will find the main ingredient in Sambal is a mixture of chili peppers popular to the region with secondary ingredients that are likely to include fish or shrimp sauce and will usually contain small amounts of ingredients to enhance the flavor profile such as vinegar, or other pungent vegetables.

The word Sambal is an Indonesian loan-word of Javanese origin. It is native to the cuisine of Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore.

There are many different interpretations and varieties of sambal sauce. Indonesia alone has over 300 varieties of sambal.  The texture can also vary, Sambal textures range from a course relish to a smooth puree. Traditionally sambal is made by using a mortar and pestle to achieve the course ground chili paste texture.

The most famous sambal to rise in the United States is known as Sriracha. Sriracha is more of a puree style found in many western grocery stores and restaurants. It is quickly growing to become one of America’s most popular condiments. You may also recognize the paste form of sambal if you frequent Southeast Asian restaurants.

Chef Edward Lee was born and raised in Brooklyn New York to Koren parents. He has been cooking since the age of eleven and often credits his grandmother with sparking his interest in food. Ed Lee’s approach to cooling frequently blends his Korean heritage with his love for the Sothern United States. His inspiration for his Sambal Hot Sauce was to take you on a mouth watering journey beginning with traditional layers of fermented chili paste, anchovies, and soy and ending with sweet smokey flavors inspired by his home in the South. Lee uses Kentucky sourced Sorghum to give his sauce a sweet finish. Through his research in the product, he found that Sambal can either be too sweet or too spicy. He was compelled to create a sauce the was pleasant and flavorful.


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Edward Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia, Milkwood and the soon-to-open Whiskey Dry at Fourth Street Live, is launching his own hot sauce line. Chef Edward Lee‘s Sambal Hot Sauce comes through a partnership between Lee and Bourbon Barrel Foods LLC.

You can get this at Bourbon Barrel Foods store on Frankfort Avenue or online for $12 for a 200-milliliter bottle (about 6.8 ounces). Bourbon Barrel Foods is known for its barrel-aged sauces, sorghum, spices and other items, but this one doesn’t contain any bourbon and wasn’t barrel-aged. Bourbon Barrel Foods founder and president Matt Jamie said this sauce is all about Lee.

“We wanted to make a hot sauce that was flavorful,” rather than just hot, Lee said. Hot sauces, in general, can be either too sweet or too spicy. “We wanted a hot sauce that was obviously spicy but also had flavor, had nuance,” Lee said.

Lee has been offering this same sauce at Milkwood since it opened in 2013.

He’d never bottled a product before but was curious about it and had people asking about this sauce frequently. He and Jamie did a test run, and it turned out to be popular in the Bourbon Barrel Foods store.

“He’s such a genius,” Jamie said of Lee, adding that his knowledge of a variety of food and flavors came into play as the recipe was being crafted. The sauce contains a blend of cayenne pepper mash as well as other spices, fish sauce, vinegar, sorghum and soy sauce.

The product is distributed by Bourbon Barrel Foods, and Louisville-based Bloemer Food Sales Co. is the manufacturer. Those two companies have worked together on other products in the past.

“I think it’s the best hot sauce I’ve ever had,” Jamie said.