In the grocery, there is a wide array of chili sauces and pastes that it is sometimes confusing which to choose. At home, I stick with three kinds — Sriracha for marinating, stir frying, dipping and drizzling; and chili garlic sauce (seen here) and sambal oelek for marinating and stir frying.
Why three? Why not just one? Because these three are different from one another. Sriracha is thin enough to be drizzled. Chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek are chunky and in dishes where visible specks of red are desirable, they do that job well while Sriracha does not. Chili garlic sauce is more garlicky than sambal oelek. Sambal oelek has more heat than chili garlic sauce.
Sambal is the generic name for chili-based sauce. How is it different from other sambals?
When you see sambal in a label, pay attention to the word that follows it. The Javanese sambal petis, for instance, contains shrimp paste (petis), peanuts and herbs. The Sumatran sambal teri lado has tomatoes and dried salted fish. Sambal oelek (pronounced oo-lek) derives its name from the stone kitchenware with which it was traditionally made. The ulek is similar to the mortar and pestle but the mortar (bowl) is wider and shallower and the pestle is shorter.
Then why does it say “oelek” in the sauce if the tool it is made with is called “ulek”? The word sambal is Indonesian in origin. Sambal sauces trace their roots from Indonesia. Indonesia was a Dutch colony and “oelek” is the Dutch spelling for “ulek.”
Sambal oelek itself has many variants. The Thai brand I use contains garlic and sugar. Another variant has salt and lime juice. So, when buying sambal oelek, check the ingredient list in the label so you know exactly what you’re getting.