What is a sambal? A ‘sambal’ is often referred to as a condiment made up of a mixture of ingredients with the primary ingredient being chillies. However, it can also refer to the end product of a dish that was cooked (or not as it can also be a salad) with a blend of fiery spice-mix together with the main ingredient. Let me explain.

This recipe is for a Sambal Chilli that is to be used as a condiment, like you would pepper, salt or ketchup. Take a look at my Indonesian-Inspired dinner that I served to friends not too long ago. See the Sambal Chilli at 6 ‘o’ clock?

On the other hand, a dish labeled as ‘Sambal Prawn’, is a dish that was cooked with a fiery spice-mix and the end-product, ‘Sambal Prawn’, is clearly not a condiment but is to be eaten as part of a rice-based meal. Then, there is ‘Sambal Cucumber (Sambal Timun)’ which is a fresh cucumber salad made from a sambal that consist of ingredients that are ground up and mixed in with sliced cucumbers. The sambal that coats the cucumbers often consists of chillies, shallots, dried baby shrimps, belacan (shrimp paste), lime juice and some choose to add slivers of cooked belly pork in it.

Sambal Chilli is versatile and can be used to spice up fried rice (mix it in towards the end of cooking). It can be added to mayonnaise and use as a sandwich spread. Incorporated into a dip… think of Sambal Chilli along the lines of other condiments like bottled chilli sauces, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce and work from there… the possibilities are only limited by your imagination and good taste.

Every household has their own blend of Sambal Chilli and this recipe is for one that I enjoyed many years ago in an Indonesian stall. The food was excellent and I found the Sambal Chilli very addictive. It had thin slivers of lime peel in it which went very well with the blend of hot chillies, salty shrimp paste (belacan), pinch of sugar and good squeeze of lime. I have been serving this on my dinner table since and the recipe I use then is the same recipe I use today. It’s that good. A word of caution though.

Shrimp paste, has a very pungent odour straight out of the package and it gets stronger when heated. Nothing quite prepares you for the smell. If your neighbours aren’t used to the smell and that’s very likely if you live outside South-east Asia, they might just call the police. I kid you not. It has happened. The neighbours downstairs were considering calling the police. So as a compromise, but it will taste nothing as good, substitute the shrimp paste with some bottled fish sauce or another one of my suggested alternatives.  For details, please scroll down to my ‘Tips’ section.

As I use belacan to flavour the ground chillies, this Sambal Chilli should be referred to as Sambal Belacan. ‘Belacan’ pronounced ‘BEE-la-chan’.

Sambal Chilli As A Condiment

Prep: 10 – 15 minutes 
Cook: ~5 minutes to toast shrimp paste (belacan)
Level: Easy once you do it just once.
Makes: ~1/4 cup
Oven Temperature:
Can recipe be doubled? Yes
Make ahead? Keeps 2 weeks, refrigerated. Freezes well, ~ 3 months.


1 cup=250ml=8.45US fl oz

This recipe is very much an estimate of ingredients as you have to adjust it to suit your taste and it is also largely dependent on the kind of ingredient (shrimp paste? fish sauce?) you choose to flavour the Sambal.

1 cup fresh red chillies*
~2 teaspoons sugar
~2 teaspoons or a rectangular slab ~1.25″X0.75″X0.5″(~3cmX2cmX1.25cm) belacan (shrimp paste)**
~3 Tablespoons lime*** juice
~1 Tablespoon thinly slivered lime peel
* You can adjust the ‘heat’ level by using a mix of chillies: Use a mixture of smaller-sized chillies like, ‘chilli padi’ or ‘bird’s eye chillies’, plus the larger-sized ones that are usually, but not always, less spicy than smaller-sized chillies.
** Image in my ‘Tip’ section below. Belacan can be purchased from Asian grocery stores. Please scroll down to my ‘Tips’ section for alternatives.
*** Use Calamansi limes -small sized limes with a thinner peel (refer to image below). If not, use Key Limes, or limes with a thinner peel. Use lemons as a last resort.

Calamansi limes are the best limes to use -juicy with a thin outer peel.


2 points to note before you start
You will need a good food processor to be able to grind the chillies into a smooth paste. The alternative would be to use a mortar and pestle but be careful with backsplash of chillies. I have gotten some into my eyes before. If you double the quantity of chillies, it might make it easier to grind up the chillies. So consider that as Sambal Chilli freezes very well. Divide into ice cube trays, freeze, remove and transfer into a plastic bag. Just thaw before eating.
Belacan, the shrimp paste, as I mentioned in my introduction, smells very pungent, and will smell even more pungent when heated. If you are not familiar with it, it will shock you. The smell also lingers so keep windows and doors open. If your neighbours who are not familiar with it, smell it, they might be even more shock than you. So, if you are not comfortable using it, try one of my suggested alternatives under my ‘Tips’ section. It will not taste as good though.

1. Cut the limes in halves, squeeze juice through a strainer to remove seeds. Set juice aside and don’t throw out those limes that have been squeezed of juice. Slice them as thinly as possible to get ~1 Tablespoon worth. Set aside.
2. Into a food processor, add the chillies, lime juice and sugar. Set aside
3. Place the belacan onto a palm-size sheet of aluminium foil. Fold the belacan up in the foil, seal the ends of the foil well so that smells are contained within.
4. Heat up a frying pan on high. When hot, (flick some water droplets into the pan -it should sizzle immediately), place the aluminium package on it to heat through. Depending on how hot the pan is, it will take ~5 minutes or less. You will most likely smell the belacan.
5. Unfold the aluminium package, the belacan should be just a shade lighter. If it is not, seal it back in the package and reheat on pan.
6. Add the toasted belacan into the food processor and process all the ingredients until well blended. You should not see any seeds.
7. Taste and adjust seasoning. You might have to add more belacan. When I am lazy, instead of toasting more belacan, I find that I can get away with adding a little fish sauce, maybe ~1/2 teaspoon but not more. Beyond that ~1/2 teaspoon, I would toast more belacan.
8. Stir in the slivers of lime peel. Taste once more and adjust seasoning.

To freeze
Divide into ice cube trays, freeze, remove and store in a plastic bag. Just thaw before eating.


Sambal Chilli – don’t want to use belacan (shrimp paste) to flavour? Here are other options:


(1) BELACAN, the shrimp paste that I use, is made in Malaysia. It is what I have always used to make my Sambal Chilli and it is my preferred choice for an authentic taste but it does have a pungent smell which can be shocking to the uninitiated. It gets more potent in scent when heated and it does have to be toasted in this recipe before use. Moreover, the smell does linger in the house, in carpeting, down corridors, wafting into your neighbours house. Keep doors and windows open when using. Read my introduction if you haven’t. A very similar shrimp paste, which also has to be toasted before use, is the Indonesian shrimp paste, terasi. Use the same way as belacan in the same proportion.

(2) KAPI, the Thai shrimp paste, is an excellent alternative. It smells pungent too but as it does not have to be heated through before being added to the chillies, most of the smell is contained and there will be almost no lingering scent. For this recipe, start with ~3/4 teaspoon and adjust to taste.

(3) THAI SHRIMP POWDER. This is dehydrated shrimp which have been seasoned. Chillies have also been added to it so it taste a tiny bit spicy, sweet, salty and shrimpy. It is a condiment sprinkled over rice, used to flavour food and can be added to a chilli paste which is exactly why this is a good option to consider. No pungent smells at all.

If using this as an alternative to belacan, start with 3 -4 Tablespoons. Keep in mind that as Thai Shrimp Powder is dehydrated shrimp, those shrimps will absorb the liquid blend of chillies/lime like a sponge so you should have on hand up to 3X more of the lime, sugar and slivered lime peel stated in my ingredient list to adjust not only for taste but viscosity. Just a little water might also be added.

(4) JAPANESE SHRIMP GRANULES. This isn’t my favourite as it doesn’t have quite enough of the ‘shrimpy’ taste but it will work.  Start with ~1 teaspoon and adjust to taste. Adjust lime and sugar as well. I don’t cook these shrimp granules but if you must cook them, then after grinding up chillies with the granules (don’t add the sugar or lime juice), microwave the chilli/shrimp granules mix to heat through. When cooled, stir in sugar and lime and adjust to taste. If you are happy with the taste, mix in slivered lime peel.

(5) FISH SAUCE. More households than ever before are becoming more cosmopolitan, so a bottle of fish sauce in the pantry isn’t that uncommon anymore. If you have this in your pantry, it would be the easiest alternative but it doesn’t come close to the original recipe where I use belacan but it will have to do. This very liquid fish sauce will make the Sambal Chilli more liquid so I suggest you use just enough to flavour and if it requires more salt, season with a pinch of salt. Of course, if it is lacking the ‘shrimpy’ taste, you would have to add a little more fish sauce. For this recipe, I would start with ~2 teaspoons of fish sauce and work from there. Lime juice and sugar will also have to be adjusted to taste.