Sambal, Sriracha, Hot Sauce, Chili Paste? What's the Difference and Why it Matters.
Chili Paste, Sambal, Sriracha, Hot Sauce!!! What's it all about, which should I choose? Are they really that different? The answer is well yes and no. Yes they are all based on hot chili peppers and in their own right are all hot, but if it is character of flavor that drives your hot sauce obsession than the differences are like chalk and cheese.
Hot Sauces of the World
Let's break down some differences of the worlds hot sauces. The first noticeable differences between hot sauce, sambal, pastes and sriracha are simply their countries of origin.
Pastes: most all countries having a hot paste to call their own.
Hot sauce: or "hot salsa" being of the Americas
Sambal: versions being from Indonesia, Malaysia or Sri Lanka.
Sriracha: though being Thai in origins, most are more familiar with the bastardized American version of this sauce.
Countries of origin directly influence ingredients typically used in each and in turn flavor profiles differ as a result. Asia using common ingredients like tamarind, shrimp pastes and ginger where the Americas typically use vinegar and fruits. Fermentation goes a long way to bring an umami funk to all these ingredients.
Finally, the method of "how is it made" goes a long way in how the ingredients are represented, presented and respected. Some are chunky, some are fresh straight pastes and many resemble a more ketchup type consistency.
Let's start with Pastes:
Chili Pastes: Most all countries have a version of a hot condiment or paste which is essentially just that, the local chili peppers of the region are ground into a paste via a mortar and pestle. From here they might be seasoned with only salt, a sweetener or one or two other herbs and spices and perhaps thinned to a more dipping sauce consistency or rounded out with a Umami ingredient like dried shrimp or through fermentation. Pretty much everything falls under the umbrella of chili paste and for anywhere you can stab your finger at the map, you'll find a complimentary hot condiment for that region. I've listed some favorites and a few lesser known. Every household will have it's own variation and family recipes of these. Some are sweet, others meaty or bright and fresh in flavor.
Nam Prik Pao: Thailand. I love this bad boy. Classically Thai in that clash of sweet, sour, savory, umami and spice. A very sweet jammy medium heat paste. Great for seafood, noodles and stir-fry. Made chunky, with scallions, garlic, palm sugar, dried shrimp, and fish sauce which helps rounds out the sweetness with a salty savoriness. Great fun; unmistakable flavor, I love it!!! Found in Asian supermarkets labeled chili paste in soy bean oil, but plenty of recipes online to build your own.
Harissa: Tunisia. Another "more than just chili" chili paste. Full of cumin, fennel seed, caraway, garlic, sometimes tomato or lemon juice, usually roasted red pepper. Great for meats, seafood, eggs, and tagine. Our Moroccan Tomato Onion Relish is all this but without the heat. Full of flavor, an Australian favorite.
S'rug: Yemenite. Similar to South America chimichurri, and North Africa's Chermoula, by that I mean its a herb packed, bright and fresh hot sauce. Different by the fact it lacks the acid of a vinegar or preserved lemon as in the other two, but all are full of cumin, garlic, coriander seed, chili and fresh coriander and brought together with olive oil. A bright fresh full flavored paste. Think hummus, falafel and lamb as pairings for this one.
Gochujang: Korea. is a savory, spicy, and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt. Traditionally, it has been naturally fermented for months even over years in large earthern pots outdoors. Once fermented, the gochujang resembles tomato paste in color and texture, and has a similar earthy sweetness punctuated by a bite of lingering heat from the red chiles. Gochujang is similar to sriracha in taste, but there are some key differences. Garlic is a major component in the making of sriracha, and you won’t find that same flavor in gochujang. What gochujang offers, though, is a big dose of umami that sriracha just doesn’t have. The fermentation of the glutamates in red chiles produces an almost meaty flavor in the background.
What about straight HOT Sauce
Hot Sauce: Americas. Although everything in this post is a hot sauce, when I hear "hot sauce" as the only name used, I think about it in the Caribbean, Louisiana sense of the word and by that I mean vinegar based.
Sometimes sugar is added along with fruit or vegetables and the variations on chili peppers used leads to a greater variance in heat or what is referred to as the Scoville scale. Some are thin, others resemble more a ketchup consistency like ancho chili paste. Earlier American versions of hot sauce often used a milder Tabasco or cayenne pepper where as Caribbean and South American versions used hot mustard and the very hot Scotch Bonnet or Habanero pepper and were often balanced by fruits or a little sugar.
Now I'm not here to listen to your hero's encounter of the hottest hot sauce you ever tried and how you had to sign a waiver before trying it and now your big man on campus... no. The common thread for me in all these hot sauces is that sour bite of cheap distilled vinegar hidden in there. With vinegar as the main preserving ingredient you basically have a product to be used to add heat for the sake of adding heat, it's rarely about the meal you are using it with or the peppers used, as much as it is just about how hot is the sauce that you are using. For me a traditional "vinegar-based" hot sauce (of which there are so many wonderful variations and flavors) are a great way to add heat to a finished meal. Although they can work in some dishes like wings or salsa; as a leading ingredient, they are notoriously difficult to cook with.
Take Americas earliest recognizable brand of hot sauce Tabasco. No matter what you do with it or where it's used, you can almost always taste that unmistakable vinegar flavor of Tabasco sauce. Don't get me wrong, that's all I want over my rich buttery scrambled eggs, but when it comes to cooking I'd rather use fresh chili or something else any day of the week. Most of these vinegar based hot sauces are at home in American and Tex-Mex styled cuisine. I think often due to the high sugar content in basting and barbecue style of cooking, the vinegar helps balance the sweetness in these sauces. For me, as a chef, when I attempt to use these vinegar based hot sauces on their own, that comes with it's problems.
Hot Salsa: Mexico. There is an exception though, well two actually. Mexico and New Mexico Hot Sauce or Hot Salsa. In both cases, vinegar is used sparingly or not at all. In Mexico's case the individual flavor takes precedence over it's heat, popular chili peppers include chipotles, jalapeño and Ancho along with Pasilla and Guajillo which make up the “holy trinity” widely used in mole sauces. Because many of Mexican traditional hot sauces or "hot salsa" are made from fresh ingredients and balanced and enhanced with the flavors of chili peppers, it makes them much easier to cook with. There is great respect to all the ingredients used and a freshness unsurpassed by a vinegar based hot sauce designed just for heat. New Mexio's two hot sauces often made more like a gravy and come in either red or green. The peppers are roasted skins removed and cooked with a roux made from lard and flour which thickens and brings the sauce together. Almost every traditional New Mexican dish will be served with one of these sauces.
How about Sriracha?
Sriracha: Thailand/USA The story begins in Thailand and it goes that a local woman named Thanom Chakkapak started making the popular sauce in the 1930's originally for her friends and family, but later released it commercially as Sriraja Panich. Traditionally, this Thai version of Sriracha hot sauce tends to be a bit tangier and runnier than what has become so popular in the states. The flavor enhancer consisting of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt gets its namesake from the coastal city of Si Racha on the east coast of Thailand where it is commonly used as a dipping sauce for seafood. Originally fresh ingredients were ground down with a mortar and pestle.
The American version of Sriracha for me is more like a ketchup both in consistency, culture, flavor and method of preparation. Just like ketchup in that it has been so far removed from it's humble beginnings, by that I mean it has been processed from within an inch of it's life drowned in vinegar, sugar and salt, boiled thickened and bottled.... just exchange tomato for peppers. This might explain why America found it so very easy to embrace.
Despite being authentically Thai, in origin it would have to be one of the least Thai flavor profiles I think I can imagine. We usually associate Thai food with light fresh ingredients, sweet, sour and salty notes and chili. For me American Sriracha or rooster sauce is none of those things. It uses dried garlic, is heavily processed and its flavor, though hot is very muddy. Despite it's flavor it is much easier to be used than your usual vinegar based hot sauces. Lets face it, it's in everything over here from lollypops to pop corn. Thick enough for dipping, and a little squirt will add a nice little bit of heat with out completely changing the over all dish. For me Sriracha is always a bottle sitting lonely over in the corner of a Chinese restaurant on some tired fold out side table with the spare bottles of soy sauce. It is not very popular in Australia, I've never bought a bottle either as a chef or consumer and probably never will.
So What is Sambal Then?
Sambal: Indonesia, Malaysia or Sri Lanka. Sambal comes in many slight variations and with each is a variation in name. Sambal in it's simplest translation means chopped or ground. This fresh ground chili condiment is usually chunkier and full of seeds and texture and often with the addition of a sour, sweet or umami ingredient like lime, palm sugar, fish sauce or shrimp paste or a little bit of all. Usually served fresh, but can be cooked. Sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, hot or mild. Sometimes with the addition of tomato, herbs, fruit or spices. Some variations like ambal durian or Sambal tempoyak are fermented and aged creating wonderful depth of flavor while others made fresh and clean are sharper. The constant varieties and simple fresh ingredients and obvious lack of vinegar make Sambal a perfect companion to actually cook with and an essential addition to your pantry or culinary repetitoire.
Let's break down some variations, but there are hundreds more to explore and create.
The most recognizable;
Sambal Oelek (elek) A sambal in it's purest form and essentially just chopped chili with some variations calling for lime and/or salt. (bright red, thin and a little sharp in flavor)
Sambal Goreng Literally means "fried sambal". It is a mix of crisp fried red shallots, red and green chili, shrimp paste and salt, briefly stir-fried in coconut oil. Crisp fried shallots and Umami of shrimp give this a nutty flavor, great for noodles .
- Sambal uyah-lombok A kind of sambal which is only made from raw chilli and salt. Very simple and easy to made, and usually eaten with steamed rice and fried foods like fried chicken. Clean savory heat.
Sambal tauco A Sulawesi sambal, contains the Chinese tauco (an Indo Chinese sauce made from fermented yellow soybeans), lime juice, chili, brown sugar, and salt. Balance with an Umami richness.
Sambal rica rica A hot sambal from Manado region, it uses ginger, chili, lemon and spices. Suitable for barbecue meats. Higher fresh notes.
Sambal tumis Chili fried with belacan shrimp paste, onions, garlic, tamarind juice. Tumis means "stir fry". Often the cooking oil is re-mixed with the sambal. A balanced, well rounded flavor.
Sambal lado mudo Literally a word for "green sambal". It is also known as sambal hijau or sambal ijo, also "green sambal". Sambal lado mudo, a West Sumatran specialty, used green chili, with dried shrimp, red shallots, garlic, and spices. It is one of those taste sensations that’s hard to beat with a unique fresh flavor that compliments the richness of Sumatran food so extremely well. The sambal is stir fried.
Sambal setan A very hot sambal with Madame Jeanette peppers. The name literally means "devil's sauce". (red brownish, very sharp)
That's why we choose a Sambal as our go to hot ingredient in our collection of condiments. We wanted something to be cooked with, with a balance of flavor, a medium high heat that will blend in and add heat to any type of cuisine, even if it's not Asian. What we took was the best of everything above to bring about a balance of flavor with a long palate.
We use fresh Fresno peppers, onion in place of shallots, 100% lemon and lime juice. High notes of ginger and warmer notes from garlic. For Umami we use an anchovy fermented fish sauce and a little sugar to bring it all together. What we have is a fresh clean tasting sambal, with a slight sweetness in the beginning, washed away by the citrus for a long full flavored, slow burn. This so that you can taste all the other ingredients before the heat kicks in after half a minute or so. We testify it is the perfect heat.... and don't get us wrong, it is quite hot.
Health and Nutritional Benefits:
and last but not least are they good for you?
- Hot peppers and thus hot sauce are a great source of antioxidant such as vitamin-A, and flavonoids like ß-carotene, a-carotene, lutein, zea-xanthin, and cryptoxanthin.
- Chilies carry a good amount of minerals like potassium, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase.
- Chilies are also good in B-complex group of vitamins such as niacin, pyridoxine (vitamin B-6), riboflavin and thiamin (vitamin B-1). These vitamins are essential in the sense that human body requires them from external sources to replenish.
- Chili peppers have amazingly high levels of vitamins and minerals. Just 100 g provides (in % of recommended daily allowance):
240% of vitamin-C (Ascorbic acid),
39% of vitamin B-6 (Pyridoxine),
32% of vitamin A,
13% of iron,
14% of copper,
7% of potassium,
Diabetes Prevention and Well Being
A study published in the July 2006 issue of "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" found that when participants consumed a meal with capsaicin and a meal without it, their insulin levels were more normalized after consuming the capsaicin meal than the plain meal. This was especially true for overweight participants. The study indicates that the habitual consumption of meals containing capsaicin may be useful in preventing meal-induced hyperinsulinemia, or increased insulin levels, which can lead to insulin resistance -- and Type 2 diabetes.
Adding hot sauce to your diet is good for your mental health too. Eating spicy peppers feels good. Capsaicin binds to pain receptors in the mouth and nose, which creates a burning feeling that gets passed along to the brain. The brain reacts by releasing endorphins, which are natural opioids that produce a feeling of well-being. So if your too old to hit the rave scene any longer than that spiritual explosion of endorphins you're looking for might be as easy as reaching for the hot sauce!