A face shield and eye goggles aren’t common kitchen tools, unless you’re executive chef Jacky Lo, who, along with his team of cooks at Wild Ginger, gears up each summer with a full-on production line—cooking with more than 3,000 pounds of chiles—to prepare sambal. While they make more than 10 different sambals throughout the year, the all-purpose sambal that’s served with many of Wild Ginger’s dishes (and bottled for the restaurant’s pantry) is made mostly from fresh red jalapeños sent directly from a special grower in eastern Washington; the farmer works with Lo each year to choose the plants.
Sambal, a condiment found in Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of Asia, is a paste of smashed fresh chili peppers combined with a slew of other ingredients, and there are no set rules on how to make it. “Sambal is a ubiquitous term, like stew,” says Wild Ginger owner Rick Yoder. At Wild Ginger, as many as six hot chile varieties are combined with lemongrass, ginger, sugar, salt and lime peel. Sometimes shallots are added, or maybe dried shrimp.
The finished sambal is brought to a boil, very briefly, leaving the chiles’ vibrant red color intact. The piquant and spicy hot pastes vary year to year, and some sambals are labeled “superhot” and used with caution and by special request. “The toughest part is tasting,” because the heat blows your palate, Lo says. Thankfully, the heat is nothing a little coconut gelato can’t cure.
How he uses it: Combined with fish sauce, sugar and lime juice, sambal is used in house vinaigrettes, such as that on the green mango salad served alongside sea bass. Lo also adds it to a wok, along with toasted garlic, for a saucy, spicy coating on the Malacca prawns. Sambal is also smashed with shrimp paste and ginger and slathered over simply steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf.
Why you should try it: The assaulting and superflavorful smack of Jacky Lo’s sambal adds brightness and vigor to a dish. It is an alternative dipping sauce, similar to a hot sauce but with more body, that adds heat and potent notes from smashed lemongrass and ginger.
Where to find it: Wild Ginger makes fresh sambal available for sale (in regular to-go containers); ask your server or the host. In addition, Uwajimaya (in Seattle’s Chinatown–International District, Bellevue and Renton; uwajimaya.com) carries a large selection of jarred sambal. The most popular is a red chili paste, sambal oelek, which costs less than $5.
Want the recipe for sambal? Here it is.