S IS FOR SAMBAL

By: Tom Nealon
December 29, 2023

Illustration for HILOBROW by Ena Nealon

An installment in CONDIMENT ABECEDARIUM, an apophenic food-history series from HILOBROW friend Tom Nealon, author of the seminal book Food Fights and Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste (2016 UK; 2017 US); and also — here at HILOBROW — the popular series STUFFED (2014–2020) and DE CONDIMENTIS (2010–2012).

CONDIMENT ABECEDARIUM: SERIES INTRODUCTION | AIOLI / ANCHOVIES | BANANA KETCHUP / BALSAMIC VINEGAR | CHIMICHURRI / CAMELINE SAUCE | DELAL / DIP | ENCURTIDO / EXTRACT OF MEAT | FURIKAKE / FINA’DENNE’ | GREEN CHILE / GARUM | HOT HONEY / HORSERADISH | INAMONA / ICE | JALAPEÑO / JIMMIES | KECAP MANIS / KIMCHI | LJUTENICA / LEMON | MONKEY GLAND SAUCE / MURRI | NƯỚC CHẤM / NUTELLA | OLIVE OIL / OXYGALA | PIKLIZ / PYLSUSINNEP SAUCE | QIZHA / QUESO | RED-EYE GRAVY / RANCH DRESSING | SAMBAL / SAUERKRAUT | TZATZIKI / TARTAR SAUCE | & more to come.


S is for SAMBAL


We’ve had a few of these condiments between ah and er, variously similar combinations of chile, fish or shrimp, garlic, ginger, lime, sugar. Thick, thin, pastes, liquids, powders — all attempts at taking this perfect combination of flavors, every flavor, all at once, and making the perfect condiment out of it.

Sambal is usually identified as being from Indonesia, but there are very similar condiments all along where Southeast Asia elides into Oceania. It is usually made with ground chiles (Thai chiles or chile arbol or sometimes birds eye), galangal, garlic, salt, fish sauce, sugar and something acid (tamarind paste or lime juice or vinegar) but can also have lemongrass, turmeric, shallots, shrimp paste. Or it can be as simple as chiles, salt, and vinegar as in the popular jarred version which is more of a step along the path to maximum flavor, though it is very good.

People mock ketchup as a food for children, but children know where it’s at, they know what they want. They want: salty, sweet, umami, sour magic… and when they want it without chile peppers, they want ketchup. (Not all children eschew chile peppers, of course — I’ve seen kids chow down on chiles that would give a capybara a coronary. Good for them.) Sambal, like the Thai condiment Prik Nam Pla, or Nước chấm, is what happens when you never give up that dream. Sambal: when you know what you want and you want all of it, all at once, all the time.

A little over 200 years ago Lord Byron — sybarite, ur-broken celebrity, poetical narcissist — lamented the lack of sauce at Lent.

Ketchup, Soy, Chili-vinegar, and Harvey, Or, by the Lord! a Lent will well nigh starve ye. (*)
— Byron’s poem Beppo (1817)

Byron knew what was up. He wasn’t missing mint sauce or sauce albert or even mustard. He was missing the goods. But you don’t have to.

(*) Harvey was a popular anchovy sauce very similar to Worcestershire but predating it.


S was for SAUERKRAUT


Some things you have to coax and wheedle and slow-walk to fermentation, but not cabbage. To make sauerkraut: shred, add salt, wait. Everything else you need for sauerkraut is in there: lacto-bacteria, water, time. Just make sure it is submerged in its own liquid and it will ferment a little (in a week) or all the way (in 4-5 weeks) at room temperature. You don’t so much make sauerkraut as let it happen.

Because cabbage doesn’t really want to be a cabbage — it has ambition, dreams. When cabbage sleeps it dreams in sauerkraut. And who can blame it? Sauerkraut is an underused and under-loved condiment; delicious, simple, versatile. It used to be the go-to for hot dogs, kielbasa, bratwurst, pierogi, in a pot with wiener würstchen, or with just a little bacon (in which case, sauerkraut isn’t the condiment, it’s the bacon).

Now sauerkraut it’s everywhere and nowhere: always an option, never a choice. While kimchi has taken over the world and quick pickles like pikliz and curtido are rapidly gaining in popularity, sauerkraut just sits there, translucently moping in a jar. I used to be the big shot, it thinks. Perhaps I should have stayed a cabbage. Or gone out and met some onions, some chile peppers. Maybe a carrot.

But there is room for all the pickled cabbages! Especially since homemade sauerkraut is so easy and fast and delicious. Once it is growing in mason jars all over your house, you will find all sorts of uses for it. Shred, salt, wait. You’ll thank me later.

***

TOM NEALON at HILOBROW: CONDIMENT ABECEDARIUM series | STUFFED series | DE CONDIMENTIS series | SALSA MAHONESA AND THE SEVEN YEARS WAR | & much more. You can find Tom’s book Food Fights & Culture Wars here.

Categories

Codebreaking, Paranoia