It’s been a couple of years since I started this blog, and I have to admit I’ve been less than diligent in keeping it up to date. I’ve decided that I need a project to encourage me to publish more regularly. After a certain amount of cajoling from Kevan, my husband, I’m going to attempt to write a series of articles about Indonesian food.

Indonesia is a big country, and Indonesian food a big subject — albeit one that hasn’t been written about quite so much as some other cuisines. Let’s be honest — and I know I’m a little biased — given how delicious and varied Indonesian food is, it really is not terribly well known abroad — except perhaps in The Netherlands, which colonised Indonesia for nearly 350 years.

Sambal telor — chilli with boiled eggs and fresh basil

I thought a good theme for my first series (getting carried away already!) was — sambal. Sambal, for those of you who haven’t come across the word, is a sauce or relish, whose principal ingredient is chilli. It is the absolute essence of Indonesian cuisine, forming the foundation of many dishes. It can be simply an accompaniment, like a spicy equivalent of cranberry sauce, say, or plum chutney. Or it can be the main course itself, served with rice, and maybe some vegetables.

Don’t be put off by the idea of chillies. They don’t have to be man-boastingly hot, as any visit to the average Indian restaurant will have taught you (unless of course you’ve only ever ordered a jalfrezi or a vindaloo — in which case you’re unlikely to be intimidated by chillies!) Before I get on to the first sambal recipe I just want to digress for a moment about this marvelous, life-enhancing, appetite-stimulating berry — which, botanically, is what a chilli is.

Columbus landing on Hispaniola

Like so many other plants, including tomatoes, potatoes, and maize, the chilli came originally from the Americas — specifically Central America. There it was possibly the first plant to be domesticated. It was discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean in the late 15th century. He was struck by its pungency, which reminded him of black pepper, popular as a flavouring in Europe since Roman times. As a result he called it “pepper”, while the native, Aztec, name was “chilli”. To this day Americans use the name “chili pepper”.

After Columbus and crew bought chilli plants back to Europe, the Portuguese seized the opportunity of taking them to be cultivated in the tropical parts of their trading empire, in Africa, India and South-East Asia, where they soon began to represent a culinary, and economic, alternative to pepper. Not least in Indonesia, where the chilli has long supplanted pepper as the national spice of choice. (Though ironically a recent article in the Jakarta Post suggested that the soaring price of chillies might lead some Indonesians to switch, after 400 years, back to pepper!)

Sweet bell peppersPepperoncini from Calabria, Italy

Sweet peppers + Italian pepperoncini

Poblano chilliJalapeño chillies

Poblano + Jalapeño

Thai bird's eye chilliesCarolina reaper, the world's hottest chilli

Thai bird’s eye + Carolina reaper

You probably know that chilli comes in all shapes, sizes, colours — and of course pungency. Less well known is the fact that all these varieties — including the innocent sweet or bell pepper sold in their millions by our supermarkets, and from there through Italian pepperoncino, poblano, pimento, jalapeño, cayenne, Thai bird’s eye, right up to the hottest chilli in the world (currently the Carolina Reaper) — are all cultivars of just one species, Capsicum annuum. (There is disagreement about this in academic circles: some claim that some super-hot varieties, including habanero, naga, and Scotch bonnet, constitute a separate species, Capsicum chinense; others that Tabasco, and piri piri are in a third species, Capsicum frutescens.) The general rule of thumb is “the smaller, the hotter” but one thing is certain: when you buy a packet of chillies you never really know how hot they are going to be, because so much depends on their growing conditions. So if it’s important how spicy a dish is going to turn out (either too hot, or not hot enough!) always try out one or two chillies first.

One of the beauties of sambal is that it is not complicated to make. Despite the many sambal dishes that have been created, none of them requires advanced cooking techniques, and few of them call for ingredients that cannot be found in a good supermarket.

In the next post I’ll introduce you to the most basic of all, sambal ulek.