I’ve personally tried and tested a range of different sambal oelek substitutes to find the best one.
Whatever your reason for avoiding sambal oelek is and whatever dish you’re cooking.
Here’s the quick answer.
The best substitutes for sambal oelek are the homemade version (it’s easy to make) and chili garlic sauce. Try sriracha, hot sauce, or dried chili flakes for more convenient options. Thai chili paste and harissa paste are good options if you don’t mind a more complexly-flavored replacement.
Ready? Let’s jump right in.
I made a spicy mayo dip to put 12 sambal oelek substitutes to the test.
Sambal oelek is a spicy Indonesian condiment made from freshly crushed red chilies, vinegar, and salt. It’s delicious!
I was looking for a substitute that bought a similar spicy flavor and was just as moreish.
Here’s what I tested and the verdicts:
|Homemade sambal oelek||replace in a 1:1 ratio||10/10|
|Chili garlic sauce||replace in a 1:1 ratio||10/10|
|Sriracha||replace in a 1:1 ratio||9/10|
|Hot sauce||replace in a 1:1 ratio||9/10|
|Dried chili flakes||replace in a 1:0.5 ratio||8/10|
|Thai chili paste||replace in a 1:1 ratio||8/10|
|Harissa||replace in a 1:1 ratio||7/10|
Common uses for sambal oelek and the best substitutes
Here are some popular ways to use sambal oelek and the best substitutes for those situations:
- As a condiment – sriracha, chili garlic sauce, hot sauce
- For stir-fries and sauces – homemade sambal oelek, chili garlic sauce
- For soups and stews – homemade sambal oelek, chili garlic sauce, sriracha
- For marinades and vinaigrettes – homemade sambal oelek, sriracha
Homemade sambal oelek
Making sambal oelek from scratch is easier than you think!
You only need three ingredients: red chilies, salt, and vinegar.
Simply toss everything in your food processor, give it a blitz, and voila – you have your own batch of sambal oelek waiting to be used (here’s a recipe for the quantities).
You can customize the heat level by using a less spicy chili variety or removing the seeds and membranes of the chilies.
Pro-tip: use red jalapenos for best results, but I couldn’t find any so I used Serrano peppers and it was fine. Fresno peppers are another option.
How to substitute: replace sambal oelek in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with homemade sambal oelek.
Chili garlic sauce
Can’t find sambal oelek? Why not try its cousin, chili garlic sauce (or check out my chili garlic sauce replacements here!)?
It’s got the same chunky texture we all know and love, but it also comes with a pronounced garlicky kick (if you couldn’t tell by the name) so there’s less focus on the chilis.
You can find a bottle of this in most grocery stores or Asian markets – the popular sambal oelek brands Huy Fong (my favorite) and Lee Kum Kee also make this sauce!
Psst… you might even prefer this chili sauce.
How to substitute: replace sambal oelek in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with chili garlic sauce.
You don’t need to go out and get sambal oelek if you already have a bottle of sriracha on your shelf.
It’s just as spicy as sbamal oelek, but with more sweetness running through it and a nice garlicky twist.
If you don’t like the sweetness, add an extra splash of vinegar.
Another difference is texture. Sriacha is thin and smooth, while sambal oelek is thick and chunky. In most applications this won’t matter though (I certainly didn’t mind).
Pssst… you can also use Tapatio hot sauce, which is pretty similar.
How to substitute: replace sambal oelek in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with Sriracha or Tapatio hot sauce, and adjust the sweetness if necessary.
Hot sauce (e.g tabasco)
I initially didn’t have much faith in using a regular bottle of hot sauce to replace sambal oelek, but it worked like a charm!
Hot sauce matches sambal oelek’s spice well, although it’s noticeably more vinegar-forward.
I added a quick squeeze of honey into my mayo dip to help balance this out.
Like sriracha, hot sauce is much thinner than samabal oelek. So you’ll need to consider this if sambal oelek is having a thickening effect in your recipe.
Tabasco is my go-to brand, but Franks red hot sauce works just as well.
How to substitute: replace sambal oelek in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with hot sauce.
Dried chili flakes
Dried chili flakes aren’t the perfect substitute for sambal oelek, but they can save your dish in a pinch (literally).
They won’t add much depth of flavor, but they’ll bring a fiery heat to perk up your dish.
And you can always mix them with a splash of white rice vinegar or use more seasoning to compensate for the missing flavors. Try adding MSG… it will blow your mind.
Psst… fresh chilis will also work.
How to substitute: replace sambal oelek in your recipe with 1/2 the amount os dried pepper flakes (they will be spicier)
Thai chili paste
Thai chili paste isn’t an exact match for sambal oelek, but it’s a substitute you can use if you want to switch things up.
It will bring a similar heat to sambal oelek but has a much more complex flavor profile that goes great with Asian dishes.
It’s got the same base of chilis and vinegar. But also includes ingredients like garlic, onions, and (the big one) shrimp paste! The shrimp paste adds a funky taste and a huge amount of umami.
Don’t worry, it’s not fishy!
How to substitute: replace sambal oelek in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with Thai chili paste.
Harissa paste is another substitute that’s veering away from sambal oelek flavor, but it’s still a solid substitute if you have it on hand.
Harissa originated from North African cuisine, and has a warming earthy bite alongside the heat, thanks to spices like cumin, coriander, and caraway.
Pro-tip: add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to brighten the flavors and give it a hint of tang, like sambal oelek.
How to substitute: replace sambal oelek in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with harissa paste.
Other options to consider
Above are my top picks to replace sambal oelek, but below are some decent options you can use if you have them in your kitchen already.
- Chili crisp: this condiment is spicy and savory, with an added crunchy bite from the fried shallots and garlic that makes it highly addictive. But it’s made with dried chilis do doesn’t have the same freshness to it sambal oelek does.
- Pickled banana peppers/pepperoncini: try chopping or pureeing these slightly spicy, tangy pickled peppers for a milder alternative to sambal oelek. They’re green though, so won’t look as appetizing!
- Chili bean sauce (doubanjiang) – this chunky fermented chili sauce offers a savory, spicy kick kind of similar of sambal oelek. It can be pretty salty, so hold back on adding extra salt until you’ve tasted the dish. You can also add a bit of vinegar to capture that missing sour note.
- Cayenne pepper: another convenient option that you can use to add heat to your meal if that’s all you’re interested in. The flavor is different to sambal oelek, but it has an interesting fruitiness to it that I like.
Gochujang – substitute to avoid
Gochujang is often recommended as a substitute for sambal oelek, but I don’t recommend it. Gochujang is delicious, but it’s not really a chili sauce in the same way sambal oelek is. They’re used in different ways.
Gochujang needs to be mixed with a few other ingredients to get the most out of it. On its own the satly, meaty flavor is too strong and overpowering.
Read next: the best substitutes for gochujang
Best Sambal Oelek Substitutes
- 1 tbsp homemade sambal oelek
- 1 tbsp chili garlic sauce
- 1 tbsp sriracha
- 1 tbsp hot sauce
- 2 tbsp dried chili flakes
- 1 tbsp Thai chili paste
- 1 tbsp harissa
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen sambal oelek substitute at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.