Sambal Oelek vs. Chili Garlic Sauce: What’s the Difference?

Sambal Oelek vs Chili Garlic Sauce

Sambal Oelek vs. Chili Garlic Sauce: What’s the Difference?

Chili sauces are an essential condiment in many cuisines around the world. Two well-known sauces that are widely used in Asian meals are sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce.

While these two sauces have many similarities, they differ in terms of flavor, heat level, and ingredients. In this article, we will explore the characteristics of sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce, discuss the key differences between them, and review popular uses for each.

If you're looking to up-level your next family dinner, this article will help you understand how best to use these two distinctive sauces.

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Sambal Oelek vs. Chili Garlic Sauce: What is the Difference?

As mentioned, the main differences between sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce are the ingredients used, flavor, and heat level. Additionally, sambal oelek is a simpler sauce with a thicker consistency and chili garlic sauce is thinner and has a longer ingredient list.

What is Sambal Oelek?

mexican hands cooking a Mexican sauce whit chili and spices in a molcajete in kitchen in Mexico city
Using a mortar and pestle is the traditional way to make sambal oelek.

©Light and Vision/Shutterstock.com

Sambal oelek originates from Southeast Asia and became popular in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking. The name sambal oelek comes from the way it's made. Traditionally, this sauce is created by being manually ground together using a mortar and pestle. “Sambal” refers to the chilis used to make the sauce, and “oelek” is a reference to the mortar and pestle tool that is used in the process.


Sambal oelek is a very simple sauce that is made from just three basic ingredients: Thai chilis, rice vinegar, and salt. When these ingredients are combined using the mortar and pestle, they form a thick, paste-like sauce that tends to be chunkier than other chili sauces.

There are technically several different kinds of sambal made with variations of ingredients, but sambal oelek is the most popular sauce found in the United States.

Flavor Profile

Because of the fresh chilis used to make sambal oelek, it can be a rather hot sauce with long-lasting heat. The vinegar can also create a bit of tangy sweetness.

What gives sambal oelek its bold flavor is the absence of sugar. The focus of this sauce is the chilis, making it higher on the heat level than chili garlic sauce.

Sambal Oelek is most commonly used as a flavor enhancer to many meals, especially in Asian cuisine. Just one scoop can create the same level of heat as a single jalapeño.

Here are a few ways you can use sambal oelek in your everyday cooking:

  • Add a spoonful to your meat marinades and glazes.
  • Boost your meals by using it as a condiment on the side.
  • Use a dollop in your favorite soups, dressings, and salsas.
  • Stir a scoop into fried rice or noodles.

Using sambal oelek can create heat, depth, and a dose of bold flavor in your favorite dishes.

How to Make Sambal Oelek

Because of the simplicity of the ingredients in sambal oelek, it's a condiment you can make at home if you don't have the availability to find it in your local supermarket. To make this flavorful sauce, simply combine chili peppers, vinegar, and salt in a food processor until it reaches your desired consistency and taste.

You can also make this sauce using the traditional mortar and pestle, and it can be cooked down to create a thinner consistency if desired.

Once your sauce is combined, jar and store it in your refrigerator for future use.

What is Chili Garlic Sauce?

Chili peppers and chili sauce.Hot sauce from chilli peppers and tomatoes
Chili garlic sauce is traditionally smoother and includes more ingredients than sambal oelek.


Chili garlic sauce is a popular condiment used in Chinese cooking and closely resembles Sriracha. It can often be confused for sambal oelek, but ultimately has several differences.


While chili garlic sauce includes chilis and vinegar (just like sambal oelek), what makes it different is the inclusion of garlic and sugar. Some commercial brands of the product may also include xanthan gum and various other spices.

Additionally, chili garlic sauce is made up of a mix of different chilis. When the ingredients are combined, the result is a much smoother texture.

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Flavor Profile

The inclusion of sugar is what sets chili garlic sauce apart from sambal oelek. The sugar gives the sauce a hint of sweetness and balances out the spice of the chilis, resulting in a more subdued heat.

While sambal oelek focuses mostly on fresh chilis, chili garlic sauce has more hints of garlic and may include other spices. This gives the chili garlic sauce a moderate level of hotness, making it an easier choice for those that don't want to overdue on too much heat.

Chili garlic sauce is not quite as versatile as sambal oelek because of the added sugar. Not every recipe needs the extra sweetness that comes from this sauce. It also doesn't bring as much heat so it may not be as useful in every recipe.

Here are a few ways you can use chili garlic sauce when cooking:

  • Add it as a dipping sauce to dim sum dishes and spring rolls.
  • Include it in your marinades for a sweeter flavor with a hint of garlic.
  • Use a spoonful in stir-fries or with noodles for a flavorful kick.

When choosing between using chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek, keep in mind the differences in flavor we've discussed here.

How to Make Chili Garlic Sauce

While chili garlic sauce has more ingredients than sambal oelek, it's still a condiment you can make at home to use with future meals.

You'll need:

  • chili peppers
  • garlic
  • sugar
  • vinegar
  • salt to taste

Combine the ingredients in a food processor. Then place the mixture in a small pot and heat on your stovetop until it reaches your desired consistency. Jar and store in the fridge for future use.

Similarities Between Sambal Oelek and Chili Garlic Sauce

While there are many differences between sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce, they do share a few commonalities.

For instance, both sauces are made with the base ingredients of chilis and vinegar. Additionally, both are used as condiments or flavor additives in many Asian dishes. Both can also boast a long shelf life as they can be stored in the refrigerator for an extended period of time.

You can buy both of these sauces in the Asian food section of your local grocery store, but be aware that sambal oelek is sometimes considered a specialty item, so it's not always as easy to find as chili garlic sauce.

If you're looking to add flavor to your next recipe, either of these sauces can give you the boost of spice you're looking for.

Final Thoughts

Infographic comparing sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce.
Did you know that chili garlic sauce has sugar in it?
  • Sambal oelek has a very simple ingredients list, making it easy to make at home. Chili garlic sauce adds garlic and sugar to make a more complex flavor profile.
  • Because of its use of fresh chilis and vinegar, sambal oelek is hot and tangy. Chili garlic sauce has a more subdued heat because of the inclusion of sugar.
  • Sambal oelek has a wide range of applications due to the simplicity of its ingredients list. Chili garlic sauce, meanwhile, is usually used as a dipping sauce or marinade.
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Belly Busting Pork Chili

Belly Busting Pork Chili

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  • Author: MomsWhoThink.com
  • Total Time: 35 minutes


Pork chili sounds delicious enough but to earn the name belly-busting, it’s got to be special. The chili in this recipe uses a wide range of hearty ingredients that take it to that belly-busting level. Read on to find out how you can make it for your family.


  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil for cooking
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork, cut into bite-sized cubes
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper
  • 15 ounces of canned black beans, drained
  • 141/2 ounces canned Italian style diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 4 ounces diced green chiles, drained
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons of ground cumin
  • Tortillas chips and sour cream (optional)


  1. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. Add pork; cook until browned. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Add beans, tomatoes, chiles, and cumin.
  4. Simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Serve with warmed tortillas and sour cream, if desired.
  • Prep Time: 15 Minutes
  • Cook Time: 20 Minutes
  • Category: Main Course
  • Method: Simmering
  • Cuisine: Tex-Mex

In conclusion, sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce are two versatile and flavorful chili sauces that add heat and depth of flavor to a wide range of dishes. While both sauces share a couple of similarities, they differ significantly in their ingredients, flavor profiles, and spiciness levels.

Ultimately, the choice between sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce comes down to personal preference and the specific dish you're preparing. Whether you prefer the heat of sambal oelek or the sweetness and spiciness of chili garlic sauce, both sauces are sure to elevate any meal with their delicious flavor and fiery kick.

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