Chili Sauces Explained: Sriracha, Sambal Oelek, and Chili Garlic Sauce

October 30, 2008 · 60 comments

in cooking at Home, misc food

I steamed some vegetables for lunch the other day and had the grand idea to create a spicy asian dipping sauce for them. I really like for my sauces to have a lot of heat, so I went to grab for some chili sauce, but when I looked in my fridge I saw this:

I was stumped trying to decide which sauce to use. Why did I have three types of chili sauces in my fridge? What the heck is the difference between all these? I had one called Sriracha, another called Sambal Oelek, and another creatively called Chili Garlic Sauce

So I spent 3-4 hours in the library, and about 20 minutes online, and figured it out for myself and for your benefit! OK, you got me, all the research was done online. But not just wikipedia!

Here’s the deal

To start, there is a company called Huy Fong Foods that has a lock on the US market for these items.  They actually own the rights to use brand name Sriracha in the US. Note that all of the labels have the rooster on them, with a green top. There are some knock-offs, and some import sauces, but Huy Fong is pretty much the source for the entire country. In 2001 it was estimated that they sold over 6,000 tons of chili sauces. I’ve seen a bunch of people online complain about how they aren’t the same as their counterpart in their originating countries, the preservatives screw it up, blah blah blah. Maybe it’s true, but how does that help me? I can get a gift pack of 5 bottles of Huy Fong’s sauces for $8. Is it really worth it to shell out a bunch for $$$ for “authentic”?

OK, boring…I want to know what the difference is between these sauces!


Srirachi is named after the Thai port city of Si Racha and is mostly used as a condiment or dipping sauce. This is the sauce that is the most identifiable with the eating masses, mostly due to the large white rooster. Some people call it “cock sauce”. Go figure. 

It’s typically made from sun-ripened chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. The bottle says it “is ready to use in soups, sauces, pasta, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, chow mein or on anything to add a delicious, spicy taste.” Hmmm, I don’t know about hot dogs. I guess the point is, people consider this to be THE chili sauce condiment of choice, and it is kosher to put this on just about anything. 

Uses: Try it in a bloody mary, on pizza, eggs, noodles, or mix it with ranch dressing and balsamic vinegar for an interesting sauce good on lots of stuff. 

Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek is more of Indonesian and Malaysian origin. It is made from a variety of different chilis, usually a pepper like cayenne. Oelek means “grinding”, and as that might indicate, it is just ground chilis with little flavor added.

Use Sambal Oelek when you want to add heat without impacting the flavor of the dish. It’s not really used so much as a condiment  as it is used for cooking. 

I found a recipe online that was stupidly simple: mix hot fresh chilis with seeds and water until it forms a paste, then add salt. There ya go. 

Here is another recipe for Sambal Oelek if you want to make it yourself, but this one does appear to have flavor added to it. I would just buy the real deal for $2 from the grocery store. 

Also, here is a recipe for an Indonesian Fish Curry that looked pretty good, which makes use of Sambal Oelek. 

Chili Garlic Sauce

Lastly, there is the chili garlic sauce. This is very similar to the Sambal but it is described as having a more “full body flavor” with “delicious garlic” taste. 

If you want more of an idea of how this is made, check out the recipe for making chili garlic sauce here. The main ingredients are chilis, garlic, salt, sugar, and white vinegar. 

Of the three sauces, I’ve used this the most. I like the heat and the flavor, though I really couldn’t say that the garlic flavor shines through when I use this in combination with other things like soy sauce to make sauces. 

I’ve used this sauce in a few dishes on my site, including the Thai Style Hot and Sour Soup, and the Stir Fried Tofu with Vegetables


In Summary: All of these sauces are nice to have in your repertoire, though it’s not absolutely necessary to have all three. I think you could get away with just having the sriracha and the sambal, and you can flavor the sambal yourself if necessary. Use the sriracha as a condiment for adding heat and great flavor to any dish, and use the sambal in sauces and during cooking when you want just want some red chili heat.

But all of these are $2-$3 a bottle so make the investment and enjoy!

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  • Gus Mueller

    Sriracha is a completely American product, and it is manufactured in Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean I don’t like, it just means I know it’s not Asian in origin.

  • Gus Mueller

    Can’t be copyrighted but certainly could be trademarked. Suck it.

  • Gus Mueller

    Uh, yeah, no they don’t, and I can read the Chinese labels.

  • Snootyelites

    Doesn’t matter, now you can get organic versions preservative free of all these sauces.

    One should also try Gochigaru – the Korean Red Pepper Flakes! They are great for pepper flavor without adding too much heat!

  • definitelyspunky

    You’re right. The people trying to correct you are wrong.

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  • M_Lombaers

    I’ve got to disagree on the sambal oelek. It’s way more than just fine grinded chilis. Cuka (vingenar), Gula Djawa/Kelapa (palm sugar) and salt are essential, and ingredients like garlic, shallots, ginger, and lemongrass are very, very often used.

  • Jeffrey Deutsch

    Chili is the Spanish term for any pepper, fresh or dried They don’t even mess with bell peppers. A jalapeno is a chile. To say jalapeno or a chile is meaningless if you do not say what the other chili is. There probably are hundreds of different types:Arbol, cas abell, mulata, jalapeno, ancho, habanero, thai, Naga jalokia, Scotch Bonnet, to name a few, that are used in various countries.

  • bafflez

    Important to mention that all of these sauces are fermented for a period of time to create their complex flavors from a minimal amount of ingredients.

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