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

October 30, 2008 · 64 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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  • Oy vey — I have both 3 at home always. Always. Plus a dozen or so other sauces ;)

  • Scott

    Too bad you left your chili peppers in my car that I grew and dried just for you.

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  • lola

    Love that you did this research. And I am inspired now, too!

    Thanks : )

  • Keeks

    Totally cleared things up! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Sage43

    Thanks for doing the homework. I’d like to figure out how to do a little less heat and more pepper flavor for the timid in the family. Suggestions?

  • I think the sriracha adds the most heat, particularly because I use it as a condiment, versus during the cooking process. If you don’t want it too hot, use just a small amount of the chile garlic sauce during the cooking process. It has more of a pickled chile flavor than intense heat.

  • Wow, this is really interesting! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Lindsay

    thanks for the research. I am preparing a Cooking Light recipe that calls for Sriracha, but I have chili garlic sauce in the fridge. Since it is an ingredient used for cooking rather than as a condiment, I am going to use it in place of the Sriracha. It seems they are largely the same ingredients but perhaps in different proportions. Thanks again.

  • Anonymous

    Sambal is actually more flavorful than garlic chilli sauce. I would suggest just taking a spoonful of each and tell me which has more of a flavor on its own. Garlic chili tends just add heat IMO.

  • Jacquelyn Mauer

    thank you!!!

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  • In Love with Thai Food

    thank you so much :D You really help me out here :)

  • I use the chili garlic on scrambled eggs when I don’t want the bite of Srirachi. Never tried the Sambal yet.  Chili garlic is also great for making the Thai sweet dipping sauce.

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  • Seems to me that sriracha is the same as sambal olek(which is only one of about a dozen varieties). All of the recipes I’ve seen for it include vinegar. But that’s my opinion as a Ga native living in the Netherlands, where sambal is used for flavouring not just heat. Especially in satay and nasi. Sambal bij? 

  • Minn

    I found Sambal Oelek at Rainbow Natural Grocery in San Francisco, under a Sajen brand. A little bit pricey but its local, no preservatives, and says its based on their grandmother’s recipes in Indonesia. Delish!

  • IndoGirlfood

    My website isn’t done, but we have a sambal bajak that beats all of your chili sauces. It means literally pirate sauce. We have a secret recipe but the main difference is that we use chillis, garlic, onion, palm sugar and shrimp paste. It has a richer and sweeter hot than the others.

    look for Indo Girl food on facebook or online.

  • Elyse

    Great summary, thanks so much. I’m glad I wasn’t the only won wondering.

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  • snootyelites

    All of them have serious chemical preservatives. Best sauce would be schzuan sauce and make it at home with with organic ingridients. Schzwan sauce while Chinese is more poplar in India.

  • dizzy5

    the difference is…Sambal oelek does not have garlic as an ingredient.

  • HotSauce

    The three Huy Fong sauces are all just evolutions of the same product, and although they’re similar to Asian sauces, they are essentially new products for the American market that use Jalapeno Peppers as their base instead of Chili Peppers as would be used in Asia. The base of ground red jalapenos is Sambal Oleck. Chili Garlic is Sambal with Garlic added in. And Sriracha is Pureed Chili Garlic with sugar added.

  • Kali


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  • Donttalkshitcuzillshootyou

    i will definately check it out.

  • Operagirl

    This was super helpful! We are making quesadillas and don’t have sambal oelek but had sriracha in the fridge. We googled the difference and this helpful page came up. Thanks for the research! May your 2015 be spicy.

  • nogodforme

    Texas Pete now has Sriracha called Cha and I found it at my local grocery store Publix. There have been other knock off brands sold at Whole Foods, but I don’t like them. Texas Pete is going to make a killing selling Sriracha since Huy-Fong can’t keep up with demand, and didn’t get their sauce into Publix. What I really want are little packs of Sambal Oelek. The bigger target stores have all 3 flavors of the Huy-Fong brand, but there’s always a long line at check out, even in the express lane.

  • ijustam

    I highly recommend adding Harissa to the collection especially when more depth of flavor is desired.

  • barracudabunny

    Thanks for clearing up the spicy debate! Do you know which one do they serve at the tables of the Chinese restaurant chain “PF Chang’s”? It looks to me like it’s Chili Garlic Sauce, but I’m not quite sure. The restaurant server will mix up a sauce for you tableside to your flavor liking … hot, medium, spicy, using this red chili ingredient, white vinegar and what looks like soy sauce, but it’s not.

  • Suzanne Hoffer

    I have all 3 in my fridge…purchased because of recipes that called for them. Now I use them indiscriminately.

  • Tom Morris

    I don’t know where you’re buying your sauces, mine are made with chilies not jalapeños. Purchased in the USA.

  • Grim Fees

    You have that backwards, actually. It is the Garlic Chili that has more flavor than the Sambal.

  • Bruce Nguyen

    Wtf? You went to a library to find out the difference? This aint rocket science, put some in your mouth, BOOM thats the difference, no masters degree required!

  • y_p_w

    Huy Fong uses red (ripe) jalapeños from a single supplier in Southern California.

  • y_p_w

    I’ll just point out that Sriracha is a generic name and not an exclusive name (of Thai origin) that only Huy Fong is allowed to use. There are numerous clones on the market, and they use the same name.

    The company is interesting. The owner is Vietnamese. His big products use Thai and Malay names. His company is named after the Taiwanese freighter that transported hi to the US. His products also use red jalapeño, which would not be a common ingredient in Asia. They’re also grown in California, where they’re supplied by a single farmer from 2000 acres.

  • HenHen

    I also don’t get the point of the original commenter. Jalapenos are chiles.

  • Matt

    lol Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Bisulfate… those are hardly anything “serous”

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  • “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”.

    Not true.

    The name could not be copyrighted because it was the name of a place.

    And companies all over the States started marketing their own brand of sriracha.

    Very sad !

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  • Akua

    Sambal Oelek! I saw them pouring it into the condiments dishes at Pei Wei and the chef told me the brand. I even snapped a photo so I could buy it. :)

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