Types of Asian Chili Sauces & Chili Pastes

Nam Jim
Most Asian countries have a great passion for condiments and dipping sauces. Thailand is no exception. Nam Pla is one of Thailand’s most popular and widely used chili pastes that boldly blend together fish sauce, shrimp paste, garlic, fresh chili peppers, lime juice and sugar to produce a semi-watery dipping sauce. Nam Pla is not for the faint of heart as it has addictively pungent flavors and aroma. Served with fresh, raw vegetables as well as with grilled meats and seafood, Nam Pla is always made fresh and cannot be bought ready to use in markets.

Nuoc Cham
Anyone who loves Vietnamese cuisine will be familiar with Nuoc Cham- the fish sauce based dipping sauce. Though not really spicy, many Vietnamese home cooks add freshly chopped bird’s eye chili peppers to the fish sauce, sugar water and vinegar mixture to add a bit of heat. Nuoc Cham is a great dipping sauce to all types of fried foods though Asians who have an obsession with sauces (like Singaporeans) will use Nuoc Cham on everything from rice dishes to grilled meats and noodle soups.

Sambal Oelek
This type of chili sauce is originally derived from Indonesia though packaged versions sold in Asian and Western markets may now be produced in Thailand, Vietnam or even by Asian companies in the United States. The word Oelek is the Dutch interpretation of the Indonesian word of ulek which translates to the mashing of fresh ingredients in a traditional stone mortar and pestle (ulekan in Indonesia) to produce the savory and spicy chili paste. Usually made from red bird’s eye chili peppers or a similar variety of thin, long red chili peppers, Sambal Oelek also typically includes garlic, salt, lime juice and sugar. This is one of the most commonly used chili pastes in Asian cuisine, particularly Southeast Asian cuisine, both in actual cooking and as a condiment. Fresh and bottled Sambal Oelek should be a vibrant red color with the chili pepper seeds visible and a slight piquant flavor to the spice.

Sambal Terasi
One of the most popular chili pastes with foodies around the world who are accustomed to intense flavors, Sambal Terasi hails from its native Indonesia. Like any other original Asian chili paste, Sambal Terasi is traditionally made using a stone mortar and pestle to mash together red bird’s eye chili peppers with garlic, shallots, salt, sugar, lime juice and terasi, or Indonesian shrimp paste. Shrimp paste is the very pungent blocks of sun dried, fermented dried, small shrimp. Indonesians usually dry-roast or quickly sauté the shrimp paste in hot oil to briefly cook it before adding to the mortar and pestle mixture. Sambal Terasi is commonly used as a condiment to nearly any meal in Indonesia, particularly served with an assortment of raw vegetables. Indonesia also exports ready to use Sambal Terasi that is packaged in short glass bottles, available in many Asian markets in the West.

Sriracha chili sauce is one of the most recognized of all Asian chili sauces in the West. Served at every single Vietnamese restaurant, Sriracha is a smooth chili sauce that is produced with modern day technology. This is a sauce that finds its roots in extremely traditional and complex Asian chili sauce recipes that involve the mashing of red chili peppers, salt, sugar, lime juice (much like Sambal Oelek) but is ground far more before straining through a fine sieve to produce the seedless and much smoother texture. This also involves a higher volume of ingredients to produce the smooth chili sauce. Modern day versions that are used in Vietnamese restaurants and that are sold in Asian and Western markets are no longer produced the old fashioned way using a mortar and pestle of course. Fresh ingredients have also been substituted, such as replacing lime juice with vinegar and the addition of preservatives and stabilizers. Nearly every country in Asia produces numerous versions of chili sauce that can be equated with the taste, texture and spiciness of Sriracha, including the United States. In the US, the most popular versions are one from Lee Kum Kee and another from an Asian company based in California that uses the now iconic green bottle cap (in all Vietnamese restaurants). Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all have entries in this chili sauce category, with names ranging from plain Chili Sauce to Sambal Lampung. As long as you recognize the orange red hue, smooth consistency with no seeds, chances are you’ll buy a Sriracha or its sister spices.

Sweet Thai Chili Sauce
This type of sweet chili sauce is not very spicy at all, as it’s been diluted with cornstarch water and sugar. The original version in Thailand produced in homes and hole-in-the-wall restaurants uses fresh chili peppers, sugar water, fish sauce and a bit of lime juice. Modern day versions sold in markets are typically also produced in Thailand but come in glass bottles and are a thick, orange red sauce used by Thai restaurants in the West as dipping sauce to a variety of fried dishes like spring rolls, shrimp in blanket and chicken wings.