My mother swears that the second word to have come out of my mouth was 'lombok' which means 'chilies' in Javanese. Even though my first language is Malay, my maternal grandparents are Javanese - my grandfather left the Indonesian island of Java and set sailed to Malacca for greener pastures. So all their 9 children including my mother were brought up bilingual - Javanese at home and Malay in school.
With 9 siblings and half of them bearing families, you can imagine the chaos during our annual trip to visit our grandparents. Everyone could speak Malay, but the adults, when together, just slip into Javanese. The fast chatter was beyond my comprehension. To humor the children, they would sometimes teach us a few words but no one became fluent. I suspected that they liked having a 'secret' language so that they could talk adult stuff or lament about their children to each other. Thus, since the word 'lombok', I've added just 8 more Javanese words to my vocabulary - eggs and the numbers 1 to 7.
Actually, make that 9 more words. The word "oelek" in sambal oelek is also Javanese and is modernly spelled as "ulek". It has nothing to do with the the ingredients that make up the sambal, but refers to the mortar and pestle used to grind the chilies. Every household has its own version sambal oelek. When I moved to California, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of sambal oelek at the supermarket and upon googling, found that it was a popular product. I was happy because it meant I didn't have to import it from my mum. But I looked at the ingredients: chili, salt, distilled vinegar, potassium sorbate, sodium bisulfite, and xanthan gum. It contains both a preservative and an additive. I understand that might be necessary in some foods, but sambal is so easy to make, I decided to make my own to skip the preservative and additive.
Some versions of homemade sambal oelek include shrimp paste, shallots and lemongrass. I prefer it simpler with just salt and vinegar so that it can be used both as a condiment and an ingredient. Slicing and de-seeding chilies are not the most pleasant of jobs. As a kid, I used to waltz into the kitchen looking for a snack when a waft of the pungent fumes would sent me scurrying out of there immediately. It was the chilies, the red chilies my mother was relentlessly pounding in a mortar and pestle that released the stinging odor causing me to cough. Grinding them manually is better, but it's a breeze with the food processor or blender.
The type of chilies to use
Originally, the chilies used to make sambal oelek and sambal belacan are red serrano chilies. This is a problem because I can't always find them here in the Bay Area. Green serranos are plenty, but not red. So when I was at Milkpail and saw fresh serrano chilies, I grabbed a pound's worth. Since I already had sambal belacan, I decide to make sambal oelek. It made about 1 cup of sambal. I wish I had bought more. You can always freeze a portion of the sambal for use later. When you are cutting and de-seeding the chilies, try to have only one hand in contact with chilies while the other hand holds the knife. Then you will have at least one hand untainted by the sting of the chilies. After everything is done, I suggest rubbing your fingers in a citrus (good) or soaking your fingers in a bowl of milk (better) or both (best)!
If you can't find red serrano chilies, try holland chilies which are slightly longer and narrower than serranos, or fresno chilies which are shorter and fatter. Both are worthy substitutes; they just have a little less heat than serranos. I can't find holland chilies here, but below is a photo of a fresno chili compared to a serrano. The same goes if you are making sambal belacan - serrano should be your first choice.
Sambal oelek recipe
1 pound serrano chilies
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vinegar
To slice the chilies: cut the top off and slice in half lengthwise. Remove the center veins and all the seeds. If you like it with more heat, leave some seeds in. Slice the chilies in about 1/2 inch pieces. Grind them in a food processor or grind them in a mortar and pestle until they become a thick paste - you may need to add up to 1-2 tablespoons of water to get it going. Pour the paste into a yet unheated wok or sauce pan set on medium to high heat. As the sambal heats up, add the salt and vinegar. Stir well. Leave on medium for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly.
Makes about 1 cup sambal oelek.