Sambal Bajak: Ploughman’s Sambal

A cooked sambal recipe from East Java. Sambal bajak is traditionally served to farmers who plough the fields to whet their appetite!

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Nunuk Sri Rahayu
Nunuk Sri Rahayu
Nunuk hails from Solo, the historic royal capital and cultural centre of Java, Indonesia. She has been cooking since the age of 12, and also performs and teaches traditional Javanese dance. Her dream is to eventually write her own Indonesian cookbook.

For a few days, I’d been thinking of making sambal bajak, when my sister said there was a very good offer for red chillies from some farmers who had a surplus, and needed to sell them as soon as possible. 

The universe had responded to my thoughts! It was sending me the most important ingredient of the sambal I’d been thinking of lately. 

When I was little, I often wondered, why is this particular sambal called sambal bajak? It’s such an unusual name for sambal, because bajak in Indonesian or Javanese means a plough. What does sambal have to do with a plough? 

Then someone told me that sambal bajak was often brought to the fields for farmers as part of their lunch. The taste and the aroma of this sambal stimulates their appetite, so they will eat more and regain lots of energy to plough the fields. That’s why this sambal is called sambal bajak. Compared to other kinds of sambal, sambal bajak is  less spicy, so it won’t cause any stomach problems that might disturb the farmers’ work.


Sambal bajak originates in East Java, but is popular in other regions as well. It’s pretty mild compared to other types of sambals, thanks to the palm sugar and the mild, big red chilli. What makes this sambal different from others is, the recipe calls for herbs such as lemongrass, galangal and salam leaves. It also requires a relatively longer cooking process done on a low flame, which infuses the flavour to achieve a fragrant, well-caramelised sambal. The combination of shrimp paste, tamarind and palm sugar also makes the flavour savoury, complex and unique. Sambal bajak is a great accompaniment for sweet and savoury dishes such as Ayam Goreng Kalasan or Tempe Bacem.

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Sambal Bajak: Ploughman’s Sambal

Sambal Bajak: Ploughman’s Sambal

  • Author: Nunuk Sri Rahayu
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 35 minutes
  • Total Time: 50 minutes
  • Yield: 4 1x
  • Category: Sambals & Sauces
  • Method: Stir-fry
  • Cuisine: Indonesian
  • Diet: Gluten Free


A flavourful cooked sambal from East Java, traditionally served to farmers who plough the fields, to stimulate their appetite during lunch. Also ideal as a base for stir fried dishes such as fried rice or noodles.


  • 5 big red chillies, chopped
  • 10 bird’s eye chillies 
  • 5 whole shallots, peeled
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 red tomato, halved
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 shallots, peeled, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemongrass, bruised, knotted
  • 2 salam leaves
  • 4 cm fresh galangal, sliced
  • I tsp tamarind (mix with 2 tbsp water, extract the juice)
  • I tsp roasted shrimp paste
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil


  1. In a saucepan, boil big red chillies, bird’s eye chillies, shallots, garlic and tomatoes with 1 cup of water over medium heat, for about 7 minutes. Drain and let it cool.Boil the ingredients together 
  2. Once the boiled ingredients are cool enough to handle, blend using a food processor or blender, into a coarse paste.
  3. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok on medium-high heat.
  4. Fry the sliced shallots until golden-brown, about 4 minutes.Fry the shallots until golden-brown 
  5. Add the blended paste, salam leaves, galangal and lemongrass. Stir well.Add the blended ingredients 
  6. Add salt, shrimp paste, brown sugar and tamarind juice, mix well.
  7. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated, and the sambal is thickened and beautifully glazed, around 20 minutes.Cook until sambal thickens 
  8. Transfer to a small serving bowl. 


  • Cook the sambal over low flame for the best result.
  • Adjust the level of spiciness by using more or fewer bird’s eye chillies.
  • Leftover sambal bajak can be used as a base for stir fried dishes and is great for fried rice. 

Keywords: Spicy, Shrimp Paste

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  1. Hi! I’m curious about the purpose behind boiling the chillies, shallots, garlic and tomato before blending. Some sambal recipes call for frying the chillies first, some don’t, and I’d just like to understand the difference. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the question! 

      Depending on what kind of sambal and type of chillies, the ingredients are handled differently. One of the main purposes of boiling the ingredients is to soften the flavour and reduce the spiciness.  Also, big chillies have a stronger ‘chilli’ smell and when making sambal using big chillies as the main ingredients, it is usually boiled or fried first to reduce the smell to get the best result. 


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