Cookbook creator Lara Lee on Indonesian delicacies

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Where does the name of the book come from?

I wanted to name the book after these two key elements of Indonesian cuisine. Sambal is a chilli sauce that is used as a condiment, seasoning paste, marinade and dip. Every home cook has his own recipe and there are hundreds of variations in the regions. No part of the coconut is wasted in Indonesian households, from milk to oil to sugar from the nectar of coconut blossoms. Even the seashells turn into utensils and shells.

What other ingredients are key to Indonesian cuisine?

Chili, garlic and shallot form the basis for many Indonesian spice pastes. From here, other ingredients are added, like turmeric for the color; Ginger or galangal, to give a peppery or citrus heat; Kaffir lime or lemongrass for the scent. Coconut milk is added for creaminess, fat and flavor, while tamarind and lime provide acidity and palm sugar for sweetness. Many Indonesian dishes are flavored with Kecap Manis [sweetened soy sauce] for a deep, sweet and syrupy soy taste and terasi [fermented shrimp paste] is often added in very small amounts to provide umami. The dishes are always seasoned at the end in order to achieve a balance between salt, acidity, heat and sweetness.

What recipe is the best place to start for a reader new to Indonesian cuisine?

The Gado-Gado – literally translated as “Mix-Mix” – is a salad made from mixed vegetables, tofu and egg, coated with a warm, seasoned peanut sauce. The peanut sauce is made from deeply colored peanuts (I mean fry until golden, but you can roast them or use peanut butter instead), paired with fried chilies and garlic, and flavored with tamarind paste and kecap manis. The end result is a tasty, delicious sauce. It’s easy to do, but addicting, and it’s one of my favorite recipes in the book.

Lara Lee is the author of Coconut & Sambal (£ 26, Bloomsbury).

Published in Issue 9 (Summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveler Food

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