Cookbook author Lara Lee on Indonesian cuisine

We talk to Australian-born food writer Lara Lee whose debut cookbook offers a culinary love letter to Indonesian dishes that, as she explains, rely on a delicate balance of flavours, textures and ingredients.

By Heather Taylor
Published 7 Oct 2020, 14:32 BST
Early morning at Bali’s Ubud market.

Early morning at Bali’s Ubud market.

Photograph by Coconut & Sambal

What are your first memories of Indonesian food?
My upbringing — with an Australian mother and Chinese-Indonesian father — was largely westernised. It wasn’t until my popo [grandmother] relocated to live with us from Timor that my connection with Indonesia began. I used to watch her carve carrots, cucumbers and vegetables into beautiful shapes, to be served alongside peanut sauce and boiled eggs in a gado-gado salad. I remember the smell of Balinese chicken wafting through the house and the fragrance of spice paste. I first visited Indonesia as a young adult with my parents, and we walked along a pier where a fisherman sat waiting for his catch. There were street food vendors and the air was filled with the scent of spices — lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and chilli — being sautéed in woks. 

How would you describe Indonesian cooking? 
The key to creating a tasty Indonesian meal is balance — of textures, produce and flavours. A traditional Indonesian meal will feature vegetable, meat and fish dishes prepared in different ways, such as steaming, frying or sautéing. The dish that best sums it up is nasi goreng. Recipes vary, but most start with rice stir-fried with spice paste and a mix of vegetables, tofu or meat, all served with a crispy fried egg on top and kerupuk (crackers) on the side. It’s often eaten for breakfast.

How did you develop the recipes in Coconut & Sambal
When I came up with the concept for the book, I wanted to discover the half of my heritage that I had limited access to growing up — I wanted the recipes to be my love letter to Indonesia, and to reveal another side to it. It’s known for sandy white beaches and yoga retreats, but further afield there are 17,000 islands, from the volcanoes of north Sulawesi, where lemon basil and fiery chilli dominate the dishes, to the narrow streets of Medan in north Sumatra, where Chinese-Indonesian kitchens are famed for rice noodle stir-fries. I began my research with the doyenne of Indonesian cuisine, writer Sri Owen. Thanks to her, I was introduced to home cooks across Indonesia. I travelled around the country for a year and amassed more than 300 recipes. Back in London, I whittled them down to 85, and adapted them. 

Lara Lee wanted her recipes to be a love letter to her heritage. 

Photograph by Coconut & Sambal

Where did 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’s used as a condiment, spice paste, marinade and dipping sauce. Every home cook has their own recipe, and there are hundreds of variations across the regions. Not one part of the coconut is wasted in Indonesian households, from the milk to oil and a sugar made from the nectar of coconut flowers. Even the shells are transformed into utensils and bowls. 

Which other ingredients are key to Indonesian cuisine?
Chilli, garlic and shallot form the base for many Indonesian spice pastes. From here, other ingredients are added, such as turmeric for colour; ginger or galangal to give a peppery or citrussy heat; kaffir lime or lemongrass for fragrance. Coconut milk is added for creaminess, fat and flavour, while tamarind and lime provide sourness, and palm sugar provides sweetness. Many Indonesian dishes are seasoned with kecap manis [sweetened soy sauce] for a deep, sweet and syrupy soy flavour, and terasi [fermented shrimp paste] is often added in very small amounts to provide umami. Dishes are always seasoned at the end to achieve a balance of salt, sourness, heat and sweetness.

Which recipe is the best place to start for a reader new to Indonesian cooking?
The gado-gado — literally translated as ‘mix-mix’ — is a salad of mixed vegetables, tofu and egg coated in a warm, spiced peanut sauce. The peanut sauce is made from deeply coloured peanuts (I fry mine until they’re golden, but you can roast them or use peanut butter instead), which is combined with stir-fried chilli and garlic, and seasoned with tamarind paste and kecap manis. The end result is a flavourful, delicious sauce. It’s simple to make yet utterly addictive, and is one of my favourite recipes in the book.

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

Published in Issue 9 (summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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