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Recreating Indonesian Home Cooking With 'Coconut And Sambal'

/ Bloomsbury Publishing
Bloomsbury Publishing

In a normal year, it's possible that you would've spent this weekend visiting family. Maybe you're in back in your childhood home, settling into familiar routines with your parents, like rolling your eyes when your dad ribs you for sleeping in a little, or smiling politely while your mom makes fun of you for the exact insecurity you thought you'd been working on all year but apparently not well enough. These are just some of the pleasures of visiting home for the holidays. The other big one: Food.

On account of not being able to visit my folks this year, I thought it'd be a good idea to try and recreate some dishes reminiscent of home. I'd never learned to make any Indonesian food growing up. In fact, I've been growing increasingly distant from my Indonesian roots since leaving home. Thankfully Lara Lee, author of the new cookbook Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen, could relate.

"I've spent a lot of the last few years trying to make up for lost ground," says Lee. "For a period of time, I felt quite disconnected from my Indonesian heritage and wanted to catch up."

Lee is part Chinese Indonesian and part Australian. She grew up in Sydney, eating food made by her Indonesian grandmother, whom she called Popo. Lee writes in her book about vivid memories of Popo drizzling peanut sauce over vegetables and boiled eggs, or simmering pork belly in a sweetened sauce of garlic, shallots and chili.

"Back then I was too young to learn her recipes," she writes. "But the flavors of Popo's food left an impression that stayed with me long after she moved back to Timor and later passed away."

It wasn't until a mid-career shift into becoming a chef did Lee start using her grandma's recipes to reconnect with these foods and flavors — eventually travelling through Indonesia for research, connecting with Indonesian cooks both home and professional, and writing this book.

My attempt at reconnecting to the culture through food was a touch less ambitious. I chose to make a fairly standard dish — beef rendang, a staple at big gatherings like weddings, family reunions, or holidays. It's a dry curry that's slow cooked in coconut milk, chilies, and spices. In the spirit of full disclosure, there were a couple things on Lee's ingredients list that I couldn't find (lime leaves and galangal), but her recipes either offer workarounds or let you leave some of those things off. The thought of leaving out galangal might make a few purists cringe (sorry Mom!), but Lee says a lack of accessibility is partly why Indonesian cuisine hasn't spread as widely as others.

"We need to tell the original stories of recipes, but I think we also need recipes that are doable as well by the average home cook," she says.

It's a tricky thing to balance — this vague sense of authenticity versus approachability. But one thing Lee did not budge on was heat. There are 7 long red chilies in the rendang recipe (the book allows you to de-seed them to decrease the heat a bit). And that's not counting the heat from the sauces, known as sambal, served on the side of many dishes.

Sambal plays an important role in Indonesian food. According to Lee's book, there are hundreds of variations from across the country, with their own distinctive flavor profiles. Most of the recipes in the book offer a suggested sambal pairing, but these sauces are versatile enough that they don't need to be relegated to Indonesian food. Lee makes big batches of a tomato based one (recipe below) that she keeps in her freezer.

"And then I put it on everything," Lee says, "like if my husband made pizza or if I have eggs in the morning for breakfast, or whatever we eat." Me personally, I've even seen some people just eat it straight out of a container while standing in front of an open fridge (hi Dad!).

But back to the rendang, which, after a few hours of cooking in the liquid, is ready for the final step — turning the heat up and constantly stirring until the water is cooked off and all that's left is the oil for the beef to continue carmelizing in. This, for me, was the biggest act of faith. After the first ten minutes of stirring, it wasn't looking like I thought it should and I figured I was a failure and not a particularly good Indonesian — and then, after more stirring, it happened: The colors deepend from a milky green to a dark brown and the scents started triggering sense memories of home, which had the opposite of the intended effect and made me a little sad and homesick.

I asked Lee if writing the book fixed whatever disconnect she felt about her heritage. She says that while she still approaches Indonesian food as a humble student, she does feel more Indonesian than ever before. As for me, does this rendang taste exactly as I remember — like I'm 12 years old and back home with no worries? Of course not. But it's close enough that it tastes like home today.

Lara Lee's Tomato Sambal

Excerpted from Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen, with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

I think of this tomato relish as a beginner's guide to sambal, as it works beautifully either spicy or mild, depending on your preference. For those with chili-sensitive palates, like my Devonshire mother-in-law, Caroline, deseeding the chilies lowers the potency of the heat. The addition of tomatoes makes it a mellow and umami-rich relish that is irresistible drizzled over soups, added to stews or used as a dipping sauce with wedges or fritters.

This is typically made with intensely flavored bush tomatoes in the parts of Indonesia where they are lucky enough to grow them, but in my home kitchen in London I'm happy to use good-quality cherry tomatoes.

This sambal keeps for up to 1 week in the fridge covered with a thin layer of sunflower oil, or for up to 3 months in the freezer.

Origin: Popular all over Indonesia

chili heat: Moderate

Makes 250g (about 16 portions)

20 long red chilies (about 250g), deseeded and sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

4cm piece of ginger (about 20g), peeled and sliced

2 small banana shallots or 4 Thai shallots, peeled and sliced

180g cherry tomatoes

1 tsp tamarind paste (or 1 tsp lime juice mixed with 1 tsp brown sugar)

½ tsp palm sugar or brown sugar

Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Coconut oil or sunflower oil, for frying

Place the chilies, garlic, ginger, shallots and tomatoes in a food processor and blend to a semi-fine paste, retaining a little texture.

Place a frying pan over a medium heat and add 4 tablespoons of oil. Add the paste to the pan and cook, stirring continuously, for 10–15 minutes or until the sambal darkens, is fragrant and reduces to a thick consistency. Season with the tamarind paste, sugar, salt and pepper. Leave to cool.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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