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Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen by Lara Lee

In a normal year, it is possible that you spent this weekend visiting family. Perhaps you are home again in your childhood and have familiar routines with your parents, like rolling your eyes when your father lips you to sleep or a polite smile while your mother makes fun of you for being insecure They had worked all year, but apparently not well enough. These are just a few of the joys of vacationing on vacation. The other big one: food.

Since I couldn’t visit my people this year, I thought it would be a good idea to create some dishes that are reminiscent of home. I had never learned how to make Indonesian food. In fact, since my departure I have moved further and further away from my Indonesian roots. Fortunately, Lara Lee, author of the new cookbook Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Cooking, was able to refer to it.

“I’ve spent a lot of time making up for lost ground over the past few years,” says Lee. “For a while I felt pretty disconnected from my Indonesian heritage and wanted to catch up.”

Lee is partly Chinese Indonesian, partly Australian. She grew up in Sydney and ate food from her Indonesian grandmother, whom she named Popo. Lee writes in her book about vivid memories of Popo, how he drizzles peanut sauce over vegetables and boiled eggs or cooks pork belly in a sweetened sauce made from garlic, shallots and chilli.

“I was too young to learn her recipes at the time,” she writes. “But the flavors of Popo’s food left an impression that stayed with me long after her retreat to Timor and later death.”

It wasn’t until Lee became a chef midway through his career that he began using her grandmother’s recipes to reconnect with those foods and flavors. Eventually, he traveled around Indonesia doing research, connecting with Indonesian chefs at home and for work, and writing this book.

My attempt to reconnect to culture through food was less ambitious. I settled on a fairly standard dish – beef rendang, a staple at large gatherings like weddings, family reunions, or holidays. It’s a dry curry that’s slowly cooked in coconut milk, chilies, and spices. For the sake of full disclosure, there were a few things on Lee’s ingredient list that I couldn’t find (lime leaves and galangal), but her recipes either offer workarounds or leave out some of these things. The thought of leaving out Galangal might scare some purists (sorry mom!), But Lee says the lack of accessibility is partly why Indonesian cuisine isn’t as widespread as others.

“We have to tell the original stories of recipes, but I think we also need recipes that the average home cook can make,” she says.

It’s a difficult thing to keep your balance – that vague sense of authenticity versus approximation. But one thing Lee didn’t move about was heat. The Rendang recipe has 7 long red chilies (the book allows you to core them to reduce the heat a bit). And that’s not the heat of the sauces known as sambal, which are served alongside many dishes.

Sambal plays an important role in Indonesian cuisine. 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 recommended sambal pairing, but these sauces are so versatile that they don’t need to be referred to Indonesian food. Lee makes large quantities of a tomato (recipe below) that she keeps in her freezer.

“And then I put everything on,” says Lee, “as if my husband made pizza or if I have eggs for breakfast in the morning or whatever we eat.” I’ve personally even seen some people eat it straight from a container while standing in front of an open fridge (hi dad!).

But back to the rendang, which after a couple of hours of cooking in the liquid is ready for the final step – turn up the heat and stir constantly until the water has boiled off and all that’s left is the oil for the beef, to continue this was the greatest act of faith for me. After the first ten minutes of stirring it didn’t look what I had imagined and I thought I was a failure and not a particularly good Indonesian – and after more stirring it happened: the colors deepen from a milky green to a dark brown and the scents triggered sensory memories of home, which was the opposite of the intended effect and made me a little sad and homesick.

I asked Lee if writing the book had resolved the division she felt about her legacy. She says she approaches Indonesian cuisine as a humble student, but feels more Indonesian than ever. Does this rendang taste exactly as I remember it – as if I were 12 years old and without any worries at home? Of course not. But it’s close enough that it tastes like home today.

Tomato Sambal Louise Hagger hide caption

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Louise Hagger

Tomato sauce

Louise Hagger

Lara Lee’s tomato sambal

Extract from Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian cuisine courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.

I think this tomato relish is a guide for sambal beginners as it can be wonderfully flavorful or mild depending on your preference. For those with chilli-sensitive palates, like my Devonshire mother-in-law, Caroline, pitting the chillies decreases the potency of the heat. The addition of tomatoes makes it a mild 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 usually done with intensely flavored bush tomatoes in the parts of Indonesia where they are lucky enough to grow them, but in my eat-in kitchen in London I like to use good quality cherry tomatoes.

This sambal can be kept in the refrigerator covered with a thin layer of sunflower oil for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Origin: Popular all over Indonesia

Chilli Heat: Moderate

Makes 250 g (approx. 16 servings)

20 long red chilies (approx. 250 g), pitted and cut into slices

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced

4 cm piece of ginger (approx. 20 g), peeled and cut into slices

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

180g cherry tomatoes

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

½ teaspoon palm sugar or brown sugar

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Coconut or sunflower oil for frying

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

Set a pan over medium heat and add 4 tablespoons of oil. Pour the paste into the pan and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring constantly, or until the sambal turns darker, smells good and has a thick consistency. Season with tamarind paste, sugar, salt and pepper. Let cool down.

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