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With vacations on hold, these umami-packed Indonesian recipes scratched my travel itch

With these make-at-home favorites Chef Lara Lee says "you can transport your kitchen to Indonesia."
Sweet soy tempeh is a signature dish of central Java, the largest island in Indonesia.
Sweet soy tempeh is a signature dish of central Java, the largest island in Indonesia. Louise Hagger

Two things are true for most of us at this point in the pandemic — we’re not traveling much further than the grocery store, and we lost our creative enthusiasm for cooking months ago, somewhere between whipped coffee and sourdough starter.

We may not be able to explore the world just yet, but we can learn about different cultures by trying their cuisines at home.

I talked to Lara Lee, author of "Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen", about how she dishes up a little slice of Indonesia with the recipes in her cookbook. She says that more than 1,000 years of trade through Indonesia’s thousands of islands brought diverse influences, spices and styles to the cuisine.

"Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen" was published in 2020. Louise Hagger

Like a lot of south Asian food, you get a balance of sour, salty, sweet, and sometimes spicy. “There’s a lovely sense of savory and umami you get with every bite. The layers of complexity of flavors come with all this punch and boldness,” she said. “To someone who hasn’t encountered Indonesian food, one of the things I think it brings to someone’s kitchen is a brightness and vibrance. It does that through the beautiful melody of flavors and sensations you get when you eat the cuisine.”

Lara Lee, author of "Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen".Louise Hagger

I can tell you firsthand that she’s right. I tried the prawn and chicken fried noodles (below). It was easy to find the ingredients I needed at my local grocery store — if you can’t find things like noodles and fish sauce, check the Asian or International aisle.

The meal was easy to put together — I made it after work on a Monday night. The dish has a beautiful blend of flavors that are somehow familiar, yet they come together in a way that’s unique and unexpected. It’s inspired me to step away from my chicken-and-potatoes pandemic routine and try something new more often.

Tomato Sambal

Tomato Sambal (Sambal Tomat)

Sambal is a popular Indonesian condiment. “Indonesians say, ‘If I haven’t eaten sambal, I have not eaten,’” Lee said. Sambal always contains chile, and different versions of sambal include other ingredients like tomatoes, shallots, garlic, tamarind and more. “It’s an interesting condiment. It’s on every Indonesian table no matter where you travel,” Lee said.

There are sambals you can find throughout Indonesia, and others that you’ll find in certain areas. “Every region has distinct characteristics in its flavors and dishes,” Lee said.

In addition to using sambal as a condiment, Lee said you can use it:

  • As a base for a stir fry
  • As a marinade — for example, you can spread it over a whole fish before grilling it
  • To mix into fried rice

Lee said that this tomato sambal would be a good condiment to serve with either the sweet soy tempeh or the prawn and chicken fried noodles. She also likes to make a batch of it, freeze it, and use it on scrambled eggs, steak, or pepperoni pizza, or mixed with mayonnaise as a dip for fries. “These are inauthentic, but it’s one of those condiments like sriracha that you can use with anything,” she said.

Sweet Soy Tempeh

Sweet Soy Tempeh (Tempeh Manis)

Sweet soy tempeh is a signature dish of central Java, the largest island in Indonesia. Lee said that as you travel throughout Indonesia, different flavors stand out. Areas will have cuisine that’s more salty, sweet or spicy.

“In central Java there’s a deep love and fondness for sugar and sweetness because the coconut palm tree is harvested there. Historically sugar has found its way into more of the food,” she said. “The salty sweetness of [sweet soy tempeh] is really addictive — you’ll find it on a lot of menus in that area. It’s heaven. The dish stands on its own with a plate of rice.”

Prawn and Chicken Fried Noodles

Prawn and Chicken Fried Noodles (Mie Goreng Udang)

“Indonesians are crazy for noodles. They eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s the ultimate comfort food,” Lee said. “This dish gives you some idea of their love affair with noodles.”

She said there are thousands of variations of this dish, with fish or pork sometimes replacing the prawn and chicken. “Every home, every mother, every grandmother has their recipe. This one is inspired by my own grandmother,” she said.

She loves how it’s comforting, easy to cook and accessible. “You could whip it up on a weeknight and it’s really tasty. My toddler eats it,” she said.

Ready to give Indonesian cooking a try? “There’s a lot to be learned about Indonesian cuisine — if you can follow a few recipes, you can transport your kitchen to Indonesia,” Lee said.