Charmaine Solomon
88 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson


From the air, the Indonesian archipelago is like a beautiful necklace of aquamarine, sapphire and emerald hues, strung between Australia and mainland South-East Asia. Of its more than 13,000 islands, only half are large enough to have names and less than a thousand are populated, yet it includes some of the world’s largest islands and is home to more than 245 million people, making it the fourth most populous nation on earth.

On the ground it is green, green, green. The steamy heat of the lowlands and the lush growth suggest that one is in a giant greenhouse, a notion that holds true for all but the chilly mountain peaks and high volcanic craters that are the backbones of most of the major islands. Indonesia has, at various times, been in the thrall of animism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. It has been influenced or conquered by the Chinese, the Indians, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English. It had huge and magnificent temples centuries before Europe’s great gothic cathedrals were dreamed of. Its handcrafts and theatre – batik and the famed wayang kulit or ‘shadow plays’ – are as alive today as they were a thousand years ago.

This rich and varied history, coupled with many different traditions and languages, has inevitably produced a cuisine that is also rich and varied — and which offers much to the adventurous eater.

Indonesian food is, unquestionably, some of the most delicious in the world. There isn’t much subtlety about it, but what a great awakening for your taste buds! This doesn’t mean that every dish is hot or pungent, but there’s always a combination of sweet and sour and salty tastes; unexpectedly gentle sauces of coconut milk fragrant with lemongrass or other herbs; crisp textured accompaniments; hot sambals to be tasted in tiny quantities; all of which create an awareness that what you are eating is not just body fuel but an expression of culinary artistry.

One of the simplest, most unsophisticated Indonesian meals I have eaten was at an open-air restaurant in Jakarta. Near the entrance were tables laden with enormous piles of tender coconuts and spiky, strong-smelling durian; from beams in the little thatched shelter hung strings of purple mangosteens, mangoes, rambutan and other exotic fruit. At this restaurant the speciality was fish. And fish there were, all around. Paths wound between ponds well stocked with varieties of fish considered delicacies in Indonesia. The water was recirculated by means of fountains in the ponds. Pavilions open on all sides dotted the grounds and here one sat at bare tables. Before sitting down we chose our fish, pointing them out to the men who waded in, net in hand, to capture our dinner.

The meal, when it came, was extremely simple. There was a whole fish to each person; some had been deep-fried, others barbecued. To accompany the fish was a basket filled with steaming white rice. Each diner had a bowl of soup, very light and clear, but full of the unusual flavours of acid with tamarind and sweet with the natural sugars of vegetables like corn and pumpkin — this was for sipping between mouthfuls of food, not for downing as a first course. There was a salad of cucumber spears and other vegetables and fresh green leaves far more intriguing than lettuce; even tender papaya leaves were included. Each of us had a small stone dish of freshly ground chilli sambal with a stone pestle-like spoon resting in it. This was the dynamite that set the whole meal apart and assured us that we were dining in Indonesia. The fish was delightful — fried or barbecued, the flesh was moist and delicate, the small bones so crisply cooked that they crunched and melted. To take care of the big bones there were numerous friendly and well-fed cats (it was considered quite in order to throw the bones to the feline clientele).

To drink, we had young coconuts with the top cut off, a dash of orange-flavoured syrup and crushed ice added to the water inside. For dessert we were deluged with fresh green-skinned citrus fruits of amazing sweetness and a whole string of mangosteens – gentle pressure between the palms cracks open the thick purple shell to disclose a number of milky white segments like those in a mandarin, but with no covering membrane or little seeds. Their sweet-sour, slightly astringent, refreshing flavour makes you eat another and yet another until there is a tell-tale heap of purple shells before you.

Indonesian sweets are mostly made from glutinous rice, but don’t shrug them off with thoughts of rice pudding – there’s not the slightest resemblance. The rice might be steamed in tiny baskets woven of fresh leaves, sweetened with palm sugar, flavoured with fragrant leaves and flowers; or it might be ground and cooked with coconut milk to a smooth paste, flavoured and coloured and poured in unbelievably fine alternate layers of white and green or pink or yellow or chocolate.

Serving and eating an Indonesian meal

Whatever else is served, rice is always the foundation of an Indonesian meal. Cook your rice by the absorption method or by steaming; it has so much more flavour than rice cooked in water and drained, and it also has the correct texture and pearly appearance. With rice it is customary to serve a fish curry and a poultry or meat curry, or both; two or more vegetable dishes, one a sayur with lots of gravy, and at least one other vegetable, stir-fried, boiled or served as a salad. Accompaniments such as krupuk and chilli-based condiments are an integral part of the meal.

The word ‘sambal’ implies something fried with lots of chillies. It doesn’t only include high-powered condiments such as sambal ulek or sambal bajak, which are basically pastes of ground chilli and other seasonings; it can also mean one or more of several main dishes known as sambal sambalan — there are prawn sambals, chicken sambals, beef sambals – so you could accompany your rice with a generous helping of sambal cumi-cumi pedis and a tiny accent of sambal bajak .

Most popular Indonesian sambal pastes or condiments are available in Western countries. Making them involves handling large quantities of fresh chillies and this can be an unforgettable experience if one is in the least bit careless. I recommend buying these sambals in bottles. They are eaten or used in recipes in such tiny quantities that it is hardly worth the trouble to make them. Store bottles in the refrigerator after opening and use a dry spoon, and they’ll keep well. There are some recipes for those who find it impossible to buy the sambals.

Because Indonesian cookery never gets very far without fresh chillies, have disposable gloves ready and use them when handling any kind of chilli. If you do forget and touch the chillies, keep your hands away from your eyes, your face and delicate skin. Washing well with soap and water helps, but don’t be surprised if the more pungent chillies cause a tingling and burning sensation that goes on for hours. When planning an Indonesian meal the curries can be prepared a day or two before and refrigerated — they usually develop more flavour with keeping. Accompaniments can also be made earlier in the day and chilled, or heated up at the last minute if they are to be served hot. Soups and vegetables (sayur) can be made in advance too, but short-cook the dish so that the final re-heating will not result in the vegetables being overcooked.

For a rice meal set the table with a plate, dessert spoon, fork and a bowl for soup. Everything is put on the table at the same time except sweets or fruits. Rice is taken first and should be surrounded by small helpings of curries and other accompaniments, which are mixed with the rice either singly or in combination.

It is quite polite to eat an Indonesian meal with one's fingers, as most Indonesians do, but practise without an audience first; there’s quite an art to doing it properly. Only the tips of the fingers of the right hand are used. When soups and sayur are part of the meal a spoon proves more convenient. Finger bowls are provided, with slices of lemon or lime floating in hot water.


The range of saucepans, knives and spoons already in the kitchen will do very well for cooking Indonesian food, but there is one pan that will make things a lot easier. This is the curved metal pan with a shallow bowl-like shape known to most of us as a wok, but called a kuali or wajan. Woks are readily available and are inexpensive. In most Indonesian kitchens, grinding stones are part of the essential equipment, as is a stone mortar and pestle. You can buy a mortar and pestle for pounding small amounts of spices, or invest in an electric spice grinder. To substitute for the grinding stone you need a powerful blender. I would stress that some do a better job than others. Mine has a glass goblet, a powerful motor and a shape that will effectively blend small quantities as well as large. I use it all the time for grinding spices, pulverising onions, chillies, garlic and ginger, making coconut milk and a number of other tasks.

In Asian kitchens you will find a special implement for grating fresh coconut, but rather than try to grate the coconut with an ordinary grater, peel away the dark brown outer skin and pulverise the coconut in a food processor or blender. Frozen grated coconut is available from Indian grocery stores.

On the subject of graters, I have often recommended using grated ginger or garlic. This is because it is the nearest you can come to the ground ingredient and because most blenders need more than a couple of cloves of garlic or a fragment of ginger to work on — but please choose the right grater surface – not the one for grating cheese or the larger shredder, but the small version of the shredder. This gives a very satisfactory result.

Your Indonesian shelf

This is a list of spices, sauces, sambals and other flavourings which are often used in Indonesian cooking and good to have on hand to make the recipes in this chapter.

–candlenuts or Brazil nuts

–coconut cream and milk

–coconut, desiccated or freshly grated

–coriander, ground

–cumin, ground

–curry leaves

–daun salam leaves

–dried shrimp

–dried shrimp paste

–galangal, fresh or brined

–glutinous rice

–kecap manis or use dark soy sauce

–kencur powder

–laos powder

–palm sugar, or use soft or dark brown sugar

–pandanus leaves

–peanut oil

–salted soy beans

–sambal bajak

–sambal ulek

–sereh powder

–sesame oil

–shrimp sauce

–soy sauce

–tamarind pulp

–turmeric, ground


Though fresh galangal may look similar to ginger, this rhizome is infinitely harder to cut. Sliced, it adds flavour simply by simmering in soups and sauces, but for a curry paste, the rhizome will need to be peeled and finely chopped before grinding with a mortar and pestle with other ingredients. If you do not have access to the fresh root, sliced galangal in brine is the next best option. Otherwise, use the dry ground spice, known as laos powder. It will imbue the food with the correct flavour note, though perhaps with a little less of the lively zing delivered by the fresh rhizome.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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