Reading Coconut & Sambal; Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen, by Lara Lee, feels like taking yourself on a journey with your best friend to discover her roots. Never have I read a cookbook with such a profound personal exploration by the author as to who they are and how they have arrived there.
Born to an Australian mother and Timorese father, Lee’s upbringing in Australia was multifaceted. Parties were adorned with sausage rolls and peanut sauce. Her Chinese-Indonesian Grandmother’s recipes seamlessly weaving their way onto their own dining table. Her grandmother came to live with them in Sydney when Lee and her sister were young girls. She brought with her a taste of Indonesian island life that was to begin Lee’s love affair with heritage.
It wasn’t until Lee reached adulthood that she began to visit Indonesia. Indeed, it wasn’t until she ‘took up cooking as a profession that (my) desire to trace (my) family’s culinary heritage became a mission’. She embarked on a journey that took her from the West Coast of Sumatra to Timor in the East. It is on this journey that she allows the reader to hold her hand and accompany her to unveil her unanticipated sense of kinship in this parallel life of shared loves and dreams. The book is a ‘catalogue of the recipes (I) learnt in the far-flung places (I) visited and all those family culinary treasures born in Popo’s house long ago in Kupang across the Timor Sea’.
I guess I had an affinity with Lee before I even picked up the book. A fellow Leith’s Alumna who has had her first cookbook published is a kindred spirit. I felt a connection to the work and devotion that goes into producing something that bears your soul through food. Every single recipe is accompanied by a personal anecdote, deploring its place in her heart and why it is there.
The journey begins with ‘Savoury Snacks’, a homage to the Street Food abundant on the Indonesian Archipelago. The imagery is different from the glossy, styled shots we are so accustomed to, and shows the food in its unadorned beauty. You feel as if you are on a roadside in Jakarta being served up food slap bang in the centre of the Emerald of the Equator. You can almost smell the Rempeyek (Peanut & Kaffir Lime Crackers) frying in their hot bubbly oil. The book moves through: Soups & Rice; Vegetables, Tofu & Tempeh; Fish & Seafood; Poultry & Eggs; Meat: Sambal; Sweets and Basic Recipes. As someone who doesn’t enjoy meat, the book catered for my every craving. Every recipe is accompanied by a Sambal suggestion and its comparative chilli heat to allow the reader to create their very own Indonesian table at home.
At some points I was almost moved to tears through the sheer graphic diction surrounding the recipes. Tales of family life and the Ceremony surrounding Balinese food rituals were so moving, the significance of food being in its rightful place… sacred.
I couldn’t wait to get stuck in to testing the recipes. The hardest part was deciding just which recipes to make. Unusually for me, there was no single recipe that jumped out… I wanted to make them all! I started with the Rempeyek and they were beyond delicious. Crisp crackers, bubbled with a heady spice paste and fragrant Kaffir Lime, studded with crunchy fried peanuts, they were just perfect to scoop up mounds of Ikan Woku Blanga (Woku Monkfish Stew). This was divine. I took my own initiative and cooked it on my Kadai Firebowl and I honestly felt as if I was in Indonesia. The sun beating on my back, affront a firepit, smoking with the fragrance of my homemade Bumbu (spice paste) being fried in coconut oil before harmonising with tomatoes, basil and coconut milk. Thick chunks of sweet monkfish are bathed in this hot sauce, the perfect balance of Spice and Freshness, central to the cuisine of Manado in North Sulawesi. I served this with Nasi Kuning (Balinese Ceremonial Rice) which became the perfect base for my Vegetarian Nasi Goreng Sayur the next day. Fried rice and vegetables, with the fresh zing of lemongrass and ginger topped with a sumptuous Chilli Fried Duck Egg… heavenly!
I won’t bore you with the long list of recipes I have recreated and made my own. And that is what this book allows you to do. It introduces you to a world of spice and flavour that you can take and dip in and out of. The culmination of the book divulges the key ingredients of Indonesian cooking and explains them. Giving you a powerful tool to devise your own creations once you have an understanding of how the ingredients can complement each other. Perhaps even more useful is a list of menus ranging from Vegan Spreads to Winter Feasts, which allow the reader to create restaurant worthy Indonesian masterpieces from the sanctuary of their own home. Alongside, there is even a collection of dietary lists which allows you, at a glance, to cater for pretty much any dietary requirement.
You can easily guess that I absolutely loved this book. Even the front cover had me smitten, with its pops of green and pink, it would grace any coffee table. More importantly, Coconut & sambal allows you to sit back and travel to The Spice Isles, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the Indonesian Archipelago from the comfort of your own home, something that I cherish, especially during this time of travel restrictions.