Petty Pandean-Elliott on her best Indonesian recipes

Award-winning chef Petty Pandean-Elliot was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. Petty has dedicated her career to preserving and promoting the traditional cuisine of Indonesia, which is characterised by its rich blend of flavours and diverse regional influences.

Petty has written several popular cookbooks. Her recipes reflect her deep understanding of Indonesian cooking techniques and ingredients. Petty has also hosted a number of cooking shows on Indonesian television. Her work has helped to raise the profile of Indonesian food both locally and internationally, and she is regarded as a leading figure in the world of Indonesian cuisine.

Here, she tells Sous Chef why the food of Indonesia is so exciting.

Petty’s cookbook The Indonesian Table is out March 2023 (Phaidon)

MORE: Try Petty's Mixed Salad with Spicy and Tangy Peanut Sauce (Gado Gado)Indonesian spice pastes or Bagor Tempeh Laksa


What’s the best thing you’ve eaten recently?

A unique and delicious hummus that I have not tried before. It has a deep toffee colour, a smooth and silky texture and a rich nutty flavour. It’s a combination of black chickpeas, walnuts, sumac, and tahini and while it is not an Indonesian food as such, there is a connection.

It has a deep toffee colour, a smooth and silky texture and a rich nutty flavour.

Tahini, 400g

We have Tahini in our ‘Kacang Wijen’ sambal condiment in Indonesia which I love. The tahini paste is mixed with finely ground or chopped chilies or finely chopped lime leaves and lime juice. (Page 79 of The Indonesian Table). The result is a creamy spicy and fragrant paste which you can enjoy with salad or lontong, compressed rice (plain rice cake) or as dips.

What are the different culinary influences across Indonesia? 

Indonesia has been a centre of trade for centuries and so has been influenced by the culinary cultures of many visitors. These include Indian, Chinese and Arabic traders.  Closer to home we have the term ‘peranakan cuisine’ which is a mix of Chinese and Malay influences on local tables, and this was long before the European traders arrived in the late Middle Ages in search of our famous spices like nutmeg and cloves.  And this is all in addition to our very rich and diverse local culture – our country has 17,000 islands over 700 languages more than 1000 ethnicities.

How do they (culinary influences) vary from region to region?

We do have some basic foundations that give some consistency to Indonesian cooking, and the basic bumbu or spice paste is a great example. Bumbu is a mixture of garlic and shallots with ginger and/or galangal to create a white cooking paste. If chilies are added, it becomes a red paste. A further yellow variety is with the addition of fresh turmeric. 

There is also a dry spice mix known as ‘rempah’ which varies region to region including up to 14 different spices combined with local herbs known as ‘rempah daun’. Local citrus (lime, calamansi, tamarind, vinegar or different indigenous dried fruits) makes a big difference from region to region.

In Sumatra, curry leaves, asam sunti (dried carambola fruits) fennel, cumin and cardamom are widely used. You don’t find these ingredients used at all in Sulawesi Island where I was born.

And in Java, Bali and Lombok islands sweet sauce is very important. 


When you think of the flavours of Jakarta, what comes first to your mind?

Spiciness!

Jakartans love something spicy but they also love variety. We talk about variety as the spice of life and I feel that really describes Jakarta food – for you can enjoy many regional favourites in one city – without having to travel! Snacks are very popular - such as beef and potato croquets, pasties with whole green chilies, noodles, satays of beef, chicken or goat meat, creamy laksa, soto soups, curry and rice dishes with sambal. Sambal is the spicy condiment that every Jakartan expects and there are many different regional versions.  


Lucullus Sambal Oelek, 200g

How do you balance tradition and innovation in your recipes?

As much as possible I want authentic flavours.  I will reduce the spicy level sometimes when it is very intense and could be overwhelming – in Manado, North Sulawesi where I was born we have amazing tasty recipes but sometime the traditional approach is extremely spicy.

My approach is to be modern - meaning convenience and speed without loss of flavour – as most cooks simply do not have the time to prepare food according to the old traditions

I also like to showcase the freshness of the ingredients and use colour in my recipes. My approach is to be modern - meaning convenience and speed without loss of flavour – as most cooks simply do not have the time to prepare food according to the old traditions. Modern means I cook a number of dishes using an electric which of course was not common in days gone by.

Can you expand on that?

I adore Indonesian traditional recipes that use bamboo stems, banana leaves or palm leaves (daun woka) and even the concept of cooking with hot stones – but one has to be practical.  I do use banana leaves – because they are available in UK and with great results. And of course the washing up is easy – so I guess this is a great way to cook sustainably. 

I often get asked to be a ‘guest chef’ in fine dining establishments. This is a fun challenge creating something contemporary and artful based on the traditional dishes but with western, modern cooking techniques. For example, to prepare Manadonese seafood woku (seafood with spiced turmeric, lemongrass and lime leaves) with extra tomatoes and serve with pasta instead of rice. (Page xx of The Indonesian Table).


What are the components of a good meal for you?

This is very personal; everyone is different. For me a good meal means slightly less carbohydrate and a source and plenty of protein such as meat, poultry, fish, tempeh or tofu which offers a source of ‘healthy’ fats and fibre from vegetables and fruits. Also, I like to enjoy different carbohydrate not only source from rice. I prefer variety in carbohydrates – not just rice - but sweet potatoes, plantains, sago, sorghum or cassava all of which are traditional.

Which recipes or techniques do you turn to again and again?

An excellent and versatile base is spiced turmeric paste made of garlic, shallots, fresh ginger, galangal, turmeric and chilies. Roughly slice or chop the ingredients, sauté with coconut or sunflower oil until soft then blend finely. Or you may blend first and sauté all together until 6-7 minutes or until fragrant. You can prepare this in large batches to keep in the refrigerator for a couple weeks.

This basic recipe can be used to create many different regional cuisines. Add lemongrass, lime leaves and coconut cream for a simple curry, or add 4-8 different dried spices for more complex curry, add tomatoes and basil for stew, or sweet soya and lime for roast chicken.  Add water, lemongrass and lime leaves to make soto ayam, a most delicious chicken noodle soup.


What is the significance of nutmeg, cloves and mace to Indonesian cooking?

It is ironic that these spices made Indonesia famous in the western world many centuries ago – yet in much of Indonesia they were not nearly so significant compared to chili pepper.  The chili pepper which was introduced to Indonesia and has become a national favourite spice as it is the key ingredient to make sambal.

We do use nutmeg in some curries and stews and of course in baking and desserts.  The people of the Banda Islands – the origin of nutmeg use the mace from this fruit in cooking local fish dishes. 


Bagor Tempeh Laksa from The Indonesian Table


Which ingredients will we always find in your store cupboard?

  1. Rice and dried noodles 
  2. Dry seaweed
  3. Soya Sauce (sweet and dark soya sauce)
  4. Different cooking oils including coconut, olive and sunflower oils
  5. Tahini and miso, as I really like to make Tahini and miso sambal
  6. Many different spices including chilies
  7. Coconut milk

What ingredients have you recently discovered that you are excited about?

I visited South Sumatra last May and for the first time I tasted white turmeric or known as ‘temu mangga’. Recognisable as turmeric it has the taste of unripe mango (hence mangga in Indonesian). You can enjoy it raw as a crudité (lalapan) or in sambal or herbal drinks.

Which meal or occasions are you most looking forward to right now?

I am a guest chef at Aman Jiwo resort in central Java in March and we will stage a unique three-day culinary festival. Unique in that the final dinner will take place in the grounds of the Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. A grand long table in such an iconic setting is a dream come true and to celebrate I will be offering an authentic Java feast.


Try some recipes from Petty's book: Mixed Salad with Spicy and Tangy Peanut Sauce (Gado Gado), Indonesian spice pastes or Bagor Tempeh Laksa


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