Lara Lee is an Indonesian and Australian chef and food writer. She trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine and now runs an event catering business called Kiwi and Roo.
She also holds supper clubs that celebrate her heritage with both Australian and Indonesian cuisine all over London.
Here, she tells Sous Chef about the essential ingredients you’ll find in every Indonesian storecupboard, and how to use them.
What are the flavours of Indonesian food?
It is the fragrance of Indonesia that hits first; the citrus perfume of lime leaf, the peppery heat of ginger and galangal, and the caramelised sweetness of shallots that weaves through the air as spice pastes, known as bumbu, are sautéed in woks.
Skewered meats and seafood are glazed with spices and a fermented sweet soy sauce named kecap manis, producing aromas of earth and smoky caramel.
Fiery sambals, a spicy condiment that Indonesians eat with every meal, are made with chillies and a myriad of Indonesian ingredients that include garlic, tamarind and a fermented shrimp paste known as terasi or belacan.
Feasts are sensory experiences, with varying textures and crunch and a melody of sweet, sour, bitterness, heat and piquancy.
We take great pleasure in variety when it comes to Indonesian food, so a selection of vegetables, tempeh and tofu, fried snacks, fish and meat adorn the table, framed by generous helpings of rice and at least one or two sambals.
What are the key ingredients in Indonesian cooking?
The ingredients I have listed below form the cornerstones of my Indonesian pantry.
Alongside fresh ingredients, if you have these in your kitchen you should be well placed to create most dishes from my cookbook, as they are the foundation of many Indonesian recipes.
A waxy, cream-coloured nut with a brittle texture, the candlenut is a relative of the Australian macadamia nut and is used in spice pastes for its high oil content, thickening quality and ability to add texture.
Slightly toxic when eaten raw, they should be roasted in the oven or toasted in a warm frying pan to draw out their flavour. I roast a large batch of candlenuts in the oven at 190°C/170°C fan/gas 5 for 12–15 minutes and then store them in an airtight container, ready to be used whenever they are needed.
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of coconut and no part of the coconut tree is wasted. Young coconuts produce sweet, fresh coconut water with flesh so tender it falls away with a simple scoop of a spoon.
The grated flesh of a coconut comes from the mature coconut, firm enough to be grated or for the chunks of flesh to be thrown into a food processor. It is this grated flesh that fresh coconut milk comes from, known as santen.
Canned coconut milk with an extract percentage above 50% is an ideal substitute for fresh santen.. As the thickened coconut cream usually separates from the thinner coconut water, shake the can vigorously before using.
Fish sauce is a condiment that is made from fermented and salted fish. Used in Indonesian cuisine as a seasoning, it imparts a salty, umami flavour to savoury dishes that is often balanced by sugar.
Indonesians use a variety of flours to create the many sweets (jajan pasar) and savoury doughs you will encounter as part of their snack culture.
The most commonly used is rice flour, made from finely milled rice. You can use rice flour to make rempeyek, a delicious Indonesian cracker that stimulates the appetite as well as the batter for deep-fried banana fritters known as pisang goreng.
A tough and stocky cousin of ginger, galangal has a fresh pine aroma that is sharp and citrusy. It has a woody textured skin, usually with a pink stem and you will find that younger roots will be softer to work with.
Minced galangal in jars is a fantastic substitute for fresh galangal.
Alongside lemongrass, the aroma of lime leaf is one of my favourite scents and it is used as an aromatic in a large volume of Indonesian stir-fries, sambals, stews and soups.
A sweetened soy sauce with the aroma of spices such as cloves, coriander and black pepper. Kecap manis is most commonly used as a marinade, drizzled over a finished dish or as a seasoning, with a thick syrup that has the texture of molasses.
One of my favourite flavours, lemongrass is a tall tropical grass that contains citral, the same essential oil found in lemon peel, giving it an intensely fragrant lemony flavour.
In Indonesia it is used as a skewer for minced satays and it’s also bruised and added to slow-cooked dishes to impart its flavour gradually.
If finely chopped and used in spice pastes or stir-fries, always remove the outer two leaves before cutting as they can be woody.
If bruising lemongrass, I like to bash it with the blunt side of the knife and then tie it into a knot to prevent it from disintegrating during cooking.
Minced or sliced lemongrass in jars is a fantastic substitute for fresh.
Light soy sauce
Light soy sauce is commonly added as a seasoning to Chinese-influenced dishes in Indonesian cuisine.
When buying soy sauce, it is important to distinguish light from dark as the two have very different uses: dark soy sauce is aged for longer with molasses and is used as a marinade or dipping sauce, whereas light soy sauce is saltier, thinner and used as a light seasoning.
Gluten-free light soy is available in the form of tamari.
There are two main types of palm sugar in Indonesia: palm sugar from the arenga palm tree and coconut palm sugar from the coconut tree.
The variety used in any given Indonesian home largely depends on which species of tree grows in the local area. It is lusciously caramel in flavour, with tones of molasses and is used in both savoury and sweet cooking, whether it is shaved, grated or cut into chunks.
The tamarind tree is a thing of beauty. Long, pea shaped brown pods hang from its thin branches, delicately swinging beside the dainty leaves that form small feather-like fans around the tree.
The word for tamarind is asam in Indonesian, meaning sour, but it is very different from lemon or lime as its sourness is balanced by the pulp’s sweetness.
A fermented shrimp paste also known as belacan, terasi is made from fermented prawns and comes in a dark brown block. With its strong fishy odour, it’s used in very small quantities, and is usually roasted, fried or grilled to bring out its umami flavour.
Terasi or belacan should be crumbled and then mixed thoroughly with other ingredients as it cooks. To roast the terasi, slice it in 1cm wide pieces and wrap them in a large sheet of foil. Place on a tray and roast in the oven for 6 minutes at 160°C fan.
The best way to store terasi is wrapped in parchment paper and covered in two layers of foil, then kept inside an airtight container.
Turmeric, the cousin to root ginger has a brown skin on the outside that is peeled away to reveal a hand-staining bright orange interior, which is tangy and bitter with a hint of mustard, giving yellow rice its sunlit colour and many spice pastes their golden hue.
It’s also an antioxidant that acts as an anti-inflammatory. Use turmeric sparingly, however, as its bitterness and ability to turn dishes yellow can easily overpower a dish by both flavour and appearance.