I’m a big fan of Phaidon Press’ country-specific cookbooks. Their spring release, The Indonesian Table by Petty Pandean-Elliott is a colourful book sharing 150 recipes from across Indonesia, alongside personal recollections from her childhood and the culinary journeys she has undertaken since.
As I explained in my review of Lara Lee’s Coconut & Sambal, Indonesia is a country of many thousands of islands spread across the Pacific and Indian oceans, and boasts a multi-faceted culture and cuisine borne of the many ethnic groups that form the nation. Renowned as The Spice Islands, it is the home of aromatics such as nutmeg, mace, cloves and many other fragrant and flavourful ingredients that create its rich and diverse food heritage.
Born in Manado, the provincial capital of North Sulawesi but now based in the UK, Pandean-Elliott is an award-winning chef, writer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and author with several Indonesian cookbooks to her name, and appearances on Indonesian Iron Chef. In The Indonesian Table she focuses on the food traditions of eight key regions in Indonesia: Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara, Maluku Islands, Sumatra, Papua, and Kalimantan. These regions are known for sweet-scented coconut curries, rich and punchy laksas, comforting sotos, and refreshing salads such as Gado Gado. And of course, there’s an almost infinite variety of Sambal. Alongside the savoury dishes are traditional desserts and drinks.
Pandean-Elliott has invested several years adapting the recipes of her homeland; her approach is best described as authentic yet contemporary, adapting methods, equipment and ingredients to ensure that recipes are accessible for Western cooks and kitchens without losing the essence of the traditional dishes. She has also taken onboard the growing interest in vegan and vegetarian cooking, ensuring that there are plenty of recipes to suite these preferences.
Alongside the recipes themselves, she places Indonesian culture and cuisine into the context of a wide range of influences such as landscape and climate, religion, global trade (especially in spices), and migration.
The Introduction is where we find out more about Indonesia, a country of over 17,000 islands and more than 700 languages, its rich diversity supplemented further by the foods and beliefs of traders and travellers to come to the islands over hundreds of years. It is also the place Pandean-Elliott was born and grew up and she begins with her memories of Manado, North Sulawesi (where she was born), sharing some of the key food enjoyed in the region. We learn about Dutch influences in particular – indeed Pandean-Elliott’s paternal grandmother was half-Dutch; dishes such as klapertart, brenebon soup and cheese sticks show this heritage. Pandean-Elliott also mentions the Minahasan people of the region and their love for fiery and fragrant dishes featuring chillies (introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish) alongside ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves and lemon basil. It was during her younger yeaars that Pandean-Elliott learned fro her maternal grandmother about growing and harvesting ingredients, caring for the family’s chickens and collecting their eggs, how to shop for and prepare fish and meat from the local markets, and how to make spice blends and pastes, and of course, how to cook. These skills are the foundation of Pandean-Elliott’s cooking to this day.
When she was thirteen, Pandean-Elliott’s family moved to Jakarta – Indonesia’s capital city – for her father’s work, and also to give the kids better educational opportunities and the experience of life in a big city. This is where her mother was born and raised, and she loved to take the kids to visit her favourite childhood haunts, many of which were food-based. Of course, in this large, fast-growing city Pandean-Elliott discovered many previously unfamiliar dishes and ingredients such as tempeh, gado gado, and nasi padang (a West Sumatran styled rice platter). Street food offered endless variety including food with influences from China, Europe, India and the Middle East. Pandean-Elliott describes it as a “culinary kaleidoscope of traditions, cultures and histories“. Trips outside the city to West and Central Java further expanded her food knowledge.
As a young adult, Pandean-Elliott got married, and worked at a busy international marketing agency. She relished the enjoyment of cooking for and entertaining guests in their new home. At this time she began to reconstruct the recipes of her family, capturing them in written form with the help of her mother and wider family; and gradually she became more interested in researching and cooking more of Indonesia’s many regional cuisines.
The next chapter of Pandean-Elliott’s life was a move to the UK in 1999, where Indonesian food was key to forging new friendships. Back then, few Indonesian restaurants existed in the UK, and people were eager to try the wide variety of dishes she made. Her friends encouraged her to put herself forward for BBC Masterchef, and that experience was a catalyst for the way she thought about her own food culture. Although she moved back to Jakarta a year later, she continued to visit the UK regularly, and then moved back here in 2018. It was on her return to Indonesia that she began to work as a food journalist, critic and cook book author, and is hugely successful and well-regarded in this field. In recent years she has been a judge for various Asia and World Best restaurant awards and worked with publications and organisations around the world.
Over the years, Pandean-Elliott developed a desire to share a modern Indonesian cuisine that makes use of fresh, local ingredients and techniques whilst remaining faithful to the great traditions of classic recipes. Understanding the challenges to UK home cooks of being unable to find certain ingredients, or their being very costly, she developed recipes that can be recreated with the ingredients available in UK supermarkets. She also wanted to introduce people to the wider cuisine of Indonesia, and to showcase more than the satay, rendang, nasi goreng and sambal that are best-known to western
audiences. These come through strongly in The Indonesian Table, which encapsulates her vision of modern Indonesian food.
Following the Introduction, and a touching explanation of the Indonesian motto of Unity in Diversity, there are several pages about Regional Cuisine which describe in turn the eight regions covered by the book. Here Pandean-Elliott tells us about ingredients, influences and the key dishes of that region, and a little about the life, culture and food preferences of the people who live there. The double-page map of Indonesia helps drive home the geographically scattered nature of the country and its many regions and islands.
One of the aspects that makes me smile – and which is common to several other East and Southeast Asia cultures – is the common greeting when meeting friends or family members, “sudah makan belum?“. Translating to “have you eaten?”, this one short phrase shows how central food is to human connection, as well as concern for each others’ health and well-being. This and more about the way Indonesians eat at home, for ceremonies, and special occasions, is shared on a page called How We Eat.
Next, a short passage on The Spice Islands, a reminder that the country contains within its many islands a subset that are still the largest producers of mace, nutmeg and cloves in the world. The history of the spice trade intersects, of course, with global trade and colonialism – in Indonesia’s case, it was the Portuguese and the Dutch who dominated European trade with the country.
How We Eat pairs with a double-page spread about How We Cook in which Pandean-Elliott talks about common cooking techniques and equipment (covering traditional and modern appliances). Most of the recipes are intended to accommodate different eating styles (served as courses or shared, family style) and serve four to six people but when it comes to fish dishes, she defaults to serving two people, but advises that recipes can be doubled up easily. There is a reminder to use local ingredients where they are available (such as meat, fish and vegetables) and encouragement to go ahead with a recipe even if there’s one ingredient you can’t find – a flexible cooking approach works well. Additionally, wherever possible, Pandean-Elliott has used ingredients more readily available in the west over those used in Indonesia, such as banana shallots in place of Asian ones. There is advice about the making and storing of spice pastes and sambal, and a suggestion to always taste as you cook, to achieve a balance of salt, spice, sweetness and (where relevant) tang and umami. Lastly, Pandean-Elliott underlines the importance of sambal not only as a condiment but as part of the cooking process too.
The Glossary gives helpful information on 34 key ingredients, including tips on substitutions where relevant. At the end, a page on the habit of wrapping food in a variety of different leaves to cook, with a focus on Banana Leaves.
Now we have arrived at the recipes, starting with The Essentials which includes store cupboard essentials that many of the other recipes call upon (such as coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, and peanut-cashew butter), Seasonings (such as speculaas spice blend, crispy shallots, and dried shrimp powder), Pastes (including white spice paste, red spice paste, black spice paste and tamarind paste), Sambals (which lists 14 different recipes), and Pickles (where pickled pineapple resides).
A word of warning here, the recipe font is really small and printed on coloured pages (with some colours providing better contrast than others) which makes the text more of a challenge to read than most of my cookbooks. On the plus side, recipe names are given in both English and their original language name, and every recipe name shows next to it one or more cute illustrated symbols that indicate very clearly whether the recipe is vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free, takes 30 minutes or less to make, or needs 5 ingredients or fewer.
Recipes are organised by ingredients and types, and the chapters following The Essentials are Snacks; Salads; Soups, Sotos and Noodle Soups; Satays; Curries; Tempeh, Tofu and Vegetables; Fish and Seafood; Meat and Poultry; Rice and Other Staples; Noodles, Sweets; and Drinks. Soto, by the way, is a word that describes broths and soupier stews and is used for traditional recipes, whereas the word soup is used for foreign-influenced dishes. Tempeh and tofu are both made from soybeans, but the first is made by cooking, fermenting and pressing soybeans into a cake, whereas tofu is made by curdling soy milk and setting it, akin to how fresh cheese is made.
Many of the recipes are accompanied by images taken by photographer Yuki Sugiura, who not only handled the food photography but also travelled through Indonesia with Pandean-Elliott to capture images showcasing the country’s towns, villages and landscapes, its people, and markets full of vibrant produce.
We made a few recipes from the book and each one was delicious and straight forward. Chicken Curry with Pineapple, hailing from South Sumatra, is a comforting dish with a mild flavour and soupy gravy. Spiced Beef Stew, a dish enjoyed throughout Indonesia, is fascinatingly close to a British stew of beef, carrots and potatoes with the addition of garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, spices, and soy sauce. Makassar Beef Coto, from Sulawesi, is a hearty stew of slow-cooked beef cheeks, and is thickened with peanuts to create a rich and filling dish.
Only 150 recipes makes this a less comprehensive book than some Phaidon tomes such as The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig and Japan: The Cookbook by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (which share 400 recipes each) and Peru: The Cookbook by Gastón Acurio (with over 500). That said, the collection is cleverly collated to share a wide range of different kinds of foods and and there are many recipes that both appeal and are very achievable.
Recipes from The Indonesian Table
We have permission from Phaidon to share some recipes with you from the book: [coming soon]
- Chicken Curry with Pineapple (Gulai Ayam Nanas)
- Spiced Beef Stew (Semur Daging)
- Makassar Beef Coto (Coto Makassar)
Kavey Eats received a review copy of The Indonesian Table by Petty Pandean-Elliott from publisher Phaidon Press (RRP £24.95). Book photography by Yuki Sugiura, all other images by Kavita Favelle.