It won’t come as any surprise that I have a strong affinity for cookery books that combine cuisine, culture and personal narrative. I love books that not only teach me how to make delicious food, but also learn more about the culture and cuisine of a place, as well as the author’s own story. Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen is just such a book; written by Indonesian-Australian food writer and chef Lara Lee, the book documents her journey to trace her Indonesian roots by way of authentic recipes that have been passed down through generations.
A country of many thousands of islands spread across the Pacific and Indian oceans, Indonesia boasts a cuisine as diverse as the many ethnic groups that make up this multicultural country – more than 300 languages are spoken across its islands. The full-flavoured food weaves together influences brought to Indonesia by each of these ethnic cultures, with ingredients such as chilli, coconut, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime, lemongrass, shallots, tamarind and terusi (fermented shrimp paste). The result is a feast of bold, fragrant, delicious dishes.
About Lara Lee | How she came to write Coconut & Sambal
Raised in Sydney, Lee learned Indonesian flavours from her paternal grandmother who lived with the family for a while. She didn’t train as a chef straight away, instead Lee studied journalism, performed as a dancer and cabaret performer, and worked in technology sales! That last role offered the opportunity to transfer to London in her early twenties. Within a few years, the passion Lee had for cooking came to dominate, and she saved up for four years until she could afford to attend Leith’s culinary school. Although she spent time experimental with molecular gastronomy, and working in Michelin-starred kitchens, she quickly realised she wanted to focus on cooking food that represented who she was and where she’d come from. Together with a Kiwi friend, Lee set up catering company Kiwi & Roo, which showcased the pair’s Australian and New Zealand heritage.
During her time at Leith’s, Lee learned about the Yan-Kit So Award for Food Writers on Asia. In memory of honours Yan-Kit So (1933-2001), an acclaimed writer on Chinese food, and aimed at aspiring food writers, the award funds the winner “to fulfil their dreams to research, travel and create original work about any aspect of Asian food”. Lara submitted a proposal to research the food of her family, by way of a trip to the island of Timor, where her grandmother and father had lived. Although she didn’t win, placing as a runner up gave her the confidence to approach Sri Owen, a well-respected author and expert on Indonesian cuisine. Owen became Lee’s mentor, the two regularly cooking Indonesian food together every week. It was Owen who introduced Lee to her own literary agent, who helped her tweak her book proposal. The proposal was popular and she received offers from a number of publishers, before selecting Bloomsbury to sign with. Coconut & Sambal came out in May 2020
That’s where I met Lee, albeit only briefly. I attended a PAWA charity fundraiser hosted by Sri Owen in her Wimbledon home, for which she laid on a huge Indonesian feast. Lee spent much of her time in the kitchen, supporting her elderly mentor in pulling together the incredible lunch we were served.
What’s in Coconut & Sambal?
The book starts with Lee’s memories of her first sunset in Kupang, and her fleeting feeling of coming home to place she’d never been to before. The richness of her descriptions of bustling food vendors tending to smokey wood and coal fires on which they cooked food redolent of lemongrass, kaffir lime and garlic; of the pier lined with fishermen casting for fish, squid and cuttlefish, its surface stained with black splashes of squid ink from previous days’ catches; and of winding streets of colourful and eclectic shops and houses, are an evocative setting of scene, bolstered by colourful photos of people, places and food throughout the book, taken by Lee during her travels.
Lee describes her first visit to the home of her grandmother, and the unexpected sense of kinship she felt on seeing the vivid shades of blue decorating interior walls, the scattered utensils of homemaking and cooking, and old family photos on the walls. On this and subsequent visits to the country of her father and grandmother, Lee was welcomed with open arms by family and strangers alike, invited into homes the length of the Indonesian archipelago, where she eagerly collected recipes and techniques, culinary history, and cultural stories, often passed down through generations.
These deeply personal impressions lead into a preface on Indonesian cooking, and the ubiquity of coconut and sambal at every meal. After introducing these two key elements for which her book was named, Lee discusses the abundance of rice in Indonesian meals, the way that textures are used to stimulate the senses, the importance of community spirit in Indonesian culture, and the richness and diversity of Indonesia – not only in terms of flora and fauna but also in the many ethnic groups, languages and religions.
After these come the recipe chapters, of which more below.
You’ll find more useful information at the end of the book in a section on the Indonesian pantry which covers many key ingredients as well as techniques such as toasting and grinding spices, and creating spice pastes. Lee also shares tips on planning a meal and designing a menu, with eight suggested menus provided.
Lastly come two ways of finding recipes – a list of recipes catering to specific diets including vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free, and the comprehensive Index – I particularly like the way recipes are listed by ingredient using both the English and Indonesia names (e.g. ayam / chicken).
Coconut & Sambal Recipes
The recipes themselves, of which there are over 80, are divided into chapters for Savoury Snacks, Soups & Rice, Vegetables, Tofu & Tempeh, Fish & Seafood, Poultry & Eggs, Meat, Sambal, Sweets, and Basic Recipes. Each of these has its own introduction, sharing more about the kinds of dishes it covers, and how they are traditionally enjoyed in Indonesia. When it comes to Sweets, for example, we learn that Indonesians rarely serve desserts after a meal, as is common in the West – rather a platter of fresh fruits is a common end to a meal. Here, sweets are most commonly enjoyed throughout the day and often served as a welcome snack with tea or coffee when visiting friends. There are entire markets dedicated to jajanan pasar (market snacks), as these sweets are known, and a huge variety is available. Some of the classic jajanan pasar are shared in this chapter, alongside some of Lee’s own creations – Western desserts such as panna cotta and chocolate tart fused with the flavours of Indonesian sweets.
As is often the case when I get a book that excites me, I am heavy-handed with my bookmarking, sticking a slew of tiny markers against so many of the recipes that Pete asks whether I’d be better to mark the few I don’t want to try! Across the ten recipe chapters, here are just some of the ones I bookmarked: egg and spring onion martabak, lamb and potato croquettes, aubergine and mushroom soup, Timorese fish soup, aromatic chicken noodle soto, spiced meatball soup, gado gado salad with peanut sauce, fried chilli corn, stir-fried vegetable cap cay, crispy soy and ginger roast potatoes, Acehnese chicken with curry leaves, egg crepe rolls, soy and ginger beef satay, sticky beef rib short rib with chilli, sweet soy pork belly, Balinese sticky glazed pork ribs, tomato sambal, soy garlic and chilli dipping sauce, peanut sauce, Indonesian cinnamon doughnuts, coconut and lime ice cream, palm sugar slice, sticky ginger toffee pudding, thousand-layer cake… I want to make them all!
Every recipe has its own summary with more about the recipe, sometimes a story about its history, or how Lee came to learn it and from whom. One touch I particularly appreciate is that Lara gives most recipes (except those that don’t include any chilli ingredients) a chilli heat rating, from mild through moderate to hot. Very handy for me personally, as I’m not a fiend for super-hot chilli!
Most recipes have a simple and vibrant accompanying photograph; I really love how these showcase gloriously unmatched crockery and kitchenware; the kind a family accumulates and comes to cherish over time. These images feel real, warm, and personal (as opposed to the pretty but somewhat insipid, highly-styled photography that’s ubiquitous in magazines and some cookery books).
Dishes are laid out on colourful table tops and wooden kitchen counters, on rattan place-mats and white, lacy tablecloths, and on traditional woven fabric in pretty colours and patterns. Some recipes have step-by-step photos that show how to pour an egg and spring onion mixture over a frying square of martabak dough, how to dredge soon-to-be-fried chicken, and how to pipe spirals of doughnut dough into a wok of hot oil.
So what have we cooked from the book? We started with two recipes, the roasted chilli coconut chicken, which we served with Lee’s crispy soy and ginger roast potatoes. Both of these were fantastic and easy recipes to follow. We both loved the sauce created by the cooking liquid used to roast the chicken; the next evening we enjoyed leftover roast chicken mixed into leftover sauce as a sort of curry dish over rice. The roast potatoes were marvellous, their flavour was more complex than the handful of ingredients suggests, and they will certainly be a regular for us, with all manner of roasts.
We’ve made the beef rendang twice, firstly exactly as the recipe, which we loved, and again with reduced chillies for the benefit of my young nephews who are not yet tolerant of chilli. Both kids and adults alike loved the reduced-chilli rendang.
Because we reduced the chilli content in the second rendang, we made a batch of fiery tomato sambal to serve alongside it, ignorinhg the instruction to de-seed the chillies – the recipe photograph also seems to show chilli seeds in the finished condiment. We loved this sambal! It’s incredibly moreish; I took a small spoonful to start, and then another, and another, and another…
We also followed Lee’s instructions for a vegetarian version (replacing her suggested tofu with paneer, which we had in the freezer) and this was also much enjoyed – interestingly, the rendang marinade was much sweeter when cooked to reduce on its own (before paneer was added near the end), in comparison to the beef one in which the marinade cooks together with the beef for the whole cooking time.
Most recently, we made Lee’s chicken nasi goreng – a comfort food favourite for both of us. This was straightforward, and absolutely wonderful. Exactly what we’d been looking for, since we moved away from London (and access to Indonesian and Malaysian food)!
The recipes are reliable and easy to follow, and thus far we’ve not encountered any omissions or frustratingly vague instructions, as can sometimes be the case.
Coconut & Sambal is a beautiful book, vivacious and full of personality. I can almost smell the aromas of the street food stalls, see the treasures of the food markets, and feel the hustle-bustle of villages and fishing ports.
Through the introductory passages and personal narratives, the chapter and recipe introductions, the advice about cooking techniques, and in the beautiful food and travel photography, I’ve come away with a much richer understanding not only of Indonesian cuisine (and the wonderful range it encompasses) but also of the culture that created it.
Recipes from Coconut & Sambal
We have permission from Bloomsbury Publishing to share some recipes with you from the book:
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen by Lara Lee from publishers Bloomsbury. Book cover and book photography provided by publishers (photography by Louise Hagger), all other images by Kavita Favelle.