As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Lara Lee (Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen) discussed her new cookbook of authentic Indonesian cookery and demonstrated a recipe using simple techniques and easily accessible ingredients. With more than 80 traditional and vibrant recipes that have been passed down through the generations, Coconut & Sambal interweaves recipes with beguiling tales of island life and gorgeous travel photography that shines a light on the magnificent cuisine of Indonesia.
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Watch this event (transcript provided below):
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company.
“As gorgeous as it is useful, and it’ll have you getting in the kitchen to make beef rendang or caramelized shallot sambal or a multi-layered, appealingly mint green pandan cake.”—Food & Wine
“An absolute delight—the kind of book that inspires meals with every reading.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Tells the story of the food, both through memories and evocative explanations, as it introduces us to the flavours and feel of the Indonesian kitchen, and explains not only how to cook the food, but how to eat it. It’s impossible to read it without being both inspired and very hungry!”―Nigella Lawson
“Lee brings an intimate knowledge of Indonesian cuisine to this stunningly photographed debut collection of recipes gathered from the author’s Indonesian grandmother and from cooks Lee met traveling through the island nation… This sumptuous collection is perfect for home cooks and armchair travelers alike.”—Publishers Weekly
Selected by the The New York Times as one of the Best Cookbooks of 2020
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen with Laura Lee, a program in the All-Virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia humanities, thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Co, please visit vabook.org where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at vabook.org/give.
Also, we appreciate the help of our community partners in sharing this event, thank you. Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers, Lara Lee, author of Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen 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 & Roo. She also holds supper clubs all over London that celebrate her heritage with both Australian and Indonesian cuisine.
And our moderator, Joe Yonan, the food and dining editor of The Washington Post where he writes the Weeknight Vegetarian column. He is the author of Cool Beans, the editor of America The Great Cookbook and has written two other cookbooks, Eat Your Vegetables and Serve Yourself. The proud queer grandson of Assyrian refugees, he is a member of the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association. Thank you both for joining us today. Joe, take it away.
JOE YONAN: Thank you, Sarah, thank you so much for me having me really, a thrill to get to connect with Lara across the interwebs and an ocean about this beautiful love letter to Indonesia that you have researched and written. Lara, it’s just a stunning book so, first of all congratulations on the achievement, I know it’s not easy so it’s just a wonderful book.
LARA LEE: Oh, you’re so kind, thank you so much. It was a real joy to write and I think seeing how people around the world have received it, particularly in a time where we can’t travel and it’s so much more difficult to taste flavors from other parts of the world, it felt really special to share it with everyone.
JOE YONAN: It is one of those books that lets you travel vicariously. We were talking before we started about how it’s still chilly in both London and D.C. where we are. And I was looking forward to warming up a little bit through your cooking demo today so I’m excited.
LARA LEE: For sure, I think whenever I’m feeling cold or missing the warmth of Indonesia, I cook something with a lot of chili in the book and that absolutely puts the fire in the belly. And yeah, you absolutely feel like you’ve gone somewhere else. I still flick through the pages even now, I just think, “Did I actually travel there for six months exploring all of this?” Thinking how long it’s been since I’ve been abroad now, it feels quite magical still.
JOE YONAN: Well, I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do today, I know you’re making basically two versions of… Obviously it’s so important to Indonesian cooking that you gave it one of the two words in the two-word title of your book, so tell us a little bit about sambal and how important it is to Indonesian cooking.
LARA LEE: I think when I was researching the book, and obviously I grew up eating Indonesian flavors because of my Indonesian grandmother, but I grew up in Sydney. I grew up quite disconnected from Indonesia in some ways because growing up we were a working-class family. We couldn’t afford to visit Indonesia until I was an adult, so my only connection to Indonesia was through the food and the food that my grandmother cooked for me. So in terms of my understanding of how diverse Indonesian food was, that really didn’t hit me until I visited as a young adult. And then going into 15 years later and researching the book and writing the book, I realized that every single region within Indonesia has a very distinct flavor profile, distinct dishes, influences from a thousand years of trade through those areas from India, the Middle East, Europe, China and so on.
So every region is so distinct and quite proudly regional. And so when I was trying to think about what sums up Indonesian food and certainly there are some key flavors—you’re going to see galangal, lemongrass and ginger and chili and so on. But in terms of what unifies Indonesia as a cuisine, it felt very difficult to do. But there was something that I felt that all of those regions did have in common and that was sambal and funnily enough the coconut.
On every table, lunch, dinner, even breakfast, whatever you were eating, there would always be at least one or two sambals on the table and there are different regional sambals. One of the sambals I am making for you later today is sambal matah, which is really famous on the Hindu island of Bali. And it’s only eaten on Bali actually, so unless you’re going to a distinct Balinese restaurant elsewhere. And this tomato sambal, however, is really quite a universal sambal. You might find it in the west of Sumatra, to Timor where my dad is from, to Sulawesi, another one of the islands. So I loved that sambal really unified them as a country from a cuisine standpoint.
And although it is so incredibly diverse, there’s about 350 different types of sambals across the 17,500 islands of Indonesia, that want some heat to complement a meal is just something that every Indonesian craves and they feel that a meal isn’t complete without it. So I thought it was a real important place to start for everyone watching at home. And also to see how easy it is to whip up because, particularly when I was pregnant, the thing that I actually craved the most was chili. And so I mean I was making buckets of this stuff. And I also had Tabasco and Sriracha and chili sauce and everything you can imagine, but I always had sambal in the freezer and the fridge and it takes no time to cook and it’s just so moreish and delicious and makes any meal really very special. Shall I get started and we can keep talking?
JOE YONAN: Sure. Yeah, absolutely.
LARA LEE: Perfect so what I’m do, I’m just going to show you quickly, this is a traditional cobek and ulekan and so the process of… It’s like a mortar and pestle really, and the cobek is the bowl and the ulekan is this pestle here. And essentially when you’re traditionally grinding a sambal, you’re using this motion so that bowl would be flat here and you put your whole body into it. And you’re really grinding down, and because it’s a flat pestle, it’s such a great way. You punch it the face a little bit with your ingredients and you’re grinding it and it’s a really quick way to grind ingredients, I just thought that’d be interesting to show you.
And there’s also wooden ones as well so if you ever get to Indonesia, try and pick up one of these. Because I personally prefer it to a mortar and pestle, but I am biased but I just think it’s a wonderful way to grind ingredients. But in the interest of time and how I actually normally make sambal is the food processor, it’s my best friend.
What I’m going to do is, I’ve got 20 chilies here, I know that seems crazy, I’ve got the seeds in, I love chilies but if you’re a little bit sensitive you can de-seed but if you can take the heat and it does mellow as you cook it out, I recommend keeping those seeds in. So I just chuck it in, 20 chilies chopped into chunks and then I’ve got three-
JOE YONAN: What kind of chilies are those Lara?
LARA LEE: Oh yeah, so this is Cajun chilies, I think in the US you guys have, is it Holland finger chilies in the US?
JOE YONAN: Uh-huh (affirmative).
LARA LEE: I think that’s quite a similar kind of chili but I think it’s-
JOE YONAN: It’s pretty long.
LARA LEE: Exactly, you want the chili to be kind of long and the length of my finger, the width… maybe quite fat fingers but the width of your thumb maybe and then quite long. And that’s a good sense because the smaller the chili, if you’re going to use the Thai bird’s eye chilies, that’s going to know your socks off, even I couldn’t eat a sambal made wholly of those. And then I think you guys in America have Fresno chilies, now that’s probably a little too mild, that’s on the 10,000 Scoville rating.
I think between 30,000 and 50,000 is a good rating for the chilies that you want, so look up your chili if you find your local one in your supermarket and just do a quick Google. Then that’ll hopefully give you a bit of a guide, between 30 to 50 is what I think is a good amount of heat.
But Fresno would be fine, but it just wouldn’t have that kick that you want to wake you up in the morning. But anyway, I’ve got the chilies here and by the way if anyone is sensitive to chili, my mother-in-law, she’s a very typical English country woman. She hates chilies but I can make this sambal for her and I serve it to her without telling her about what it is, and she thinks it’s great so I think there is something for everyone with this kind of condiment.
I’ve also got three banana shallots, and gosh, there’s so many different types of shallots. In Indonesia they’ve got these tiny little shallots… This is probably too graphic of a description, the size of an eyeball, an eyeball or ping pong ball, so they’ve got the round ones which are quite sweet. The banana shallots are the most common in England, so they’re a nice shape like this, roughly about two ounces is the weight of an average banana shallot. I’ve got three banana shallots there so if you imagine that, that would be about six ounces is about the right amounts.
I’ve got three garlic cloves as well, I’m chucking them straight in the food processor and I’ve got about one and a half inches of ginger, I’ve just peeled it. In Indonesia, we don’t use the skin, I know you can use the skin in other dishes, but we do peel it and I have the thin slices so just done that. And I’ve also got about six ounces of cherry tomatoes but you could use a normal large vine ripe tomato, totally fine.
JOE YONAN: I think Lara is frozen, so hopefully she’ll come back to us in a minute because I want to see the rest of that sambal. Hi!
LARA LEE: Hi guys, hello.
JOE YONAN: Hello.
LARA LEE: Just thought I’d go to Indonesia for a little quick trip and come back. I think everyone is on the internet right now in London so I’m guessing that everyone’s probably on the internet because we’re in lockdown so I’m really sorry about that.
JOE YONAN: Right, that’s all right.
LARA LEE: Luckily, I haven’t whizzed this yet. Shall we whiz?
JOE YONAN: Yeah, so when we were losing you, you were just telling us about the ginger. Was there anything else that was going in that we missed?
LARA LEE: No, the ginger was the last of it, you luckily caught it and then a bit of a black-out so apologies for that. I’m just going to turn this on. And the book is blocking the magic here.
JOE YONAN: I love that cover by the way, the colors and everything, I didn’t mention it. It’s so beautiful, the whole book is so beautiful.
LARA LEE: I have to say, the graphic designers they chose to design the cover… You might be able to see in this kitchen is a little bit green but before we updated this kitchen it was actually pink and green. It’s a combination I’ve always loved ,so I didn’t tell the graphic designer that but when they showed it to me, I was like, “It’s like they could read my soul.”
JOE YONAN: That’s amazing.
LARA LEE: It is beautiful. It does look like an abstract batik pattern which is that wax-dye textile in Indonesia, but it’s actually inspired by this architectural motif that you will find all around quite a few temples around Bali. So it’s this beautiful motif that you will see. It has that dual meaning of both the batik and the architecture which I love. So just breaking down the sides, one more blip. And that is the sambal ground up and ready to be cooked, I’ll just give you a peek at that.
JOE YONAN: It’s broken down pretty significantly.
LARA LEE: It’s pretty amazing but it definitely still has a little bit of texture, so shall I bring it a little bit closer?
JOE YONAN: Sure, oh man.
LARA LEE: You can still see the seeds. I don’t want it to be so ground that it’s like a puree, you want it to have a little bit of texture and that’s personally how I like it. That’s how you eat in Indonesia so if you put in your NutriBullet then it will completely go to a baby puree.
JOE YONAN: And that’s more akin to what you would get if you did it in the mortar and pestle.
LARA LEE: Exactly and I am 100% like it will taste better a little bit by doing it by hand but if I did do it by hand, it would probably take us the full hour of while we’re here. I’ll just become like, “Hey Joe, what did you eat for lunch this morning?” That kind of thing.
Now I’m just going to cook it, medium heat, about four tablespoons of oil. Don’t be shy on the oil because the oil is just going to do it’s think with the sambal and just remember that you’re only going to eat a little bit with a meal so don’t be afraid of using oil.
JOE YONAN: Is that coconut oil?
LARA LEE: Actually this is sunflower oil. I think I put this in the opening chapter but if you live in a hot climate, coconut oil will always be liquified. So in Australia, if its on my shelf or in Indonesia they would use coconut oil, but because I live in a colder climate, coconut oil can solidify. And also if you’re putting it in the fridge, if you’re not planning to eat it immediately it will solidify. The sambal will have a slightly solidified texture, so my recommendation is to use an oil that doesn’t have that, it’s coconut oil that will do that actually. But otherwise if you’re going to eat it immediately coconut oil is absolutely perfect.
JOE YONAN: Got it, okay.
LARA LEE: All I’m going to do is pop that in, give it a stir for 15 minutes and then it’s going to be ready.
JOE YONAN: Exciting. So I was so surprised and delighted by so many things in your book but I loved that the actual… Just to give an idea to people who might not realize how ubiquitous sambal is to Indonesian cuisine, the word itself actually comes from the word for condiment.
LARA LEE: Yeah.
JOE YONAN: That’s like it means everything.
LARA LEE: It does, and I feel like sambal is almost a religion in Indonesia. It is something that people are so proud of and if you did serve a meal without it, it would be like serving someone a meal without a plate or a knife and a fork. People would be like, “Hold up, hold up. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where’s the sambal man?”
JOE YONAN: What is happening here?
LARA LEE: Exactly, and I also love on the hottest, most humid of days, it could be 38 degrees and so humid that the water is running off everyone’s face. And you’d be sitting in a restaurant that has a tiny rickety fan in the corner and people are just shoving the sambal on the plate and it’s making you sweat more a little bit, but people just love it and it has that effect and I love that, they can’t get enough of it. So, my pan is nice and hot now so I’m just going to pop in the sambal, a nice little sizzle.
And that was so easy to make, maybe sub five minutes. You just need to peel a few ingredients, blitz it up and into the pan it goes.
JOE YONAN: And then it just goes into the pan?
LARA LEE: Yeah, and that’s why this is probably the one that I make the most out of all the sambals in the book actually, this is my go-to.
JOE YONAN: The tomatoes went in too?
LARA LEE: Yep, the tomatoes went in-
JOE YONAN: I think we missed that when you blitzed out, I think we missed the tomatoes.
LARA LEE: I’m sorry.
JOE YONAN: That’s all right. So-
LARA LEE: The tomatoes did go in and that’s what makes it quite liquid-y. And what we’re looking for the liquid here to evaporate, then the oil will be sucked into the ingredients and then start to release again so this process happens where the oil comes in and comes out again and that’s when you know the sambal has finished cooking. Because you smell it and it doesn’t smell raw anymore and you can see the oil start to seep on top of the slightly caramelized ingredient.
JOE YONAN: Do you have a preference for the kind of tomato that you use?
LARA LEE: Anything goes, and I mean even the bad floury tomatoes that you sometimes get when they’re really badly out of season and-
JOE YONAN: I know them well, yeah.
LARA LEE: Chuck them in, honestly it does its thing in the pan and I mean it’s quite good for no waste because you can really save a lot of old looking sad ingredients, when they’re blended all together, it just works.
JOE YONAN: Right, now you talked about the oil separation in your book as being a classic Indonesian technique with spices too? That there’s this way of-
LARA LEE: Yes, well it’s not even isolated to Indonesia because I know some Indian chefs that have also talked about this. Yeah, I think sometimes in cooking or more classic cookery, you’re trained to think that when two ingredients split it’s a bad thing. But in the case of Indonesian cookery, it’s encouraged and rendang is the perfect example of that. So rendang is, for anyone at home that hasn’t heard of it before, it’s a caramelized beef dish. So big chunks of stewing beef sit inside a big pot with coconut milk and a gorgeous spice paste of similar ingredients with this sambal. So your chilies, ginger, shallots, garlic bruised, lemongrass, makrut lime leaf, and it’s sitting there for about three hours or so until the coconut oil has split from the coconut milk, rises to the top. you want that to happen and eventually the leftover residual oil starts to fry the cubes of beef that’s in the pan and starts to caramelize the beef.
And rendang isn’t just isolated to beef, there’s chicken rendang, you can make it with jackfruit, you can make it with eggs, tofu, anything, loads of different types of ingredients and you can still get that oil rising to the top which is really wonderful.
JOE YONAN: Love it, dramatic.
LARA LEE: Yes, so dramatic and so amazing but then you might have the walls of your kitchen a little bit slick with the condensation but hey ho.
JOE YONAN: It’s the price you pay.
LARA LEE: I think so, your clothes, your hair, your dog, everything will smell like rendang for days but hey, that’s a good smell to have.
JOE YONAN: And your skin will be nice and moisturized.
LARA LEE: Exactly, who needs body butter when you can just cook a rendang.
JOE YONAN: So I can practically-
LARA LEE: I should market that.
JOE YONAN: Right. I can practically smell that, it looks incredible.
LARA LEE: It is. And it just does its thing, I’m staring at it every now and then just so it doesn’t catch on the bottom but it’s just going to do its thing and it’s so good.
JOE YONAN: So in your book Lara, one of the things that I love about it, a lot of cookbooks have condiments or sauces in a separate chapter and then you’re looking at recipes and there’s two or three recipes that use those maybe, two or three that use those condiments. If you do a search in your book of all the recipes that make a suggestion for serving with sambal, it’s pretty much you have hundreds of recipes-
LARA LEE: All of them.
JOE YONAN: … Which is so great. So with the tomato sambal, are there particular dishes that this would go particularly well with or what would you suggest?
LARA LEE: Yes, so this particular dish, there’s a recipe in my book called terong balado. And balado in Sumatra is basically a spicy kind of sambaly sauce so it’s where… Terong means aubergine, or do you guys call it an eggplant in America, I’m not sure?
JOE YONAN: Yeah we do.
LARA LEE: In Australia, we call it an eggplant too don’t worry. You can either cube the eggplant or in my case I decided to cut the eggplant length ways, roast it in the oven and it roasts with a little bit of a tomato sambal on top. And then you throw loads on more at the end so that’s one example. There’s another dish called ikan bakar, which is a whole grilled fish and you massage… In fact, you can massage this raw sambal that I’m about to show you, or the cooked sambal, into the cuts of the fish and again baking it whole. You could marinate things with the sambal, if you wanted to, you could out a little bit of this as a spice paste and this going off-pace from recipes but if you were just stir frying some morning glory or some Asian greens, pak choy or something similar, you could throw a spoonful of this into the pan to stir through it and it would, obviously a little bit spicy but if you just chucked a teaspoon or two in, it would give it this oomph.
Same with tempeh and tofu, you can toss it together with some vegetables and a little bit of the sambal. And then also, if you were making something like mi goreng, which is fried noodles or nasi goreng, which is fried rice, you have to have sambal on the side when you eat it. So thinking of sambal, it is a chili condiment, but it exists to complement food rather than overpower it. So the idea is to serve a scooped, kind of heaped, maybe a teaspoon or tablespoon depending on your chili preference on the side of the plate, and you eat a little bit of the sambal with every bite of food.
JOE YONAN: I love it.
LARA LEE: And you can plop it into some soup. I know there’s quite a few soups in the book like soto ayam is a chicken soup and there’s another one called soto betawi. So soto is a national dish of Indonesia, a beautiful flagrant broth of soup and again, you can season the soup by adding a bit of that sambal in there, and it makes the soup come to life. And equally you could use, there’s a really great fermented sweet soy sauce in Indonesia, Indonesia’s favorite condiment, kecap manis.
JOE YONAN: One of my favorites. Yeah.
LARA LEE: Have you tried it before you had cooked my recipe?
JOE YONAN: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
LARA LEE: Okay, so you had tried it before, but it is just wonderful. Quite often in Indonesia actually, funnily enough some student food for people would be just to have a bowl of rice, a fried egg and you drizzle the kecap manis on top. If you’re a uni student, that would totally be a normal meal to eat and I mean, kecap manis is just one of those things. For those at home, it’s quite a thick maple syrup consistency, so quite viscous, but it’s got a salty and a sweet flavor to it. And it’s made out of fermented palm sugar molasses, so it’s got lots of infused flavors of cloves and galangal and coriander seeds and all that jazz. It’s just heavenly.
JOE YONAN: It’s deep and it’s heaven.
LARA LEE: It is and so you can season something with sambal and kecap manis, maybe a bit of vinegar and that can turn your soup, if your soup is a bit bland, that’s my big tip for anyone, just chuck some vinegar in and it’ll be amazing.
JOE YONAN: I love it. Yeah. For our audience, what Lara is referring to is I wrote about her sweet soy tempeh recipe, tempeh manis because I am a fan of tempeh and tempeh is indigenous, it was born in Java, right?
LARA LEE: Absolutely, it was. And with Indonesian cookery, what is really interesting is that although when you think of certain Indonesian foods, you might think of beef rendang or chicken satay, meat is actually very expensive in Indonesia. And when Indonesians do eat meat, they eat nose to tail, so you get so many dishes with offal in it and there is not wastage like the pig’s hoof, pig’s snout, pig’s ears, everything and I love that. And when you got to street food markets, there’s meat. And if you got to a wedding or a religious ceremony, yes there will be meat but typically for the average family what they will typically eat is a lot of vegetables, tofu. There will probably be some seafood because they are a maritime country, so seafood is very accessible but there will also be a lot of tempeh. And tempeh is a very inexpensive protein for Indonesians so actually for a very long time, some Indonesians didn’t want to eat tempeh because they thought, “Oh that’s just for poor people.”
But now it’s become this really trendy super food around the world that’s eaten with chia seeds, but actually it has this really interesting history and a very long history in Indonesia. There’s a huge artisan community of tempeh makers around the world, particularly of course in Indonesia. But it’s such a wonderful nutty tasting, when I had to eat at home and if you know how to cook it properly, you can marinade it, you can fry it, you can grill it in the oven if you want to. But in Indonesia people have ovens, some people have ovens, but not all, so typically the way it’s cooked is to be fried in a wok in oil and it’s just got that perfect texture and flavor doesn’t it?
JOE YONAN: Yeah, it’s beautiful and the kecup manis glazes it in that sticky sweet, salty… Oh my God, it’s fabulous. So is the tomato sambal done?
LARA LEE: Yes, so what I’ve got here and although it’s probably going to stop doing this by the time I get to the camera.
JOE YONAN: Yeah, I was going to ask you to show us.
LARA LEE: But the oil is starting to seep up from the edges here and that is definitely meaning that it’s pretty much nearly ready so I would probably give it another minute or two and then we can season it with some tamarind, a bit of palm sugar or coconut sugar, either or and some salt and pepper.
LARA LEE: And actually while this is finishing off, I’m just going to turn it off and let it cook in the residual heat. I’ll just assemble this raw sambal for you, because it’s so easy to use and actually one of my favorite… Well, it’s vegetarian with a fried egg but if you don’t use the fried egg it’s vegan. But the nasi goreng in the book which stirs this sambal matah through it just divine so if you haven’t tried that I’m just recommending that that’s a really good one. And this is one of those condiments again, you can stir it through a salad, it can be quite spicy for some so that it how it traditionally it is eaten. But if people are a little bit sensitive again, de-seed the chilies or use less chilies, should be fine.
So I’ve got some sliced shallots here, again similar to before, I’m just going to pop in three shallots. I’ve got one and a half pinches of julienne or matchstick ginger. And I just got one garlic clove I’ve just very thinly sliced, this is all about your knife skills, this step actually. Then some finely chopped chili, I just got two chilies here, again the long red ones. Traditionally this is actually made with the small chilies, like the bird’s eye chilies, but I actually adapted it for the book because for most people that might blow their socks off. And then I’ve got two lemongrass and two makrut lime leafs here, that I’ve just thinly sliced the makrut lime leafs, very finely sliced the lemongrass.
JOE YONAN: Oh my God, that must spell heavenly.
LARA LEE: Oh yeah, it’s really good. I’ve got the zest of a lime and also the juice of one lime and you can add more to taste. And before I popped the shallots in, I should say I’ve just been letting them sit in a sprinkle of salt just to get the edge off them and I did that for about 15 minutes before I chucked it all in. I’m just going to stir that through together and that is it. You just season it with a little bit of palm sugar and a little but of salt, and it is just so fresh. And this is something you want to make to eat immediately or same day, because tomorrow it’ll start to look a little sad. And then after about two days it’s mash, but it’s another one of those things, it’s so fresh to eat, it’s got so much crunch. And it’s showing people that sambals don’t have to be cooked, they can be raw, they can be made with dried chilies as well. There’s a whole bunch of ways to make sambal, there can also be a dipping sauce that has kecup manis in it. There’s so many ways to make sambal which is really exciting and I’m still learning about… there’s hundreds of sambals so I’m learning about all the types of the ones that exist and it’s-
JOE YONAN: You said 350, right?
LARA LEE: 352.
JOE YONAN: 352. Okay so you have been counting. That’s amazing.
LARA LEE: I have been. I met this incredible professor in Yogyakarta, in central Java. Her name is Professor Murdijati and she’s in her 80s and she’s blind and she lost her sight a few years ago. And I came to sit down with her and she’s a food historian, there are very few food historians in Indonesia. In fact, because the way the people pass down recipes, there’s not really a written tradition. My grandmother, I thought I’d put these out, my grandmother, amazing lady. One of the few rare people that I know that’s Indonesia that wrote her recipes down.
JOE YONAN: Oh, how great for you that she did that.
LARA LEE: I mean it’s incredible. But most people pass it down, it’s an oral tradition so I sat down with Professor Murdijati and I wanted to know everything, we talked for hours about… And we were just eating Indonesian jajanan pasar, which are these little sticky rice cakes with palm sugar, and I was interviewing her about the soto, which is the soup and Indonesian soups. Or about different types of sambal and she just had this wealth of knowledge and we still Whatsapp each other. And her helper will read the Whatsapp to her and reply back for me because sometimes when I’m researching something I still have questions to ask them.
And there’s a few people like that, that I met around Indonesia. Another one is William Wongso, who’s an incredible Indonesia cook and ambassador, I got very lucky to meet some really amazing people over there.
JOE YONAN: I think people don’t realize just how vast Indonesia is and so I am curious, it brings us to a good segue to talk a little about how you did accomplish the research for the book? I do want to see that more closely though, that fresh sambal because it looks divine, it really does. I cannot believe we are doing this before I’ve had breakfast.
LARA LEE: I know, I’m really sorry. It doesn’t take long to whip up and it’s such a same we’re not in the same room. This is sambal matah and I mean, it’s good.
JOE YONAN: That looks divine.
LARA LEE: And it smells so good and we’re having this for dinner tonight actually. It’s got all the flavors of Bali, and in Bali what is amazing because it is the regional sambal of Bali. So if you eat, there’s this dish called babi guling which is a whole roasted suckling pig in Indonesia, if you get soto babi which is… They love pork by the way in Bali. If you get a pork soup or any Balinese dish, this is the sambal that will be served with that dish. You may get a more general sambal with it as well but this the main one. You’re instantly transported, this is a Balinese sambal, this what it tastes like, this it the favorite one.
JOE YONAN: Great.
LARA LEE: And everyone has their own recipe, quite often in Indonesia they also add a little bit of fermented shrimp paste. So for my version I wanted it to keep it I guess as a wholly plant-based sambal. And you could do it either way, but you could add fermented shrimp paste as well and that gives it another kick of umami, either or works.
JOE YONAN: Yeah, love it. How did you wrap your mind around how to research this book with this vast country that, you had this amazing connection to obviously through your grandmother, but hadn’t been to before your young adulthood?
LARA LEE: I was very lucky enough once I was an adult to visit a few times as a holiday maker with my parents and to visit family over there. I think for me there was a little bit of a trigger when I… So I’m from Sydney, Australia originally and I’ve been in London for 10 years. So when I moved to London 10 years ago, I really felt the absence of the Indonesian community here because I think there’s less than 10,000 Indonesians in the UK. Whereas in Australia, there’s a huge community because geographically it’s very close. Well, close for Australia, it’s a five or six hour flight. I’m like, “Oh it’s just like a walk.” But there’s 40 or 50 restaurants in each major city, so Sydney there’s about 50 Indonesian restaurants, there’s Indonesian supermarkets, there’s a huge Indonesian community. Some of my dad’s best friends from Indonesia also moved around the same time as him. So coming here, I missed that sense of community, and that sent me on a mission. And on that mission I realized that Sri Owen, who is the grandmother, the doyennne of Indonesian cookery, she’s authored 15 cookbooks Indonesian food…
She lived in London, in Wimbledon. So I emailed her and she at the time was 82 years old, or 81. And she emailed me back straight away saying, “I’ve been waiting for someone like you to come along,” someone that has Indonesian heritage. I have a degree in writing and I’m a trained chef and then we met and she became the mentor, I was the mentee. She was passing the baton of knowledge to me and then I got the book deal, I was learning from her, I was putting together a cookbook proposal and I got the book deal. And she then, she very kindly introduced me to William Wongso, who is the godfather of Indonesian cookery who’s based in Jakarta.
And what is amazing is the sense of community in Indonesia of people willing you to succeed. Because when I landed in Jakarta, William Wongso, who for the last 50 years has been promoting Indonesian food to the world, he’s incredible. His driver picked me up at the airport and then he introduced me his entire network of home cooks and food guides across Indonesia and so I had this incredible network of connections. But I also followed my nose, I’d go to food markets which opened at 6:00 am in the morning and I’d tell a food vendor, “Oh I really want to learn how to make that.” And they’re like, “Oh, well you know what, come to my house tomorrow or my sister can teach you, how about Tuesday? Let’s exchange details.”
People just really wanted to teach me their family recipes because for Indonesians, there’s such great pride in their food, to share that with the world felt like an important mission they wanted to be a part of. There’s a huge list of Indonesian names in the acknowledgements, I mean it is so long because I was helped by so many kind and generous people, I couldn’t have done it without those people so I felt very, very lucky.
JOE YONAN: I was so glad you were able to do it. When you were doing your research, were there things that came to you that you thought were misconceptions people had about Indonesian cooking that you wanted to correct?
LARA LEE: I guess a few things that people had said to me in the past that perhaps had made them not cook Indonesian food was that they felt that it might be very laborious or perhaps that the ingredients were very inaccessible. And there certainly are recipes that I didn’t dare put in the book because I didn’t want to adapt it so much with accessibility that it lost its original meaning. And I think those are probably the two things, that it is laborious. And yes, we talked about rendang before, yes there are communities, villages in Pandang, in Sumatra where rendang is from, that might take 12 hours cook a rendang but that’s because they’re cooking it for a 100 people in lots of large woks so I think…
And I think of rendang as a one pot wonder, you throw it all in the pot and every now and then you come back to stir it, and at the end you do a little bit of a get your back into it stir to get it to caramelize. But I think a lot of Indonesian food, once you’ve got your chopping under way and your mis en place done—I think with any stir-fried types of food or foods that might have many ingredients but once you’ve done that chopping, to actually cook it might take four minutes in the pan, so I think that’s one of the misconceptions. I think those are the two that I want people to realize that it actually is approachable, you can recreate these flavors in your home kitchen.
JOE YONAN: You know, when you talk about the accessibility of the ingredients, I’m just reminded of the fairly frequent maybe perspective that we get from some people about that. But I think that there’s a countervailing argument that a lot of people have been making, which is that it can really be worth it to try to go out of your way to try to find the ingredients. Nothing is that hard to find, I mean depending on where you live I suppose, but that if you really at least try to find… You mentioned, I know in your book, that you could use lime instead of, fresh lime juice instead of the makrut lime leaves if you can’t find the makrut lime leaves but if you go out of your way to really try to find them and get them and get your hands on them, you understand the cuisine a little bit better, don’t you think?
LARA LEE: The payoff is greater absolutely, and I do think particularly since this pandemic began, I think a lot of businesses have changed how they operate, and online ordering of ingredients has become…
JOE YONAN: Absolutely.
LARA LEE: Yeah, it’s available, there’s national delivery. People have figured this out now, so I agree. I think when I wrote the book, it probably wasn’t quite there yet but certainly now if I want to get makrut lime leaf, to be fair I live around a lot of Asian supermarkets but if I wanted to send it to my mother-in-law in Devon in England which is countryside, it actually is easy and achievable, so I’m with you.
JOE YONAN: And if you haven’t ever smelled that smell when you first smash of those, it’s exquisite.
LARA LEE: It’s like perfume.
JOE YONAN: It really is exquisite.
LARA LEE: It is and I don’t know about in America but certainly here, I can buy a tub of it frozen in the freezer aisle of my Asian supermarket. And I just keep it in the freezer and there’s about 200 leaves in my freezer in a little tub, it’s fantastic. So it’s really handy actually.
I’m just going to season some of this quickly and then I can show you guys. I’m just going to pop a teaspoon of tamarind into the tomato sambal and I’ve got a store bought tamarind paste, it’s just one that’s in a jar. Not all tamarind pastes are equal, so I think paying a little bit more is better. I’m not saying you have to go crazy but I think really, the cheapest of the cheap ones you, I think, have to ask yourself what is happening there.
JOE YONAN: Why is it so cheap?
LARA LEE: Why is it so cheap? If I have a little lick of that, I’m like, “Oh it’s a little bit sweet, it’s a little bit sour, it’s giving me some good feelings.” And if you have a little taste of a tamarind paste that you think, “Oh, that makes me feel a little whoa.” Maybe go to the next brand.
I’m going to pop a little bit of salt in there, pop a teaspoon of palm sugar and also some cracked pepper. And give it a little mix, I’m just going to bring this to the camera so you guys can have a little… Here we go. I know you can season it to taste with extra tamarind or… It’s got that, you know.
JOE YONAN: Oh it’s still steaming a little bit, that’s gorgeous.
LARA LEE: Yeah, it’s so pretty and you can store it your freezer for three months, it lasts for about a week in the fridge. It’ll last two weeks if you cover it in a layer of hot oil so it’s just the best.
JOE YONAN: I love it. Lara do you want to take a minute to talk about the other ingredient that made the title of your book? I’m curious about coconut, just how it’s used? All the ways it’s used.
LARA LEE: I touched on Indonesians having a no-waste philosophy which is just so wonderful and the coconut is another one of those… from the coconut tree is another one of those ingredients that Indonesians will just waste absolutely nothing. I had known in advance that obviously some curries might have coconut milk, people drink coconut water of course and you might find the flesh of young coconut in dessert or people make shred coconut and stir it through warmed salads or maybe roll a lovely dessert in greater coconut. But when I went to Indonesia then I saw the vastness of how this particular ingredient is used. And obviously the nectar of the coconut palm is extracted and turned into coconut sugar which is wonderful. But then the husks of the coconut are not thrown away but used to add fragrance to fire when you’re grilling satay or when you’re grilling fish or cooking certain ingredients and you have this fragrance of the coconut husk.
And the coconut shell is used to make utensils so you’ll find spoons, bowls, those types of things. And then to make your own coconut milk, which I just think is actually quite a hypnotic process to watch and to take part in, but you know, you grate the coconut flesh and it’s a mature coconut when you’re using grated coconut. So the young coconut flesh is for desserts because it’s quite soft and slippery. The flesh is quite soft and slippery when it’s young, but when it’s mature it’s hardy enough to be grated. So you can grate that coconut and then you mix it with water and you massage it with your hands and what comes out that is this gorgeous thing called santan, which is fresh coconut milk, it’s just amazing.
And then the shredded or grated coconut that was used to make the coconut milk, they don’t even throw that away. So then that might be used, maybe you’ve been cooking, some oil splatted on the floor, some turmeric is on the tiles, that will be used to scrub stains off the floor and that to me is just the most incredible thing to see. Nothing is wasted, every part of that coconut is used, and it made me fall in love with Indonesia even more. And that was why for me it had to be a part of the title of the book because again, with so many regional differences in the cuisine, the coconut existed in every part of their food culture and so it had to be in the title for me.
JOE YONAN: I love it. One of the other things you write about in your book as being, I think you say there’s a saying about it, is rice. That rice is central, so what is the saying?
LARA LEE: If they have not eaten rice, they have not eaten.
JOE YONAN: Oh, I love that.
LARA LEE: I love that too. It actually stems back from, I think Indonesia is the third highest producer in the world and there are beautiful rice paddies everywhere, it’s something you can fall in love with on a motorbike as you’re riding around whatever islands that you’re on, it’s quite amazing. But in the 80s, the government had this really funny campaign on TV which was, you got to make sure you eat your fruit, vegetables, meat, I can’t even remember the other one but they also had rice as the fifth food group and so people were like, “Oh well, we’d better eat a lot of rice.”
And people always loved rice but particularly in the 80s it became this crazy thing where to be healthy you must have a lot of rice, which actually has led to a slight problem with diabetes now. But people have this culture of… The way that Indonesians eat, it’s like a banquet style eating, there’s always multiple different types of foods on the table and you always pile your plate first with half a plate of rice and then a little bit of all the other bits and the rice is used to really fill you up. And you’ll have a taste of everything else because all those plates on the table will probably be there for breakfast in the morning and then they’ll be covered, and you’ll eat it again for lunch and then again for dinner.
So is it a degustation through the whole day, maybe, but that’s the way they eat. But rice is eaten with every meal and it’s just an important staple and some of the poorer communities actually, where food might be scarce for whatever reason, they might just have a plate of rice with a little bit of sambal sometimes and that sambal will add the flavor to the meal and so it really is such an important part of the diet. And there are deities, there’s a rice goddess called Dewi Sri and people make offerings to her. There’s rice festivals where they have these things called Gunungans, which are rice mountains that people carry through the villages and that’s in order to get blessings from the gods or it might be to… people throw rice into the mouth of a volcano to ask for blessings for that year as part of the offerings. In Bali you’ll often find these square offerings to the Hindu gods and there’ll always be a little bit of rice in there.
It crosses across all parts of life as well. Walking in the… the Indonesian word for rice field is sawah, that walking in the sawah is something that people do and it’s just a lovely connection to life over there so it’s very much a part of life.
JOE YONAN: It’s fantastic, it’s yet another reason why I can’t believe why I haven’t been to Indonesia and how it’s at the absolute top of my list to go to once we’re able to travel again. Thanks in part to you, to you and your-
LARA LEE: You’ll love it, you’ll be on a food journey and I think one of the things that I love the most that I had to train myself for is Indonesians are always eating. So when I was researching the book over there, I might meet a particular person, maybe they were introduced to me by someone or whatever but they’d meet me in the morning, they’d take me to the food market at 6:00 am. Then we would have two breakfasts, it’d be like, “You’ve got to try this, then you’ve got try this and then you’ve got to try that.” And then we’d have a snack for morning tea, then we’d have three lunches and then you’re like, “Oh my goodness.” And it’s like, “Oh quick, we’ve got to go to the afternoon market, it’s going to close at 4:00.” You’ve got to be ready to eat but the food doesn’t make you feel heavy or stodgy, it’s the kind of food that you can eat all day so it’s great.
JOE YONAN: Great, I love it. Lara, what are you working on next? Are there projects that you can tell us about?
LARA LEE: Yeah. I’m currently contributing recipes for The Guardian newspaper in the UK and Food & Wine and Bon Appetit in America so that’s been really fun and I’ve been writing Indonesian recipes but I’m also half Australian. So I’m going to have a broad love of different types of food so I’ve been writing about a lot of different types of recipes. And I’m currently working on my second book idea which I won’t give away too much because I don’t have the ink on a contract yet. But I’m very excited about it and will definitely include some aspects of Indonesian food again so really excited to… I think this is the part that’s fun. I’ve got this big A3 pieces of paper where I’m scribbling ideas and you know this process so yeah, it’s been really fun.
JOE YONAN: That’s fantastic, well I can’t wait to see what you do next, I’m sure everyone will just eat it up as they have Coconut & Sambal.
LARA LEE: Oh, you’re so lovely, thanks so much.
JOE YONAN: Well, this has just been delightful, I’ve loved seeing you cook the sambals, I’m sure the audience will really appreciate it too and it’s just been great to chat with you.
LARA LEE: It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to speak with you and also to be part of the festival, I feel so chuffed, it’s really special so thank you.
JOE YONAN: Great, well so everyone it is time for us to wrap things up, so thank you again Lara and thank you again to everyone who’s watching. I also wanted to say please consider buying Coconut & Sambal from your local independent bookseller or using the link that we’ve provided. We also hope you’ll check out all our other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thank you everyone.
LARA LEE: Thank you, bye.
JOE YONAN: Bye.