The Washington Post
Indonesian sate skewers are spicy, sour, sweet and salty — all at once
“The first time I watched the sky bleed tones of orange and red as the sun set over the sea in my father’s hometown of Kupang, Timor, it struck me as a moment of coming home — but to a place I had never been before,” writes Australia-based chef and author Lara Lee in her cookbook, “Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen.”
Evocative and energizing, Lee’s book is a story of discovery and rediscovery, over and over, as she explores Indonesia in search of the food of her childhood and her father’s youth. The flavors — spicy, salty, sweet and sour — conjure memories of the dishes her grandmother, whom she called Popo, made for the family.
“I remember watching Popo grinding the ingredients for her creamy peanut sauce to a paste before she generously drizzled it over vegetables and boiled eggs for her gado-gado. . . . I was mesmerized by the steam that rose from her pot. . . . Back then I was too young to learn her recipes, but the flavors of Popo’s food left an impression,” Lee writes.
Those tastes became a vernacular for understanding and categorizing regional Indonesian foodways — and the food her father cooked for the family, adapted with local ingredients when necessary.
As the name of the book suggests, both coconut — in many forms — and sambal are central to the Indonesian table. Sambal, a category of condiments centered on chiles, is a key seasoning element. Sambals are more than sauces though; they’re used as spice pastes, rubs, marinades and dips. When served alongside a dish, you’re meant to eat a small amount with each bite. Lee includes nearly a dozen sambal formulas in her book, including fiery sambal ulek, sweet caramelized shallot sambal bawang, tomato sambal and sambal kacang, or peanut sauce. “For an Indonesian, no meal is complete without sambal,” Lee writes.
“Coconut and Sambal” is as much a cookbook and guide to traditional and modern Indonesian dishes as it is a memoir of a diasporic childhood, filled with the expansiveness that comes from living and merging two worlds into one. She writes of her family’s mixed mealtimes, which were just as likely to feature Australian sausage rolls, made by her mother, as satay, grilled by her father.
This recipe, for sate daging, or soy and ginger satay, was a signature dish of her father, who was jokingly known as “the barbecue king.” Savory with garlic, ginger and soy sauce, the marinade works just as well on chicken, pork, tempeh and mushrooms. Lee says that whenever she eats it, especially when it’s served with her grandmother’s peanut sambal, she is “transported to Indonesia” with every bite. email@example.com
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