Experts explain how you can prepare delicious Indonesian dishes at home, clarify misconceptions about the cuisine and talk about historical influences
Those skilled in the preparation of Indonesian dishes say the spice blend is king. While it’s easy to step out for a great Indonesian meal in the UAE — the country is blessed with dozens of places to tuck into a delicious nasi goreng — preparing a delicious dish at home doesn’t have to be a tall order.
“One of the traditional tools for food preparation is cobek and ulegan, the Indonesian version of mortar and pestle, which are used to grind the seasonings,” says Ayu Tanimoto, who prepares meals for special events at the Indonesian embassy and mods the @PojokSimbok Instagram page. “By grinding the essential oils of the spices are squeezed out, resulting on the distinctive aroma and taste. Nowadays, though, cobek and ulegan have made way for the electric blender.”
Most Indonesian dishes are prepared using a slow cooking method. Stirring the seasoning, like the ones used in satay sauce, nasi goreng or rendang, with small flame will make much better result.
– Ayu Tanimoto prepares meals for events at the Indonesian embassy
Other must-have kitchen equipment is a thick steel pan, heavy wok and a solid spatula. “Most Indonesian dishes are prepared using a slow cooking method,” says Tanimoto. “Stirring the seasoning, like the ones used in satay sauce, nasi goreng or rendang, with small flame will make much better result. This slows down the closing of the pore on the main ingredient, allowing the seasoning to seep in more. Speaking about slow cooking, even rendang comes from Minangkabau local language, marandang, which literally means slowly, because it takes hours upon hours to properly cook rendang.”
Leonard Yanyag, Head Chef at Asia Asia in Dubai Marina’s Pier 7, says there are strong parallels between Chinese and Indonesian cuisine, with the latter typically less sweet and more spicy. “Some popular Indonesian dishes trace their origin to Chinese influences, such as nasi goreng, which means fried rice in Malay languages, and Mie Goreng, a spicy fried noodle dish.”
Some popular Indonesian dishes trace their origin to Chinese influences, such as nasi goreng, which means fried rice in Malay languages, and Mie Goreng, a spicy fried noodle dish.
– Leonard Yanyag is the Head Chef at Asia Asia in Pier 7
For Tanimoto, however, there are a number of common misconceptions around her country’s cuisine. For one thing, not everything is hot and spicy. “Although many indeed contain chilli, many other traditional dishes of Indonesia are all but hot. Take gudeg, for instance. This Jogjakarta dish tends to be sweet. There is also soto, a refreshingly savoury yellow clear soup.” Another thing — Indonesian meals aren’t necessarily as complicated as people think. “True, we might need quite a few kind of spices, but as long as we have the three compound seasonings mentioned below, we need less than 30 minutes to prepare most Indonesian dishes. Well, all but rendang, of course.”
Do it yourself
A self-confessed street food addict, Yanyag names satay as his favourite Indonesian dish. “Meat skewers, usually served with rice cakes and peanut sauce. I always add little bit [more] spice to my satay for a perfect taste.”
Tanimoto has plenty of advice for making the perfect satay. “You need skewers for the chicken or beef cubes. Although you can use an electric grill, you’ll get the best results with wood charcoal. The fire from charcoal is small, consistent and of relatively low temperature. Again, this slow cooking method makes the satay more aromatic and fully flavoured.
“There are three must-have compound spices to prepare most Indonesian dishes. One is red seasoning, a mixture of shallot, garlic, red chillies and tomato, which is pureed and sauteed.
The second mixture is white seasoning, made of ground and sauteed shallot, garlic, galanga and candleberry nut. The third compound is yellow seasoning — shallot, garlic, turmeric, ginger and candleberry nut, again ground and sauteed.”
With these three compound seasonings, she adds, you just need to add herbs such as lime leaves, lemongrass, cloves or cardamom, according to the specific dish being prepared.
“Almost all the spices and herbs needed to prepare Indonesian cuisine are available in the UAE. The only one you can’t find [easily] is candleberry nut. For that, you have to go to Indonesian speciality stores such as South Asia Foodstuff in Abu Dhabi, or Indomaret stores in Dubai, Sharjah and Al Ain.”
Recipe: Sambal Terasi
300 gr of red chilli (can be mixed with chilibird to add the spicy level)
5 cloves of shallot, thinly cut.
1/2 tea spoonfull of palm sugar or as needed
1/2 table spoonful of salt or as needed
1/2 table spoonful of terasi or shrimp paste*
200 ml frying oil or as needed.
Cut chili, shallot, garlic, and tomato into small pieces.
Heat the frying oil, stir fry the cuts of chilli, shallot, garlic, and tomato until tender.
Put shrimp paste, salt, and sugar into the mix, and continue stirring. Once the aroma starts to emerge, turn the heat off.
Grind the the stir-fried mix.
Reheat the frying oil, stir fry the ground mix until it is well cooked.
Do some flavour correction.
The chilli paste is ready to serve.
*Shrimp paste is available in Indonesian specialty stores, or can be substituted with fried dry shrimp
Note: Please be aware that shrimp paste tastes salty, so you need to be mindful when adding salt. It’s important to nail the flavour balance of spice, umami and sweetness. Store the sambal in an airtight container and refrigerate, it will keep until a week