Lara Lee's cookbook, Coconut & Sambal, presents a beautiful personal introduction to the cuisine of Indonesia.

November 20, 2020
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Louise Hagger
| Credit: Louise Hagger

If there’s one thing that chef and caterer Lara Lee wants to impress upon you about Indonesian food, it’s that a meal would be incomplete without sambal. The chile-based sauce, which has hundreds of variations across Indonesia, is used as a condiment, marinade, dipping sauce, and spice paste. It’s so crucial that it made it into the title of her first cookbook, Coconut & Sambal, a personal exploration of Indonesian food. “If you sit down at an Indonesian table and there’s no sambal, people will wonder what’s wrong,” Lee said in a phone interview. 

The country of Indonesia comprises more than 17,000 islands, with some 6,000 of those inhabited. The cuisine of every island is different, depending on the climate, culinary influences, and resources, and yet a few things remain constant. Sambal and coconut, Lee explains, are as crucial to Indonesian cuisine as salt and pepper. Along with rice, the deep-fried crackers called krupak, and the sweetened aromatic soy sauce called kecap manis, Lee writes sambal and coconut form the backbone of most Indonesian dishes.

Lee grew up in Sydney with an Australian mother and a Chinese-Indonesian father. After she began cooking professionally, Lee started tracing her family’s culinary heritage, visiting her father’s hometown of Kupang, Timor. Coconut & Sambal grew out of that research. Lee was originally going to focus on Timor, but the more she explored, the more she felt that Indonesian food hadn’t gotten enough notice in mainstream British, Australian, and American food publications. “A lot of people would be unfamiliar with the recipe names, or even with a very famous Indonesian dish like beef rendang, “ Lee said. “I realized I wanted to give a broader voice to those 6,000 islands, which is almost impossible when you’re trying to curate 85 recipes in a cookbook.”

But even if it can’t possibly be comprehensive, Coconut & Sambal is a triumph. It’s a love letter to Lee’s roots, packed with approachable recipes and gorgeous photographs of the people and food of those 6,000 islands. Lee’s explorations took her in unexpected places. “I was invited into different people’s homes who taught me recipes, and some of these people were chefs and some were home cooks, others were people I randomly met because someone at a food stall would give me their number,” she said. The recipes Lee brought together drew on her own family, but also on the passed-down recipes of the people she visited. If you’re unfamiliar with Indonesian cuisine, as I was, it’s a bright introduction, and an alluring bit of armchair travel during an era when actually hopping on a plane to Java is out of the question.

Credit: Louise Hagger

For cooks just beginning to try Indonesian recipes, Lee’s book has a lot of guidance. But the main thing, she told me, is not to rush the bumbu, or spice paste. “Everything really starts with the bumbu. It’s the initial spice mix or spice paste. It doesn’t necessarily mean a ground spice paste, it could also be garlic and shallots and chile. That’s the base of every dish,” Lee said. So don’t rush the caramelizing of shallots or the cooking down of chiles—patience at the beginning will yield dividends late. But if you happen to add in more or less shallot or garlic, don’t fret too much. 

“Indonesian food is not prescriptive, it’s not as if not following the recipe exactly won’t make it turn out,” Lee said. “What was wonderful when I met Indonesian cooks is that everyone has their own idea of how many garlic cloves or shallots or chiles should go into a dish, and they were very intuitive.”

One excellent illustration of that principle is Lee’s recipe for lamb martabak, a meat-stuffed, pan-fried bread. The filling—lamb, spices, shallots, ginger, and garlic—can be easily adapted to your tastes. Crucially, the martabaks are slightly underseasoned, so that you can eat each bite with the extremely flavorful caramelized shallot sambal she pairs with it. I’m a person with a moderate spice tolerance, and I feared, when making the chile-rich sambal, that it would be overpowering. Not so: the sweetness of the shallots shined through, and the chiles didn’t eclipse the subtler flavors in the martabak. Lee recommends the martabak as a snack or appetizer, but I ate enough, happily, to call it my dinner. And, of course, I remembered the sambal for the table. 

Get the Recipe: Lamb Martabak Get the Recipe: Caramelized Shallot Sambal Bawang