Sit at any Indonesian table and you will find both coconut and sambal, a chilli sauce used to season food in the same way we might use salt and pepper in Western cuisine. While growing up in Timor, my father could not remember a meal that didn't feature sambal and his chilli tolerance is extremely high as a result, a trait I have inherited.
At the heart of sambal are the fiery flames of chilli peppers, seasoned with a mix of ingredients that includes tomatoes, shallots, garlic, ginger, tamarind and terasi (fermented shrimp paste), among many others.
The basic principle of a sambal is to provide a good level of heat, so you will find that Indonesians rarely deseed chillies, as the seed and pith are the hottest part.
However, sambal exists to complement rather than overpower the flavours in the dishes it is served with, so is eaten only a little at a time, often with every bite of food. Sambal is used not only as a condiment, but also as a spice paste, a marinade and a dipping sauce.
Every home cook has their own family sambal recipe, and there are hundreds of variations across the regions, all with their own distinctive flavours and ingredients.
For an Indonesian, no meal is complete without sambal, so I have offered sambal pairing suggestions for many of the dishes in this book. I've kept these pairings optional - there isn't always time to make a secondary dish when cooking - but if you have a spare 15 minutes to whip one up, it will transport your taste buds to the heart of Indonesia.
I think of this tomato relish as a beginner's guide to sambal, as it works beautifully either spicy or mild, depending on your preference. For those with chilli-sensitive palates, like my Devonshire mother-in-law, Caroline, deseeding the chillies lowers the potency of the heat. The addition of tomatoes makes it a mellow and umami-rich relish that is irresistible drizzled over soups, added to stews or used as a dipping sauce with wedges or fritters.
This is typically made with intensely flavoured bush tomatoes in the parts of Indonesia where they are lucky enough to grow them, but in my home kitchen in London I'm happy to use good-quality cherry tomatoes.
This sambal keeps for up to one week in the fridge covered with a thin layer of sunflower oil, or for up to three months in the freezer.
20 long red chillies (about 250g), deseeded and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
4cm piece of ginger (about 20g), peeled and sliced
2 small banana shallots or 4 Thai shallots, peeled and sliced
180g cherry tomatoes
1 tsp tamarind paste (or 1 tsp lime juice mixed with 1 tsp brown sugar)
1/2 tsp palm sugar or brown sugar
sea salt and black pepper, to taste
coconut oil or sunflower oil, for frying
Place the chillies, garlic, ginger, shallots and tomatoes in a food processor and blend to a semi-fine paste, retaining a little texture.
Place a frying pan over a medium heat and add four tablespoons of oil. Add the paste to the pan and cook, stirring continuously, for 10-15 minutes or until the sambal darkens, is fragrant and reduces to a thick consistency. Season with the tamarind paste, sugar, salt and pepper. Leave to cool.
Origin: Popular all over Indonesia.
Chilli heat: Moderate.
Makes 250g (about 16 portions).
Spiced corn fritters
My aunty Tje Ie in Kupang, Timor, loves to make these when she has visitors - a tradition I've carried over to my home in London. Juicy, chunky kernels of corn come together with fragrant spices and aromatics to form these delicious fritters. They keep for up to two days in the fridge and, if prepared in advance, are best reheated in the oven for 10 minutes at 170C.
If using canned or frozen corn, squeeze out as much moisture as possible - the easiest way is in between layers of paper towels.
4 corn-on-the-cob or 350g canned or frozen sweetcorn kernels
1 tbsp sunflower oil, plus extra for deep-frying
6cm piece of ginger (about 30g), peeled and thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 long red chillies, thinly sliced
2 small banana shallots or 4 Thai shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large spring onions, thinly sliced
5 kaffir lime leaves (optional), stems removed, very thinly sliced
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
3 pinches of sea salt
large pinch of black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
6 tbsp cornflour
1 quantity of tomato sambal
sriracha chilli sauce, to serve (optional)
If using fresh corn, remove the outer husk and threads, then carefully slice down the outside of the cob with a knife, as close to the core as possible, to remove the kernels. Set them aside.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic, chillies and shallots and fry, stirring, for 10 minutes. Blend to a medium-fine paste in a small food processor with the spring onions and kaffir lime leaves, if using. Mix the spice paste with the corn kernels in a bowl and add the coriander, cumin, salt, pepper and eggs. Stir well to combine, then add the cornflour.
Fill a deep saucepan one-third full with oil. Heat the oil to 180C. (If you do not have a kitchen thermometer, check the oil is at temperature by adding a cube of bread; it should turn golden in 15 seconds.) Carefully drop a dessertspoonful of the batter into the hot oil - it should settle into a roughly circular shape. Repeat to make 6-8 fritters, without overcrowding the pan. Fry until golden all over, about four minutes. Test one to ensure it is cooked through. Transfer to a tray lined with paper towels to drain. Repeat to use up all the mixture, topping up the oil if needed. Serve immediately, with sambal or chilli sauce to dip, if using.
Variation: Pan-fried corn fritters
Preheat the oven to 200C. Heat four tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan over a high heat until the oil shimmers. Add spoonfuls of the corn mixture to the oil, flattening them lightly. Turn over after two to three minutes - they should be golden all over. Transfer to a baking tray lined with baking parchment and cook in the oven for five to 10 minutes - test one to ensure it is cooked through. Drain any excess oil on paper towels and serve.
Origin: Popular all over Indonesia.
Chilli heat: Mild.
Makes 15 large fritters.
- Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian kitchen, by Lara Lee. Bloomsbury, $39.99.