A Sticky, Peanutty Tempeh to Win Weeknight Dinner

Plus, a deep-diveable gado-gado and very versatile sambal.

October 13, 2020
Photo by Louise Hagger

“The first time I watched the sky bleed tones of orange and red as the sun set over the sea in my father’s home town of Kupang, Timor,” Coconut & Sambal author Lara Lee writes, “it struck me as a moment of coming home—but to a place I had never been before.”

Growing up in Sydney with an Australian mother and a Chinese-Indonesian father and grandmother instilled in Lee a sense of longing for home—wherever, whatever that may be—at a very young age. As an adult, she began cooking professionally, and that back-of-mind longing quickly evolved into a front-of-mind mission:

I longed for the funny coloured cakes Popo had made for me in my childhood, and the sweet and spicy sauces that stuck to my little hands at the end of family meals. I embarked on a journey...

Lee traveled from Sumatra to Timor, revisited her Popo’s vacated home, and cooked through her grandma’s old recipe books with aunties, cousins, and great aunties—bringing faded memories back to light.


Lee did not stop there, however—inspired by the great joy and connection that her grandma's recipe books afforded, Lee continued her journey across the Indonesian archipelago in search of other families’ stories and beloved recipes, compiling all of these in the beautiful, vibrant Coconut & Sambal.

The book opens with a brief, tantalizing introduction to the richness and generosity of Indonesian cooking and food culture. The sounds of “cracking, crunching, and snapping” of kerupuk (savory fried crackers) before a meal is prized right alongside the wangi (aroma): "When I was traveling, there was a moment in every cooking session when the home cook and I would bow our heads to the wok and cup the air and smoke from the pan into our lungs."

"Ingrained within Indonesian culture is generosity in sharing food, resources, and time," writes Lee in the introduction. This concept is called gotong royong—"a sense of collective responsibility within a community [that] originated in agriculture" and which remains a key value to this day.

The book is organized by dish type and rounded out with Lee's guide to the Indonesian pantry, as well as how to plan and design a traditional meal. As you might expect, there are comprehensive chapters on “Soups & Rice” and “Poultry & Eggs”—but also, delightfully, ones solely dedicated to “Savoury Snacks” and “Sambal” (which, along with coconut, Lee writes, is used for seasoning in the same way that a Western cook might use salt and pepper).

On my to-cook list from this book: the sticky, peanutty Tempeh Manis (Sweet Soy Tempeh), Ayam Penyet (Smashed Fried Chicken)—as in chicken that’s fried then smashed; the rumpled batter forms all these nooks and crannies capable of housing more Sambal Tomat (Tomato Sambal), Gado-Gado (Gado-Gado Salad With Peanut Sauce), and Klepon (Coconut Sticky Rice Balls).

Which of Lara Lee's recipes are you going to make first? Let us know how it goes in the comments!
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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.