First-time cookbook author Lara Lee's culinary tribute to Indonesian food

Lee spent six months travelling all over Indonesia to research and document recipes all over the country. — Photos: Coconut & Sambal

Much like the country itself, Indonesia’s culinary repertoire is vast and expansive, as befitting the fact that the world’s fourth most populous nation is home to over 17,000 islands.

Which is why putting together a cookbook that pays homage to Indonesian food is no small feat. It requires dedication, patience and a whole lot of love for the cuisine.

This is exactly what cookbook author Lara Lee has poured into her debut effort, Coconut & Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen, which poignantly captures the heart of Indonesian food, encapsulated in 85 recipes.

The beginning

Lee is a half-Indonesian, half-Australian foodie who didn’t actually grow up in Indonesia. Instead she was born and bred in Sydney, Australia.

Still, Indonesian food formed a dynamic presence in her life, bolstered by her formidable grandmother, whom she fondly called Popo.

“My dad moved to Australia from Kupang in Timor, Indonesia when he was 22, and met and fell in love with my mum. They had me and my sister and we were really lucky because my dad’s mother who lived in Kupang relocated to Australia to live with us for a few years.

Although Lee spent her formative years in Australia, she is passionate about her Indonesian roots and even has plans to move to Indonesia in the future. Although Lee spent her formative years in Australia, she is passionate about her Indonesian roots and even has plans to move to Indonesia in the future.

“Popo was a very strong person – she was widowed at 36 and had four children to bring up. Her brother bought her all these recipe books and she learnt how to cook and became this incredible cook, opening a bakery in Kupang that specialised in these beautiful Indonesian cakes (kuih).

“When she moved to Australia to live with us, she loved to cook and bake little Indonesian cakes and biscuits, and dishes like nasi goreng, satay chicken, gado gado and acar pickle. My earliest memories of my grandmother were of her cooking in the kitchen and me watching her, mesmerised, ” says the bubbly Lee in a phone interview.

Lee says there is also a vibrant Indonesian community in Sydney, so she was able to go to Indonesian restaurants to eat even after her grandmother went back to Indonesia.

Although her family couldn’t afford to visit Indonesia until she was 20, that first visit made a strong impression.

“I knew a lot about Indonesia but from afar, so going for the first time there when I was 20 was a real awakening for me, because everything that I had experienced so far in my life suddenly made sense, ” she says.

The start of a journey

When Lee moved to London, UK, nine years ago, she missed the Indonesian community she felt so deeply about, as London didn’t really have established Indonesian communities or restaurants.

So she began a journey of discovery that started with her opening a street food stall selling Asian sandwiches. On the strength of the success of that venture, she switched trajectory (she had studied media and writing) and pursued a culinary arts course.

Lee was touched by how generously Indonesians share their food culture and knowledge with others.Lee was touched by how generously Indonesians share their food culture and knowledge with others.

With that under her belt, her mission to reconnect with her roots deepened and only became stronger after she emerged runner-up in a food writing competition – something that spurred the idea for a full-fledged Indonesian cookbook.

Struggling to find Indonesian contacts in London, she touched base with renowned Indonesian cookery writer Sri Owen, regarded as the person instrumental in introducing Indonesian food to the West. Sri has written over 10 cookbooks and was even a recipient of the Guild of Foodwriters Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.

To Lee’s amazement, not only did Owen respond to her tentative queries, she invited her to her home!

“She’s 85 now. But when I reached out to her and told her that I wanted to write a cookbook, she was so kind. She invited me to her house that Saturday and we ended up cooking together. She became my mentor and we would meet every week and cook banquet-style meals. She was like a foster grandmother to me because my own grandmother passed away 17 years ago, so I did a lot of learning and studying there, ” she says.

However much she learnt from Owen, Lee knew that to really immerse herself in Indonesian food and culture, she had to go back to the motherland. So she embarked on a six-month trip to Indonesia with her parents in tow.

“This cookbook is also the story of my grandmother and her dishes and our family, and me discovering my heritage. So, it was important for me to bring my parents along. Luckily they’re retired, so they had time. And when we went there, I learnt so many of my grandmother’s recipes from my aunties and other extended family. We even found her 60-year-old recipe book from when she opened her bakery, which was amazing!

Lee also took the time to travel around the country, imbibing as much as she could about the food culture throughout the nation and learning from anyone who was willing to teach her.

Gado gado is one of the 85 recipes that Lee has included in her cookbook.Gado gado is one of the 85 recipes that Lee has included in her cookbook.

“I think what I find so interesting about Indonesia is that wherever you travel, the flavour profile completely changes – whether it’s Bali, Timur, Sulawesi or Padang. So to capture it all in a cookbook, I travelled as much as I could in the time I had. I also met a well-known Indonesian chef called William Wongso, who took me under his wing and introduced me to some of the best home cooks in Indonesia, so I was really lucky to have incredible experts support me.

“The people in Indonesia are so generous. I would meet a taxi driver and he would tell me ‘Oh, my mother is a wonderful cook, come to the house tomorrow and she’ll teach you.’ And people would invite me to their homes and expect nothing in return, because they were so proud to share the culture, ” she says.

The cookbook

From that trip and her lessons with Owen, Lee devised a long list of 300 recipes, which she eventually whittled down to 85 dishes – all chosen based on the availability and accessibility of ingredients in places such as Britain and Australia.

“I needed to eliminate dishes with ingredients that were really hard to get elsewhere. example, there was a recipe called rawan which required buah keluak (kepayang fruit), which you simply cannot find in London, so I took that out. Basically, because Indonesian food is not mainstream, I wanted it to feel accessible – something that people could make in their home kitchens, ” she says.

Lee’s cookbook is a wonderful tribute to the food of her heritage. The book’s strength lies in her wonderful gift for writing evocatively and with heart – whether it’s the personal anecdotes about her grandmother’s blue kitchen in Indonesia or the hisses and crackles emanating from street food vendors’ carts.

Coconut & Sambal is Lee's first cookbook, although she hopes to write more books on Indonesian food. Coconut & Sambal is Lee's first cookbook, although she hopes to write more books on Indonesian food.

There is also plenty of information about the building blocks of Indonesian cuisine. In Padang in West Sumatra for instance, Lee discovered that Minangkabau people threw in coconut husks over charcoal fires, lending earthy tropical notes to grilled food. Lee also details why kerupuk (spelt keropok in Bahasa Malaysia) is an appetite stimulant in the country and how the Dutch left traces of their time in Indonesia, courtesy of snacks like croquette. There are also fascinating narratives about rice and its connection to Indonesian folklore.

Each recipe is also prefaced with an introduction detailing how Lee learnt to make the dish, which gives it an added personal touch.

In the cookbook, you’ll discover recipes for a litany of delicious Indonesian meals like rempeyek, lamb and potato croquettes, mie udang Medan, Timorese fish soup, bakso, gado-gado, tempe manis, rendang Padang as well as a few non-halal recipes like babi guling.

Although it is hard to play favourites, Lee says there are some recipes that enthrall her a teeny bit more than others.

“I’ve got a really delicious recipe for pisang goreng in the book, it’s inspired by banana fritters that I tried in Jakarta. It’s made with coconut milk, vanilla, melted butter and rice flour and plain flour. The secret ingredient here is good quality honey with ripe bananas. Eating it is a moment where I could die happy!” she says, laughing.

Ultimately, Lee says she hopes that her paean to Indonesian food will inspire others to pick up some of the recipes that form the bedrock of her everyday cooking and eventually spread the knowledge of the cuisine to a wider audience.

“I think in Indonesia, there is maybe not as much of a market for Indonesian cookbooks because a lot of people learn their recipes verbally from their mothers and grandmothers.

“So I feel really lucky to have been given the opportunity to document and write those recipes because I love Indonesian food so much – it’s such a diverse and rich cuisine. And my dream is for the cuisine to be known a little bit better internationally, ” she says.

Coconut & Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen will be available at Kinokuniya KLCC by the end of July 2020.


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

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 180°C. (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 4 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.

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