Palm Sugar - ©

Expedition To Indonesia II: Ingredients In Abundance!

Yesterday, we tried to convey an idea of how huge, varied and exotic the island nation of Indonesia and its culture really are. To get a clear picture of its national cuisines, we next must review the most interesting ingredients used in its foods – focusing on those which are not unknown in other cuisines…

Tamarind Tree - © ?A Tamarind Tree: The pods of the Tamarind are squeezed to yield the
jelly-like or liquid product we find in all Asian grocery stores.

The tropics will always surprise and delight!

How do I get this idea across? I propose to start with some highlights from noted food blogger Lara Lee’s kitchen – some of which we’ve heard of previously. These ingredients are easy to find in all Asian grocery stores, and I’ll bet you’ve always associated some of them with other eastern cuisines…

Rice Flour: They use Rice Flour almost exclusively in Indonesia where flour is called for. Evereyday Indonesian recipes you’ll come across in cookbooks or other references have invariably been optimized for rice flour, so don’t substitute potato starch, arrowroot or any other starch in its place. Not the only starch used in doughs, baked goods and deep-frying batters in Indonesia, but certainly the most common.

Coconut Milk: Also Coconut Cream. This wonderful, rich ‘milk’ is specified in a plethora of Asian soups and Sauces from a whole passle of eastern countries. It’s just as important in Indonesian cooking as it is in any of those other traditions! In case you didn’t know already, this delicacy comes canned of the shelf, not from the ‘dairy’ section.

Fish Sauce: More associated with neighbouring Thialand than Indonesia (I’ll wager) this is a fermented condiment made from fresh and salted fish. It’s used as a flavouring additive in soups. sauces and other dishes. Always used sparingly, it’s role is to impart an umami dimension to recipes. Many users balance it’s bold flavour by adding a little sugar.

Light Soy Sauce: Also ‘Tamari’. Lee stresses it’s important that you not get Light Soy confused with Dark Soy. Dark Soy is quite different in colour and flavour, and is used for very different purposes. Light Soy is saltier, thinner and used as a light seasoning.

Kecap Manis: Is a classic Indonesian specialty, made from sweetened soy sauce with the aroma of spices such as cloves, coriander and black pepper. Lee barely scrapes the the tip of the iceberg describing it as, “most commonly used as a marinade, drizzled over a finished dish or as a seasoning.” Once you’ve sampled its aroma and unique flavour, you’ll recognise it thereafter as an ingredient in Indonesian foods from all over the country.

Lemongrass: You’ll find this spiky, lemony-scented ‘grass’ at most mainstream supermarkets as well as all Asian grocery stores. Indonesian cooks are not, by any stretch, the only ones in Asia and Oceania who love it. It’s Lemony character comes from a hefty dose of ‘citral’, the same aromatic oil that gives Lemon zest it’s characteristic zip. Officially an herb, Lee points out that it fills a variety of roles, ranging from roasting skewer, to finely minced spice blend constituent, to bruised, floating ‘log’-like pieces in slow-simmered soups or stews (from which it is removed before serving).

Galangal: It’s a root spice, ‘a cousin to Ginger’, which is usually pink rather than yellow or brown. It has a citrusy edge and is a widely-used favourite across Indonesia. Less commonly found in grocery stores as a fresh root, jarred, preserved Galangal is widely used even in Indonesia and neighbouring countries.

Lime leaves: Here’s another common ingredient in tropical and subtropical cooking that simply can’t be substituted for. Lee says the aroma of Lime Leaf is one of her favourite scents, and I agree. I’d use it as a cologne! Anyway, Lee, says Lime Leaves are used liberally in many, many Indonesian stir-fries, sambals, stews and soups.

Palm Sugar: This evaporated, concentrated sweet is made from the sap of one or the other of two trees: the Coconut Palm or the  Arenga Palm (see picture, top of page). The product is very similar regardless of the species of tree you tap; with hings of caramel and molasses, it’s softly sweet ans ca be used, “…in both savoury and sweet cooking, […] shaved, grated or cut into chunks.”

Tamarind: This sweet-sour flavouring ingredient is squeezed from the ripe pods of the Tamarind tree and is found in stores as either a liquid or a paste. I’ve come across references to it in recipes most commonly calling for the paste. Here’s an ingredient that is classic to Indonesia, but not entirely unheard of in other southeast Asian countries.

Turmeric: The national spice of Indonesia. Called for in hundreds of Indonesian dishes, it’s a foundation flavour in many soups, stews and sambals. Like Ginger and Galangal, it’s a root spice and is famous for its bright yellow-to-orange colour. It’s what gives Indian curries their trademark yellow colour. Very common in other southeast Asian cuisines. Also, by the way, a powerful anti-oxidant and anti inflammatory. It’s used as much as a coluring agent as it is a flavouring aid.

And, as I said…

… That’s just the barest of basics you should have in your pantry if you propose to really get into Indonesian cooking. We’ll start looking at common Indonesian recipes tomorrow, and we’ll introduce other vital ingredients as we go along!

~ Maggie J.