Recreating Indonesian Home Cooking With 'Coconut And Sambal' Indonesian cuisine isn't as widely known as other Asian foods, but Lara Lee wants to change that. Her new cookbook, Coconut & Sambal helps make Indonesian flavors more accessible to home cooks.

Recreating Indonesian Home Cooking With 'Coconut And Sambal'

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In normal times, how many of us would be spending this weekend in our childhood homes, sleeping in beds we used to sleep in and, maybe most importantly, eating foods we grew up eating? But many of us are not doing that this year for obvious reasons. So NPR's Andrew Limbong decided to recreate a dish that approximates home with the help of a cookbook out now called "Coconut & Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen." Here's Andrew.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: I always did the grunt work growing up, chopping and peeling garlic, onions and ginger. But I never really learned how to make any of the dishes my mom made. Actually, ever since I left home, I've grown less and less in touch with my Indonesian-ness (ph), which kind of bums me out.

LARA LEE: Actually, our stories are very similar.

LIMBONG: That's Lara Lee, author of "Coconut & Sambal." Lee is part Indonesian and part Australian. She grew up in Sydney eating food made by her Indonesian grandmother, who died about 20 years ago.

LEE: So for the last 20 years of my life, I've kind of been searching for a way to connect with her again.

LIMBONG: Lee eventually moved to London to work in tech. And it wasn't until a mid-career shift into becoming a chef that she realized that connection could be found in her grandma's recipes.

LEE: I've spent a lot of the last few years trying to make up for lost ground because I felt so disconnected from my Indonesian heritage. And I really wanted to catch up.

LIMBONG: For me, catching up means...


LIMBONG: ...I'm back to peeling and chopping garlic again and shallots and ginger. I'm making a beef dish called rendang, a staple you'd find at a wedding or a family reunion. But the ingredients list does include some stuff I couldn't find at the grocery store - lime leaves and galangal, the cousin of ginger. Thankfully, Lee's book offers some workarounds that might make a few purists cringe. But Lee says a lack of accessibility is partly why Indonesian cuisine hasn't spread as widely as, say, Thai or Indian food.

LEE: We need to tell the original stories of recipes, but I think we also need recipes that are doable by the average home cook. So you kind of need to have both.

LIMBONG: One thing she didn't budge on was heat.

LEE: I didn't want to dilute the chili at all.

LIMBONG: The rendang recipe calls for seven long red chilies. But Lee does give permission to deseed them, which I graciously accept because I am a coward. All the spices and aromatics go into a food processor...


LIMBONG: ...Then into a pot with about two pounds of beef cut into chunks with some lemongrass, bay leaves and...


LIMBONG: ...Coconut milk. You can tell from the title of the book, "Coconut & Sambal," coconut plays an important role in a lot of Indonesian cooking. The sambal part refers to the different sauces often served on the side that are, yes, also spicy. They also keep pretty well. Lee makes big batches of a tomato-based one that she keeps in her freezer.

LEE: I put it on everything - like, if my husband's made pizza or if I have eggs in the morning for breakfast or whatever we eat. I just love - I love sambal so much.

LIMBONG: Her book pairs nearly every dish with a different sambal. Rendang calls for a sambal ijo padang. So while the beef simmers, I fry 14 green chilies, some garlic, shallots and anchovies, run all of that through a food processor, add some lime and salt. And the result is this bright, punchy, spicy salsa thing that, combined with the smells from the rendang, is actually starting to make me a little homesick.

Anyway, after a couple of hours, the rendang is ready for the final step. Heat goes on medium-high, and then you stir constantly.

LEE: You know, you've got to put your back into it when you make your rendang because, you know, you've got to really stir that pot at the end to get that beef caramelized.

LIMBONG: The contents of the pot change color from yellow to green to brown. And you can hear it go from bubbling to frying, which is how you know it's nearly done. I asked Lee if going to Indonesia and researching and writing this book worked, if it bridged whatever disconnect she was feeling about her background.

LEE: Yeah, I feel very much more Indonesian than ever before. And I desperately want to introduce my son to kind of get him to speak Indonesian and for him to understand who he is as a young boy.

LIMBONG: As for me, does this rendang taste exactly like I remember, like I'm 12 and back home and don't have any problems? Of course not. But it's close enough that it tastes like home today.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

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