By Ella Walker
Lara Lee totally adores cooking. “I want to cook all the time. It’s just such a nice way to pass the time, because you’re creating something that’s so sensory, when there’s nothing else going on.”
So if, unlike Lee, if constant cooking is wearing you down, visit her Instagram page for an instant shot of smile-inducing brightness (her Technicolor outfits are enough to take your mind off everything), and dinner motivation thanks to her #coronacooking video series. All that colour, enthusiasm and spirit is distilled in her new debut cookbook too – Coconut & Sambal.
The London-based chef and caterer grew up in Australia, where her father moved from Indonesia, aged 22.
Writing Coconut & Sambal provided an opportunity for Lee to visit Indonesia to hunt down recipes and dishes and “rediscover the food of my childhood – and part of that was rediscovering the cooking of my grandmother and of my aunties,” she says.
She spent several months travelling through different regions, getting to grips with the zingy, punchy flavours of Sulawesi, to the more Chinese-influenced tastes of Medan in North Sumatra, all the while asking family members and people she met along the way to share recipes, and direct her towards any good cooks in town.
She also got to eat some truly spectacular dishes, from a marinated suckling pig roasted over the branches of the coffee tree (which inspired her Balinese roasted pork recipe) to rendang, one of the most famous Indonesian dishes, and the many regional tweaks people make to it.
Throughout her adventures though, sambal remained a staple. “Every family has their own sambal recipe,” says Lee. “In the West, we might use salt and pepper to season our food, but in Indonesia, they’ll use sambal.”
Akin to a chilli relish, Lee says the condiment is so important it’s one of the three cornerstones of the Indonesian table, alongside rice and kerupuk, Indonesian crackers.
“A meal is not complete without sambal,” says Lee.
Chicken Fried Rice
2 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into small, bite-sized cubes
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
8cm piece of galangal or ginger (about 40g), peeled and woody stem removed, finely chopped
1 small banana shallot or 2 Thai shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
Handful of green beans, chopped into small chunks
2 spring onions, chopped into large chunks
1/4tsp ground turmeric
95g jasmine or basmati rice, cooked and cooled (240g cooked weight)
2 tbsp kecap manis
1 and a 1/2tsp fish sauce
2tsp light soy sauce
Sea salt and white pepper, to taste
Coconut oil or sunflower oil, for frying
2 duck or hen’s eggs
1tbsp fried shallots
1/2 long red chilli, thinly sliced
Kerupuk or prawn crackers
Season the chicken pieces with salt and white pepper. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan or wok over a high heat and fry the chicken until cooked through, about three minutes. Remove and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, add the garlic, galangal or ginger and shallots and cook over a medium-high heat until fragrant. Add the green beans, spring onions and turmeric and cook for one minute.
Add the rice to the pan, breaking up any clumps with a wooden spoon. Ensure all the ingredients are well combined and the rice is warmed through. Return the chicken to the pan. Season with the kecap manis, fish sauce, light soy sauce and a large pinch of white pepper, and extra salt if needed.
Meanwhile, fry the eggs. Season with salt.
Divide the fried rice between two serving plates and garnish with the fried shallots, sliced chilli and fried eggs on top. Serve with crackers.
Makes 250g – about 16 portions
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
1tsp tamarind paste (or 1 tsp lime juice mixed with 1 tsp brown sugar)
1/2tsp 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.
Coconut & Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen by Lara Lee is available now