When I landed in Switzerland nine years ago, Asian grocery store was a novelty. There was only one decent store in a town of 300,000 people carrying mostly Thai, Vietnamese and Indian spices.
Sure it had kangkung for me to make kangkung cah terasi but the shrimp paste was grey instead of the rich brown type I was used to. Soy sauce was only of the salty variety and there was no candlenut in the whole of town.
I stayed off from cooking Indonesian food for a long time afterwards. In my mind, if it’s not authentic, I’d rather not make it. I spent time daydreaming of the spicy, pungent and rich flavors I was used to at home. But I ended up staying longer here than intended, and so I must be realistic. When I needed my spice fix, I timidly ventured into cooking Indonesian food again. After years of painful trials and errors, here are my five tips on how to cook Indonesian food overseas:
- Get the juice. Google recipes for Soto Ayam and certain things stand out: garlic, shallots, lemon grass/kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, candlenuts, black peppers, and coriander seeds. Some creative souls add more exotic ingredients such as prawn and powdered galangal, which are harder to find. Stick to the more common basics that can also be used in other recipes. Ninety percent of the time, flavors are good.
- Dare to substitute. Would your Nasi Uduk be corrupted with bay leaves instead of Daun Salam? Does chopping spices in a food processor make Lodeh less original? I find that balancing flavors and fragrance and cooking techniques matter more to the end results than authentic ingredients.
- Be aware of differences. For example, fresh coconut milk fries differently than canned one, and broiler chickens are already very tender. It is not advisable to boil Ayam Kuning (yellow chicken) in watery spices until the water evaporates and THEN fry it. By that time, the chicken would have already turned into mush. Instead, I create a simpler and healthier dish by stuffing the chicken under its skin with spice paste and grilling it. The spices flavor the meat while the skin remains crispy without the extra step.
- Learn the local meat cuts. I find that Siedfleisch (Swiss version of brisket) makes very good Rendang (coconut beef dish) as the cut withstands long and slow cooking better than the lean cubed beef called Rindsragout. If you cannot find the exact cut, learn to change the cooking method.
- Be confident. Not all recipes, especially those from blogs and casual cooks, are correctly written and properly tested. To cook oxtail, the recipes often call for ‘cooking for 1 hour until tender’. Oxtail will not be tender after 1 hour so the correct instruction should be ‘cook until tender no matter how long it takes.’ On the other hand, chickens take less time to cook so pouring water to cover the chicken pieces and cook them until water evaporates will turn chicken pieces into chicken porridge.
Some might call the above ‘bastardization’ of authentic recipes. But I think of it as working within constraints and using common sense. Below is a recipe showcasing creativity and the blurring of national borders that result in a satisfying meal. The recipe is Singaporean but it can be easily adapted into Nasi Uduk or even Nasi Liwet.
Recipe: “Swiss-style” Nasi Lemak (6 servings)
South East Asians like to cook their rice in coconut milk. Indonesians have their Nasi Uduk, which is heavier and more suitable eaten with a variety of fried side dishes such as fried chicken, fried tofu, and fried tempeh. The Malaysian/Singaporean version, Nasi Lemak, is lighter and can also be eaten with substantial side dishes, but I was trained to eat it (for breakfast in Singaporean school canteen) only with a lump of sambal, a piece of cucumber, a slice of omelet and, if I felt plush, a piece of fried fish.
An impromptu dish, I make do with my fridge staples: Korean anchovies (to be fried into ikan bilis), eggs (always), and Fleischkäse (in place of Chinese luncheon meat which is eaten with Nasi Lemak). As for the sambal, the recipe calls for mixing in the fried anchovies but I like them crisp so I don’t.
Recipe is modified from Sylvia Tan’s Singapore Heritage Food.
2 onions, peeled
1 clove garlic, peeled
8 dried red chilies, soaked to soften
1 tsp belachan (shrimp paste)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp tamarind paste, mixed with 4 tbsp water (I cheat by using a mixture of vinegar and sugar to reach that sweet and sour taste)
A handful per person of dried anchovies
3 cups uncooked rice. I use 2 cups of Thai Rice and 1 cup of Basmati for more interesting texture.
2 cups water
1 cups coconut milk
1/2 tsp salt
4 pieces of kaffir lime leaves and/or 2 lemon grass
3 bay leaves
1 pandan leave, knotted (optional)
1 omelet per person
1 piece per person of fried luncheon meat (Maling, Spam, or Fleischkäse)
A handful of fried dried anchovies per person
Process the onion, garlic, softened chilies, and belachan in a food processor or mortar and pestle to make a paste. When using food processor, add a little frying oil to facilitate the process. If using mortar and pestle, start with the chilies, pounding them well before adding shrimp paste, then garlic, then the onion. Order (dry to wet) is important for efficient pounding.
Heat some oil in a pan and fry the chili mixture until brown and fragrant. Add sugar and tamarind water to loosen the paste. Fry another minute or two until the oil seeps out the edges. Store the chili in a sterilized container. Leftover can be frozen indefinitely.
Heat about 2 tbsp of oil in a pan and, when hot, add the dried anchovies. Fry until barely crisp and fish them out, leaving the oil in the pan. Set fish aside on a piece of kitchen towel. The hot oil clinging to the anchovies should continue to crisp them up.
Pour the uncooked rice into the same pan with oil and stir to coat. I do this to clean the pan and add fragrance to the rice but you can skip it if you wish. Place the oil-coated rice into the rice cooker. Add the water, coconut milk, salt and the herbs. Cook as usual and serve with the garnish.
About Venny Ng
Venny Ng is a financial analyst who loves cooking. She is currently living in Switzerland.