Friday, September 3, 2010

Flavors speak louder than words

When I first moved to Holland, there was a restaurant right down the street from where I lived and whenever I walked by, it was always packed with people who seemed to be having a good time and enjoying a pretty good meal. The aromas traveling outside the restaurant made me dizzy and a little weak in my knees. They were so inviting, so appetizing. They were titillating smells that made me crave whatever kind of food was being served inside.

Whenever I sneaked a peek to see what people were eating, I was looking at rice dishes with lots of vegetables and small meat skewers with dipping sauces, and knew it was some kind of Asian food. I didn't know exactly what though. I was intrigued and so was S but we never made the decision to have dinner there. Not until last summer when we finally had enough of speculating.

As I called to make a reservation, it dawned on me that I still didn't know what kind of food they were serving. So, I asked the surprised lady who picked up the phone and her answer was, "Indonesian". Indonesian? I had no idea what Indonesian food was. Was it super spicy? Was it like Indian food, anything like Chinese food, or was it like Thai? I had no clue but I was kind of excited.

And rightly so. The dishes we got served up were amazing and... hot. A collection of different small dishes that comprised of lots of rice with various sambals (spice relishes), hot curry sauces, marinated meat on skewers called satay alongside an array of hot and sweet dipping sauces, all kinds of vegetables, pickled or stir-fried, lumpia (pastries much like spring rolls), perfectly cooked fish dishes and the most delicious fruit desserts. I was experiencing a revelation and I couldn't believe what I was missing out on all this time. I absolutely loved those new flavors and couldn't wait to discover more things about Indonesian cuisine.

Indonesian cuisine greatly varies by region and combines many different influences from India, the Middle East, Europe and China. The Portuguese, the Spanish and later the Dutch who colonized Indonesia and traded the spices found there (like nutmeg and clove), brought with them from home ingredients like string beans and cauliflower as well as peanuts, chilies, tomatoes and corn from the New World (the Americas). All these ingredients were incorporated beautifully into the already rich diet of the Indonesians which of course included the almighty rice.

Rice is Indonesia's most important staple food and is usually fried, boiled or steamed. Fish and shellfish are of course eaten regularly since they can be found in abundance—Indonesia is a collection of about 18,000 islands. Red meat is eaten sparingly and mostly in the form of a curry or marinated and cooked on skewers (satay). Tofu and tempeh (a pressed soybean cake) are widely used in salads and soups, and coconut milk comprises and all-around thickening agent for sauces and curries and an essential cooking ingredient. Vegetables, herbs and spices are paramount in Indonesian cooking, with tamarind (a seed pod from the tamarind tree that has a sweet and sour flavor), lemongrass (looks like fat spring onions but has woodier stalks and has a sweet, subtle lemon flavor. It can be eaten whole, sliced or pounded to a paste), coriander, turmeric, cumin and galangal (a root from the ginger family) being among the most widely used. Relishes and sauces like sambal oelek (a hot chili-based sauce) and kecap or ketjap manis (sweet soy sauce) accompany most dishes in Indonesian cuisine.

Indonesian cuisine is known for its deliberate combination of contrasting flavors and textures. This salad here is just that. A combination of perfectly balanced and flavorful ingredients with different textures. I love this salad. It's exotic, spicy, healthy, fragrant, hot, crispy and refreshing. It is all you need from a salad and then some.

All the vegetables, with their distinct, deliciously fresh and unique flavors make the salad extremely nutritious, fulfilling and a wonderful treat for vegetarians. The spice dressing adds heat and acidity as well as sweetness and earthiness to the dish. It is powerful and luscious and marries impeccably well with the crunchiness of the colorful vegetables. Serve this salad for lunch or a light supper, or serve it alongside an Indonesian main dish such as beef satay.

As I was draining the spinach, this little creature showed up out of nowhere... It's times like this that I wish I had a better camera

The first time I prepared this salad and put it down on the table, S glanced at it, then looked at me and said, "It is too raw for me". I replied, "It's a salad. They usually are raw". He was of course referring to the green beans and snow peas. Granted, the snow peas were raw but the green beans were blanched. That's hardly raw. And then he took the first bite. I knew he was instantly converted as I saw a smile appearing across his face. The next sound he made was a simple "mmmmm". Need I say more?

Indonesian Hot & Fresh Vegetable Salad with Spice Dressing
Adapted from The Essential Asian Cookbook

Those of you who are apprehensive about spicy or Asian flavors, please don't be. This salad may be hot and spicy but it is unbelievably fresh and delicious. In case you can't handle the heat of the chilies use less amount.

If you can't find brown rice vinegar (in Asian food stores) you can substitute with balsamic vinegar.
If you can't find snow peas (also known as mangetout) you can substitute with sugar snap peas.
You can either use fresh baby corn or canned baby corn in brine.
You can substitute peanut oil for corn or sunflower oil but the flavor of the dressing will be less authentic since peanut oil has a unique flavor.

This salad is totally adjustable to whatever bright-colored, crisp, fresh vegetables you have available. You don't have to restrict yourselves to the ones used here. Use carrots, cabbage, raw courgettes (zucchinis), cucumber, yellow or orange peppers and vegetables that you can blanch. Use your imagination and your own personal taste.

I would like to introduce a new page on my blog which is the "How-to and Tips" page. You can find a link here and at the right column of the main page. I have added some tips on how to handle chilies and I will be adding more tips along the way. I hope you'll find them helpful!

Yield: 4 main-course or 6 salad-course servings


for spice dressing
2 Tbsp peanut oil
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 ¼ tsp fresh ginger, grated
½ long red hot chili or 1 small Thai red chili, thinly sliced (read this)
2 Tbsp desiccated coconut
1 Tbsp brown rice vinegar
80 ml (1/3 cup) hot water
1 Tbsp kecap manis* (optional)

for salad
300 g green beans
100 g snow peas (mangetout)
150 g baby spinach leaves
1 medium-sized red onion (80-90 g)
1 large red bell pepper (about 100 g)
100 g bean sprouts
7-8 baby corns
3 green onions, white and pale green parts only


Make the spice dressing
Heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer add the garlic, ginger, chili and desiccated coconut. Lower heat to medium and stir-fry (fry by continuously stirring the ingredients around the pan) for 1 minute. Add the vinegar and water and simmer for 1 ½ minutes. Remove pan from the heat and add the kecap manis (if using). Allow the dressing to cool in the pan before adding it to the salad.

Prepare the salad

First of all you need to rinse all the vegetables thoroughly under running water.

Top-and-tail (cut off the ends of) the green beans and then cut them into 7-8 cm lengths. Boil 200 ml of water in a large pot over high heat. Once the water starts to boil, add the green beans and blanch them for 1 ½ minute. Drain them and let them cool.

Top-and-tail (cut off the ends of) the snow peas.

You can remove the stems from the baby spinach leaves if you wish, and if you're using larger spinach leaves you can slice them thinly.

Cut the red onion in half lengthwise and thinly slice it.

Cut the red bell pepper into thin strips.

Cut the green onions in an angle into 5 cm lengths.

Assemble the salad and serve
Combine all the vegetables in a large serving bowl and add the spice dressing on top. Toss until combined and serve.

*You can find kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) in any Asian food store. If you can't find it and you want to add some extra sweetness to the dressing, you can add 1 tsp of dark brown sugar when you add the vinegar and water to the saucepan.


  1. Great that you discovered such great food. Your photos are STUNNING - that lady bug is awesome!

  2. Your photos are SO pretty! And I love Indonesian food :)


  3. Yum, I can't wait to try this recipe, it looks very tempting with the flavors and colors.

  4. 18000 islands! amazing! never knew there were that many! I am fascinated by Indonesian food, especially because I know nothing about it and I love spices and fresh fish and rice dishes; sounds all wonderful. Thanks for introducing me to this cuisine.

  5. So glad you finally discovered these wonderful flavours, my kinda food, yum.

  6. Belinda — that ladybug is sooo cute

    Sues — thanks

    Sunitha — do try it

    taste of beirut — you're very welcome

    expat life — it has become my kind of food as well ;)

  7. Such a great vegetarian dish! Love the flavours!

  8. Once again you bring us something to take us out of our comfort zone and into a NEW comfort zone! Thank you! It makes me wonder of our "ketchup" or "catsup" is a descendant of the Indonesian "kecap" or "ketjap manis." I had always been told it morphed from an Indian chutney but perhaps it was Indonesian?

  9. I am so jealous of folks with the time and expertise to take great pix. yours are always top notch. cheers!

  10. Ellie — thank you!

    David — I've actually read somewhere that ketjap may be the origin of the word ketchup, I'm not sure though. We need a linguist's help :)

    High Plains — thanks!

  11. This looks wonderful. I'm definitely going to try it. I've been craving something like this and we have the worst Asian food near my house. I never order it until I'm in Montreal. But thankfully, you gave me a great recipe to try!

  12. Hmmm, first I have to scout out an Asian grocery store here in Rome. I know there must be one here. After a year here I am actually starting to crave Thai and other flavors. Thanks for reminding (and inspiring) me!!

  13. Wonderful post! When I lived in Holland many years ago, the Indonesian Rijstafel was my favorite dining treat! So fun to share with a group!

    Because it is so vastly different from basic Dutch cooking, I think it is especially embraced in Holland for its contrasting vibrant colors and flavors.

  14. The dish is called 'Gado Gado', also popular in Malaysia, where I hail from. An interesting fact, the word 'gado/gaduh' means fight in Malay/Indonesian. A fight in a bowl? *wink*