Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Indonesian Pantry

If you're not familiar with Indonesian herbs and spices there were a lot of unfamiliar terms in that last post. There may have unfamiliar terms even if you do know Indonesian cooking; there are a lot of languages in Indonesia and these ingredients are used in southeast Asia too so I know of at least a couple names for each. In this post I'll give a basic introduction to everything I used along with one common characteristic Indonesian ingredient that didn't make it into these two dishes. I believe you can get everything I mention here at Lucky Oriental Mart at 8356 Bird Road. That's right across from Tropical Chinese restaurant, one of the few good places for dim sum in Miami.

Kemiri nuts, a.k.a. Candle nuts
This is a large oily nut similar in scent to macadamias (which can be substituted if you can find them raw and unsalted). They're common in curries. They're poisonous when raw and I've never seen a recipe where they're the primary flavor in a dish so I can't actually say what they taste like.

Salam leaves, a.k.a. Indian Bay leaves, a.k.a. Curry leaves
There's room for a fair bit of confusion here as I've seen salam leaves labeled as Indian bay and as curry leaves and I've seen casia leaves labelled the same way. Or possibly I've seen casia leaves labelled as salam leaves. Casia can be substituted so grab whatever you find on the shelf. Salam leaves smell a somewhat like black tea with lemon. They are also mainly used as grace notes in complex dishes. I've just now learned that I'm supposed to have been soaking these before using them. Huh.

Laos, a.k.a. Galangal
I'm not actually certain of this as the descriptions in a couple of cookbooks I have don't exactly match and the proprietors of the Indonesian grocery in Manhattan I used to go were actually Thai so they weren't certain either. I haven't shopped for these at Lucky yet so I'll have to take a look to see what they've got. Galagal, at least, is the dried slices of a root related to ginger with a similar but somewhat more floral flavor. Laos is definitely the dried slices of a root of some sort. (That cool pop-art background is my raw meat cutting board, by the way.)

Tamarind, a.k.a. Thai fruit paste
You've probably seen tamarind soda around and the fresh pods in Miami markets. In Indonesian cooking it's more commonly in the form of an intensely sweet and sour concentrated paste. As in the two recipes I made, it is disolved in at least an equal amount of water and then strained if your sauce doesn't already have lumps of a half dozen different things floating in it.

Shrimp paste a.k.a. shrimp sauce
You can find two sorts of shrimp sauces in Oriental markets: a foul-smelling fermented paste and a shrimp-chili-salt mixture. While the latter has its uses (and is commonly used in Filipino cooking), you want the former. It's rather unpleasant by itself (and you'll want to keep it tightly sealed and the bottle in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. But a quarter teaspoon brings out a lot of flavors in a recipe. It's kind of like adding a little soy sauce to a mushroom risotto to bring out the mushrooms' mushroominess.

Jeruk Purut, a.k.a. Dried citrus peel
This is the dried peel of the citron, a close relative of the lemon. It tastes of lemon and jasmine.

Finally, we've got the two common Indonesian condiments:
Kecap Manis
This is a thick sweet soy sauce also used as an ingredient. It goes well with barbeque and most coconut milk based sauces.

'Sambal' is the Indonesian word for 'mixture' so it turns up a fair bit in recipes. It is also used for a typical hot pepper sauce that also includes salt, garlic and vinegar. Vietnamese chili garlic sauce is just about the same thing. You want the thick sort with the chili seeds that you spoon out of bowls at Vietnamese restaurants, not the bright orange stuff in the squeeze bottle. (Sorry, I couldn't get a good picture of my bottle.)

I think that covers it. If any of you decide to give Indonesian cooking a try do please let me know. Or if you know that I've made some mistakes here, do please let me know that, too.

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