Thursday, 31 March 2016

10 Things I Learnt Cooking Indonesian Food with an Indonesian Expat - Plus a Bonus Culture Lesson

I have an Indonesian friend who I have watched in envy over the years as she whips up enough chicken sate to cater for 30 people without so much as a hint of panic. Every time I have opened a shop bought nasi mix packet I've seen the disapproving look of my friend in my mind's eye. I can hear her tutting in my head.

So at the start of 2016 I vowed to try new things, learn new skills. In addition to knitting I wanted to try my hand at crochet (so far that's a disaster - crochet is something I can't seem to get to grips with). And I wanted to learn how to cook authentic Indonesian food - without a packet mix in sight.

And this was the month! I showed up at 1.30 at my friend's house one Saturday afternoon. Six (yes six!) hours later eight of us sat down to eat - and one of us was dead on her feet.....

However, I am now able to make kiss-ass nasi, chicken sate with pindasaus, and loempias (spring rolls) using some ingredients I had never heard of (like kemiri nuts) and other ingredients I'd seen in the supermarket but never knew what to do with them (like laos).

During the course of the afternoon I didn't just learn how to cook popular Indonesian dishes, but I also learned some fascinating food related things about Indonesian life and culture.

For example, I learnt that my friend had never actually cooked for herself until she moved to the Netherlands (she's also a lovepat). Growing up in Indonesia, her mother cooked for the family (including cutting off bamboo direct at the source to take home to cook) and when she left home to study and then work she found she didn't actually need to cook; the street food was so accessible, so cheap, with such an abundance of variety, and available at all hours of the day. If she wanted nasi at 3am (as you so...) it wasn't a problem to find it close by.

I also learnt that when it comes to funerals in Indonesia it's the neighbourhood that does the catering - working together to provide the food for the wake, as well as taking food to the bereaved for a period after the death. Now that's a sense of community!

So back to the food. Here's what I learnt from my Indonesian cooking lesson:
  1. Indonesian food is about the spices. It's about flavour. Which is quite possibly about as big a contrast as you can get from Dutch cooking which is simple and homely.
  2. Indonesian food relies a lot on garlic.
  3. Indonesian cooking is about the marinating.
  4. Preparing Indonesian food is time intensive. I mean reaaaallly time intensive if it's done properly.
  5. You can get RSI threading chicken onto sate sticks.
  6. Sambal is not a part of traditional Indonesian cooking. My friend pointed out that once you put sambal in your food the only thing you taste is sambal - and remember Indonesian food is about the taste.
  7. Instead of sambal, Indonesians eat a raw green chilli pepper with their meal. My husband had one with his food and informed me, (and I quote) "It was bloody hot."
  8. Not all ketjap is equal. My friend swears by the sweeter variety - which tastes not a million miles away from dark treacle to me.
  9. Making Indonesian food from scratch tastes soooooooo much better than anything you can achieve using a packet mix.
  10. Authentic Indonesian cooking is indescribbaly delicious. We cooked the best sate I have had since coming to the Netherlands and the tastiest nasi I have eaten in fifteen years here.
Since my 'lesson' I made loempias on my own. I made a big batch with the aim of putting some in the freezer for another day - but my family devoured the lot......

Expats often make friends with others in the expat community - and there's so much we can learn from each other. In fact, the same applies to local friends too. Arrange a cooking lesson with one of your friends - not only will you learn how to prepare an authentic dish from a different country, you'll be culturally wiser too! 


  1. Thanks for sharing this :-) It makes me want to go to my Indian neighbour and get a proper cooking lesson!

    1. Do it!! Really!! That would be a fabulous lesson 😃

  2. I like it! I'm Indonesian, and you wrote this article perfectly.

    1. Thank you - it's good to know that she does know what she's talking about 😆

  3. Something similar happened to me when I asked a friend to show me how to make tamales. I did not know I was getting myself into a two day process! I love that you shared this experience...inspiring to see you open yourself to new things!