Homemade: Sambal Oelek (and a Chili Paste Comparison)

sambal oelek
Chilies pounded in a mortar; a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of salt; homemade sambal oelek is ready

If you’ve bought Sriracha sauce at the Asian market (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you’ve probably noticed two other bottled chili sauces parked right by it—sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce. All three are made by the same company, Huy Fong, and sport lids of the same shade of grassy green.

So what’s the difference, you might ask? First of all, the ingredients differ slightly. Here are the ingredient lists according to the labels on the bottles:

Sriracha sauce: chilies, sugar, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar

Chili garlic sauce: chilies, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar

Sambal oelek: chilies, salt, distilled vinegar

Try sampling the condiments side by side, you’ll taste the finer nuances of each. And while you could use them interchangeably, I reserve each sauce/paste for a different purpose.

Mellow and sweet, Sriracha sauce is often used as a condiment for soups (what would Vietnamese pho lovers do without Sriracha?!), fried noodles, even hamburgers, and pizzas. In fact, its popularity knows no bounds as trendy restaurants invent novel ways to incorporate the vermillion-colored sauce into mainstream dishes. Some concoctions I’ve come across: Sriracha mixed into mayo for an Asian-style aioli, or in a Bloody Mary.

Chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek are used more for cooking. Chili garlic sauce, with its garlicky flavor, is perfect for stir fries and to make mabo dofu. I also use it in a dipping sauce with soy sauce and vinegar for dumplings. The combination of heat and tang in sambal oelek is well-suited for tuna salad, and as a shortcut ingredient to make beef rendang (or any other spicy Indonesian dish for that matter).

My heart, however, belongs to sambal oelek. Of course, since we both come from the same Indonesian stock. And while I do have a Huy Fong bottle sitting in my fridge, I also enjoy making it fresh the traditional way—hand-ground in a basalt stone mortar or ulek (oelek is the old Dutch spelling) with a pestle (ulekan). It’s so simple, I make just enough for one meal.

There are so many other sambals in Indonesian cuisine: sambal terasi, sambal badjak, sambal kecap, etc., and I’m planning on a sambal series over the next few months. Plus, I’ll also show you how a little tweaking to the original sambal oelek recipe can give you Hainanese chicken rice chili and steamboat chili!

For now, here’s my method for making sambal oelek.


Sambal Oelek

sambal oelek

The basic sambal oelek “recipe” calls for just chilies and salt. If you like it spicy, add some bird or Thai chilies. The Indonesian name for the long chilies used in sambals is cabe keriting or curly chili, but any long chili like Fresno or Serrano (or whatever chilies are waiting to be picked in your garden before the first frost appears) will do. I found some nice, fat unnamed long chilies about 8-inches long at my market. A small bowl of the finished sauce plate-side next to some fried chicken or fresh-cut vegetables will have you dip-dipping away!

2, 8-inch long red chilies (about 2.5 ounces)
Large pinch of salt, and more to taste
Juice from 1 key lime (about 2 teaspoons), or 1-2 teaspoons vinegar
Sugar to taste (optional)

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: enough for 2 people to enjoy at one meal

Remove the stems and slice the chilies lengthwise. Remove as much membrane and seeds as you like (these are what give chilies heat, and as you can tell from the photos I’m a wuss).

Chop the chilies up and place in the mortar with a generous pinch of salt. Grind the chilies with the pestle using a twisting motion until pulpy.

Chopped chilies (top); ground chilies (bottom)

Add the lime juice and more salt and sugar to taste. Serve immediately.

Note: If you make the sambal in bulk (I strongly advise a food processor!), it will keep in a sterilized jar in the fridge for a few weeks.


sambal oelek
All done! Here's my mess ...

What’s your favorite way to use sambal oelek?


For those dying for a Sriracha sauce recipe, here are 2 great sites to visit:

Viet World Kitchen: Andrea has recipes for fresh and fermented versions
Leite’s Culinaria: A recipe from “The Sriracha Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, 2011) by Randy Clemen

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Macaroni and Cheese My Way

You caught me. I used leftover holiday ham instead of Spam to make this dish.

People either recoil in terror or express intrigue when I tell them about one of my favorite comfort foods—Spam mac and cheese. Yes, you read right: Spam–aka luncheon meat–that processed and prepackaged meat product (I daren’t call it real meat!) in a can. Growing up in Asia, Spam was called luncheon meat and branded Ma Ling (which I recently discovered was banned in Singapore in 2007 for containing nitrofurans, an antibiotic for pigs. Whoa. Click here and here for two interesting articles).

Technically, the dish is called macaroni schoetel, a Dutch-inspired dish that has become a staple in the Indonesian culinary landscape. For some people, pronouncing “schoetel” (scott-tle) might be more of a challenge than the thought of eating Spam. If you’re a stickler for details, I admit it’s more of a macaroni casserole because unlike American mac and cheeses, it contains egg, and the minimal amount of cheese may offend the mac and cheese connoisseur. Regardless, it’s a hit with children (and some adults :)).

If you really don’t like Spam, alternatives abound in sausage, ham, chicken or corned beef.

Macaroni Schoetel


I’ve had versions of this dish that are baked until the egg binds the macaroni together firmly so that it can be cut into slices and eaten as finger food—great for picnics or as a party appetizer. I like mine still mushy and served on a plate. Use 6 eggs and bake for an hour if you prefer firmer macaroni schoetel. Of course, the peas are my doing to make it seem “healthier.”

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes (30 minutes active)
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

Half pound shell or farfalle pasta (or any small pasta shape of your choice)
¼ cup (1/2 stick), plus 1 tablespoon butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup flour
2 1/2 cups milk
8 ounces luncheon meat, ham, or cooked chicken, cubed
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
3 cups shredded Gouda or Edam cheese (about 8 ounces)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg
4 eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Cook the pasta according to package directions with 1 tablespoon of butter. Drain and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and stir and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Sprinkle in the flour and stir until pasty and light golden. Pour in the milk, and stir until the sauce thickens and starts to bubble, about 2 minutes.

Add the cooked pasta, luncheon meat, green peas and cheese, and mix well. Stir in the sugar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary, keeping in mind that the cheese is already salty.

Turn off the heat and stir in the eggs until well blended.

Transfer the pasta into a greased 2-½ quart dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or until bubbling and golden brown on top.

A Tribute to Oma


My paternal grandmother, whom I called “Oma”

As my cookbook launched this past October 1st, I came to the sudden realization that I knew more about the grandmothers I interviewed than my own. And in a reversal of scenarios, one friend whose mom I featured in the book told me, “You know more about my mom than I do!”

It wasn’t deliberate, honest. My maternal grandma “Popo” died before I knew her and my paternal grandma “Oma” live an hour plane ride away in Jakarta. And unfortunately, my parents hardly ever told us stories about our grandparents.

I thought this was a travesty along the same lines of eating Indonesian fried chicken without sambel (chili paste)–a huge faux pas in my book , at least! I decided to set things straight.

A few weeks ago, my birthday came and went and so did my late grandmother’s whose special day was the day after mine. My parents called me to wish me a happy birthday and I spent the next hour on the phone with my dad asking him to tell me about his mother, my Oma (Dutch for grandma).

Embarrassingly, my first question was, “What was her name?” I’d always called her Oma. The answer: Sicilianti Monica Sie.

Born in 1913, Oma was the youngest of three girls and a boy. Unfortunately, her brother passed away when he was very young. She was born in Cirebon on the northwest coast of the island of Java and grew up in Jakarta where she trained as a teacher. However, she never taught in a school. Not to say I can blame her, she did have a total of nine children!

In 1937, Oma married my Opa (grandfather), Tan Tjo Tjay. Opa worked for the postal service when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony and they moved several times and lived in many towns including Cirebon, Jakarta, Magelang and Bandung. My oldest aunt, tante Tres, my dad, Rudy, and my uncle, oom Theo, came in quick succession.

The family was living in Jakarta when the Japanese invaded Indonesia in 1942 during WWII. And so began a time of extreme hardship.

From 1943 to 1945, Opa was interned on suspicion of spying because he was a Dutch civil servant. To survive, Oma sold cakes and cookies at the market and fed her children whatever she could pull together. (Dad used to tell us he ate cockroaches and rats to survive but to this day, I still don’t know whether to believe him.)

Most heart-wrenching of all is the story Dad told me of the time Oma lugged him, 3, and tante Tres, 4, to visit Opa in jail. The three of them had to take the train from Jakarta to Bandung and each and every car was so chockfull of people it was impossible to enter through the doors.

In desperation, Oma shoved her two children into the train through the window. Just as she did that, the train started chugging away along the tracks. I can’t imagine what was going through her heart and her head right at that moment. A cocktail of love, panic and adrenalin must have been coursing through her veins as she started running alongside the train and thankfully managed to squeeze herself into the entryway of a train car. After frantically searching, she finally reunited with her children.

That wasn’t the end of the episode. After the harrowing train experience, Dad related how Oma had to bribe just about every official in the prison hierarchy to gain access to Opa.


This picture was taken right after my younger sister, Mo was born in 1979. Oma is sitting at the right end of the couch next to me. Mom is cradling Mo in her arms.  The young lady on my mom’s left is her sister tante Wawa and the crazy boy with the blurry face is my brother, Mars.

When the Japanese occupation ended, the family eventually settled in Bandung, a city three hours (depending on traffic) southeast of Jakarta, where life more or less went back to normal.

Oma was a stay-at-home mom and had helped from her own mother.

With a brood of nine, the family always ate at home. Dad accompanied Oma to the market and carried her shopping, while in the kitchen his brother Theo would help with the cooking, which is why “Oom Theo got fatter than the rest of us,” I quote Dad.

Meals comprised a lot of soups, one of the easiest dishes to cook for such a big clan: oxtail soup,  sayur asem (sour vegetable soup), and sayur asin (salted vegetable soup).

Fish like mackerel was seasoned with tamarind and deep fried, and for a special treat, gurame (a white flat fish similar to barramundi) was deep fried with taucheo (yellow bean paste). Every so often, Oma would buy 10 or so crabs and cook them with ginger and oyster sauce. Plus, she’d stir fry vegetables like chayote, long beans or kangkung (water spinach).

There was always a meat or fish dish, one veggie dish and the requisite bottle of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) which Dad is still addicted to till this day.

With nine siblings around the table, if you weren’t quick you didn’t get the choice pieces of meat.

Opa was a pork lover so there was often pig offal on the dining table as well which none of the children liked—the head, nose and cheeks, trotters, etc. No one ever fought over those dishes!

For the last four years of her life, Oma was bedridden. She had a hereditary condition that caused her vertebrae to be crooked—she was literally bent double the last time I saw her standing. She also went blind probably from undiagnosed diabetes. I think it’s sad that she chose to stay in Indonesia despite her two sons being in Singapore where there was better health care.

Oma died in 1985.

That was as much as I got out of Dad that one morning but I hope to learn more about this special woman who brought him up. In fact, I’d like to try and recreate some of the simple dishes Oma used to make.

That’s the least I can do in her memory.

Celebrating with Yellow Rice (Nasi Tumpeng)

A few weeks ago, I was in Seattle to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.

cutting the tumpeng

That’s my mom and dad. The peak of the nasi tumpeng is sliced off first, in the same tradition as slicing into a birthday cake (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

My visit wasn’t a surprise–I was there on “business”–but the party was!

Preparing for the party of about 80 guests was quite an orchestration. My mom single-handedly prepared all the food, starting two weeks beforehand, and my sis, Mo, sent out Evites and tasked everyone with setup, decorations and Costco runs for the day.

Everything was meticulously planned. To avoid any suspicion, we had a family dinner on Friday night to celebrate dad’s birthday, and Mo asked dad to come over on Saturday to help her put together her patio table.  I was very concerned that someone was going to give it all away, and ironically, I was the one who almost did! A gentle shoulder squeeze from my mom was all that stood between my big mouth and a ruined surprise.

The Saturday morning of the party dawned bright and sunny (not always a given during Seattle summers). It was a bustle of activity as we set up in the cabana next to the swimming pool in Mo’s condo.  I even managed to get my 7-year-old nephew to help with unmolding and arranging the desserts.

The amazing spread of food comprised: Sate Manis (sweet pork satay), Beef Rendang (curried beef), Ayam Goreng (fried chicken), Tahu-Tempeh (sauteed tofu and tempeh), Sayur Asem (sour vegetable soup), Krupuk (shrimp, fish and tapioca crackers) and seven different types of dessert including Longan/lychee Jelly, Kue Salat (sticky rice topped with coconut custard), and Durian Roll (a roulade filled with durian cream—yum!). And let’s not forget the keg of root beer, my dad’s favorite soda!

However, the highlight of the meal was the Nasi Tumpeng, turmeric-tinged yellow rice piled high into a cone and served with an assortment of dishes.


Shredded egg omelet, cucumbers, sambal teri (anchovies with chilies and peanuts), telor belado (twice cooked egg with sweet chili sambal), tahu-tempeh, are just some of the foods that usually surround the base of nasi tumpeng (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

Mom went all out with the decorations, fashioning bell peppers, chilies, and onions into flowers, and arranging eggplant, cabbage and lettuce leaves around the gorgeous display.

At around 5 p.m., Mo lured dad down to the pool saying she needed to get dropcloths to protect her carpet.

From inside the cabana, I watched as my dad sauntered closer to the cabana, pausing to peer at the potted plants and flowers surrounding the pool.


Mom leading a surprised dad into the cabana to meet his friends (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

As he walked through the door, everyone shouted in unison, “Surprise!”  And from the look on his face–eyes wide, eyebrows raised, jaw dropped–he didn’t suspect a thing!

Fragrant Yellow Celebration Rice (Nasi Kuning)


(Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

The foundation of nasi tumpeng is, of course, fragrant yellow rice. In Indonesia, this dish is traditionally served to celebrate a special occasion, be it a birthday, a marriage or even success at work. The height of the cone symbolizes the greatness of Allah or God, and the food at the base of the cone symbolizes nature’s abundance. The yellow tinge in the rice symbolizes wealth and high morals. When I was growing up, nasi tumpeng was served alongside roast beef at Christmas dinner, fitting perfectly into our holiday celebrations, a time of thanksgiving and hope for a prosperous New Year. But you can enjoy in place of white rice any time!

Time: 45 minutes plus frying shallots
Makes: 6 to 8 servings as a as part of a multicourse family-style meal

2½ teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1½ cups coconut milk
1 plump stalk lemongrass, bruised and tied into a knot
1 salam leaf
4 kaffir lime leaves, crumpled
2½ cups long-grain rice
2 cups water

1 small red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into coins
Fried shallots

Dissolve the turmeric and salt in the warm water.

In a large pot, bring the coconut milk, lemongrass, salam leaf, and kaffir lime leaves to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the turmeric water. Tip the rice into the pot and add the water. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally.

Simmer uncovered until all the liquid has just been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender but not mushy; the rice grains should still be separated. If the rice is still hard, make a well in the center of the pot, add a little water, and cook a few more minutes. Halfway through the estimated cooking time, gently fluff the rice with a fork or chopsticks.

Let the rice cool. Fish out the lemongrass, salam leaf, and lime leaves and discard.

On a large serving platter, mound the rice into the shape of an upturned cone. Garnish with red pepper strips, cucumber slices, and fried shallots.

Rediscovering Luffa Squash


Luffa squash lying elegantly on my dining table

Our taste buds are the most effective memory keepers of all.

Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my favorite Hmong farmer, Moua, about the assortment of Asian vegetables he grows and sells. He drew out an elongated green specimen which could have come straight out of a Star Trek episode. The curved gourd has a matt green skin with ridges running down the length of it. “It’s called sing gua,” explained Moua. “Stir fry with pork, garlic and lemongrass .”

Moua and Mary

Moua and his daughter Mary at the Pacific Grove Certified Farmers’ Market

I happily took one home with me to experiment.

Once in the comfort of my own kitchen, I looked up sing gua in Sara Deseran’s “Asian Vegetables.” This odd vegetable is also called luffa squash, Chinese okra and sponge gourd (for good reason!).


If anyone tells you you don’t have to peel the skin, don’t believe them.

To peel the luffa squash, I trimmed the ends and cut it in half. Standing the flat sides of each half on the cutting board, I peeled the bitter skin completely to reveal the pale green flesh. I then cut it crosswise into 1-inch coins.


Peeled and sliced luffa, kinda looks like honeydew melon!

While a luffa has seeds, they are edible and don’t need to be removed. And like a sponge, it will soak up whatever flavors you pair it with.

Anyway I stir fried the luffa as instructed by Moua and sat down to eat. I popped a spoonful of luffa with rice into my mouth and started chewing. As I chomped down on its supple texture, savoring its sweet flavor paired with fish sauce and lemongrass, visions of a childhood dish comprising slices of a soft green vegetable, carrots and cellophane noodles played themselves out in front of my eyes in a wave of nostalgia.

OMG, I know this vegetable!

A quick phone call to my mum revealed this vegetable to be oyong in Indonesian and she furnished me with a recipe.

Funny enough, this childhood dish has been on my radar for the last couple of weeks since I’ve been compiling a list of my favorite recipes for a new book proposal.

The world works in mysterious ways. The stars align. Serendipitous things happen.

Stir-fried Luffa Squash with Pork and Carrots

stir-fried luffa

Luffa is delicious in stir-fries, soaking up the flavors of whatever seasoning or meat/ seafood (it tastes great with squid and shrimp) you pair it with. Try it in curries or soups as well.Some people like it raw too! Ever adventurous, I picked up some burgundy carrots at the farmers’ market which stained the cellophane noodles a purplish hue. Heh.


A burgundy carrot is beautiful to behold but watch out–the color bleeds!

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 2 servings over rice as a main course

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
I clove garlic, chopped
1 Asian shallot, sliced
4 ounces pork shoulder or loin, sliced into bite-sized pieces (or chopped raw shrimp)
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced thinly on the diagonal
2 ounces cellophane noodles, soaked in warm water and drained
1 small luffa squash (8 ounces)
Water or stock
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Salt and white pepper

In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until runny and ripply. Stir in the garlic and shallot and fry until fragrant, about 30 to 45 seconds.

Add the carrot and toss for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the pork and toss until the meat loses its blush, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Add the luffa and mix well. Add the cellophane noodles followed by 2/3 cup water. Add fish sauce, salt and pepper to taste and mix well.

Cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. The dish is done when the cellophane noodles are completely transparent, the carrots are soft, and the liquid has reduced to about 1/4 cup, 2 to 3 minutes. The dish should be rather soupy but use your discretion and reduce the liquid further or add more water.

Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

All Pickled Out

Last Labor Day weekend, 60,000 people converged on beautiful San Francisco to attend Slow Food Nation. I was one of them, except I was working behind the scenes at the Taste Pavilions, at of all places, the pickles and chutney booth!

The 50,000 square foot pier at Fort Mason was transformed into 15 distinct pavilions where tasters could sample regional food products from across the U.S. hand-picked by ‘curators’ who are nationally recognized experts on various types of food. The Taste Pavilions represented Beer, Bread, Charcuterie, Cheese, Chocolate, Coffee, Fish, Honey & Preserves, Ice Cream, Native Foods, Olive Oil, Pickles & Chutney, Spirits, Tea and Wine. I have to say they did a fabulous job, not just with the food but with the décor as well. Some of the Bay Area’s most celebrated architects and artists worked pro-bono to design each booth. (I have pictures but need to figure out how to upload them from my phone! For now, please visit http://slowfoodnation.org/blog/2008/09/02/taste-pavilion-photo-gallery).

While I got to walk the cavernous exhibition space housing the Taste Pavilions and breathe in the foodie-charged atmosphere for about 15 minutes, I spent most of my five-hour shift pinching pickles into little sampler cups. Sandwiched between Gudrun (she writes the blog www.kitchengadgetgirl.com) and DeeAnne (she owns Pig and I Farm), we chatted as we worked, making the time pass by quickly. I did also get to sample some yummy pork rillettes slathered over tasty Acme bread, woodfired pizza with an herby white-sauce base (sorry, I inhaled it so quickly I don’t recall what else was on it), paprika-marinated octopus with spiced chickpeas, pickled sardines, and pickled trout. Oh, and more pickles than I can ever hope to sample in my lifetime: kimchi, curtido (a Salvadorean cabbage and carrot relish steeped with cilantro and jalapenos), lacto-fermented sauerkraut, Sichuan cabbage pickles, beet and red cabbage pickles, and cabbage and fennel pickles (made by Barbara of Picklopolis). Can you tell it was a cabbage-based session?

Just in case you’re curious, it’s a funny story how I got involved, and a perfect example of just how amazing the Internet is at connecting people.

Pickle and chutney curator extraordinaire Michelle Fuerst was surfing the web looking for a small kimchi producer when, lo and behold, she came across my blogpost on kimchi. She emailed me asking if I knew anyone. I didn’t but we became friends and I volunteered to help Michelle out at the event.

On Saturday, I finally got to meet my internet friend in person. She’s just as lovely in real life as in cyberspace. Check her out in this podcast interview. Anyways, I brought along some Indonesian pickles with me which was to be served on Sunday evening with rice, eggplant pickle, lemon sun pickle, and a carrot pickle.

For those who’d like to try it at home, here’s the recipe.

Indonesian Turmeric Spiced Pickles (Acar Kuning)

DSCN1436 by you.

I made about a gallon of this yellow-tinged, flavor-packed, sweet and sour pickle for Sunday’s event but unless you’re feeding a crowd or really, really love acar, who wants to make such a humungous amount? Using a conversion factor (new/old quantity=conversion factor; I learned it during my first culinary arts class at the Monterey Bay Peninsula College!), I calculated this recipe for a smaller, saner batch.

Time: 1 hour plus waiting and steeping time
Makes: about 4 cups

5 pickling (Kirby) cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into julienne pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into julienne pieces
1 teaspoon salt
8 Asian shallots, or 3 small red onions, coarsely chopped
3 candlenuts, crushed
2 cloves garlic
1 plump stalk lemongrass, trimmed and coarsely chopped (or 3 tablespoons thawed frozen ground lemongrass)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar or to taste
2 tablespoons sugar or to taste
Salt to taste
1 cup cauliflower florets
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup chopped red pepper
4 Thai red chilies, chopped, or to taste
2 salam (Indian bay) leaves
Two 1/4-inch slices fresh galangal, smashed

Place the cucumber in a colander and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let it sit over the sink for 30 minutes to remove excess water. Rinse, drain thoroughly, and set aside. Repeat with the carrots.

Place the shallots, candlenuts, garlic, and lemongrass in the work bowl of a food processor and whirl until finely chopped to confetti-sized bits. You don’t want the shallots to be too watery.

Preheat a large wok over medium heat and swirl in the oil until it thins out and starts to shimmer. Scoop the lemongrass paste into the wok and sprinkle with the turmeric. Using a spatula, scrape the bottom of the wok and toss and turn the paste until the shallots turn pale and translucent, there is no trace of raw garlic, and the paste is a few shades darker, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Pour in the water and bring to a boil. Stir in the vinegar, sugar and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired and take off the heat.

When the pickling mixture has completely cooled, add the cucumbers, carrots, and remaining ingredients. Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup more water if there isn’t enough of the pickling mixture to coat the vegetables. Toss to coat and transfer the pickles to an airtight container. Cover and let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.

Fish out the bay leaves and galangal and serve the pickles cold, or warm over fried fish.

Recording recipes … behind the scenes

When I first started working on my cookbook, I really didn’t know what to expect.

I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Grace Young at the 2007 IACP conference in Chicago. The author of two family-based cookbooks, Grace gave me a behind-the-scenes overview of cooking with grandmas and aunties. Be prepared, was her number one advice.

And so I am.


Some tools of the trade

Every time I pay a visit to someone’s kitchen, my bag is packed with the following arsenal:
-Measuring cups
-Measuring spoons
-Notebook and pen
(I decided against a tape recorder though)

As you can imagine, it’s not easy juggling so much gear. I often feel like a character straight out of a Merry Melodies cartoon (though if I had to choose, I’d like to be the smart and feisty Road Runner … beep beep). Yes, it’s been comical–having to stop cooks at every step of the way to measure out the salt (2 teaspoons), the sesame oil (1 tablespoon), or the galangal (1-inch equals how many tablespoons minced??) And it’s not even funny anymore how many times I’ve had to fish packages out of the trash can to note down how many pounds of pork went into the soup.

Don’t forget that in between all this activity I’m taking photos (wait, hold that spatula in mid-air so I can capture your stir-fry motion!), and writing down notes (slice carrot on the diagonal not straight across), and timing (garlic is fragrant, add chicken to wok, start stopwatch now).

Everyone I’ve cooked with has been so very patient and they never fail to humor me. For this, I am very thankful.

Despite the flurry of activity that goes on when I’m out “in the field,” I feel that it’s actually the easiest and most accurate way to record recipes. And I get to taste the–always yummy–results immediately.

That being said, let’s turn to my other route for gathering recipes. Friends and strangers alike have been very generous in sending me their family recipes. Some have been easy-to-follow, requiring minimal tweaks here and there, yet others have been quite amusing. Take this list of ingredients my friend Luwei emailed me for her mom’s bakso goreng (crispy fried meatballs) recipe:

Bakso Goreng

(Luwei’s comments are in parentheses)
– 1kg minced pork
– 0.5kg minced prawn (you can halve the prawns and add 0.25kg fish as well, which is my mom’s friend’s recipe, but my mom sticks with prawn only)
– 2.5oz cornstarch (this is the iffy part–not sure how they figured that out since they don’t measure!)
– 8 eggs (another iffy part–seems like a lot of eggs to me, but my mom seems quite comfortable with that number)
– fish sauce
– salt
– sugar
– optional: green onion and rehydrated dried cuttlefish, diced (for crunch, but I don’t like it, and my mom doesn’t use it)

Recipes like these are priceless :).

No measurements, or iffy measurements–I don’t know which is better. But therein lies the beauty of homecooking: everything’s fluid, a dish is perfect when your taste buds say it is, and ingredients vary according to what’s available in the fridge.

And of course, it’s my job to translate and test recipes to make it easy for even the most novice of cooks to follow. All it takes is patience, patience to add the salt teaspoon by teaspoon, or water 1/4 cup at a time, tasting every step of the way; and a keen eye for observation–hmm … does the mixture look too dry or too mushy?

Et voila, here it is, the bakso goreng recipe after a makeover.

Bakso Goreng or Crispy Fried Meatballs

Bakso goreng is originally a Chinese dish and was modified by Hakka immigrants to Indonesia. Halal versions use chicken or beef instead of pork. Instead of shrimp, try substituting with fish paste. The same mixture can also be used to stuff peppers, eggplant, or tofu, which can then be either steamed or fried. This variant is called Yong Tau Foo in Singapore and Malaysia. Bakso goreng is delicious eaten with rice and a side dish of vegetables for a meal, or as party poppers (appetizers you can easily pop in your mouth 🙂).

Time: 45 minutes
Makes: about 35 meatballs

2 pounds minced pork
1 pound shrimp, peeled and minced
2 eggs
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup green onions cut into thin ‘O’s (about 2 stalks)
2 cups canola oil

In a large bowl, gently mix all ingredients together using your hands. The resulting mixture will be moist and lumps well into balls.

In a 14-inch wok or skillet, heat oil over high heat until it registers 350F on a thermometer. Fry a small piece of pork mixture and taste to make sure it’s salty enough.

Shape pork mixture into golf balls (about one-inch in diameter). Grab a handful of the mixture and squeeze it out of the hole at the top of your fist. Scoop each meatball with an oiled tablespoon and drop it carefully into the oil. Make 6 to 8 meatballs per batch; do not crowd the wok. Deep-fry meatballs until golden brown and crispy, about 4 to 5 minutes.


Lift meatballs from oil using a slotted spoon or wire mesh strainer, and drain on paper towels. Remove any debris from oil and continue frying meatballs in batches until done.

Serve with chili sauce and/or rice.