I’m a peanut sauce convert. There I said it.
It’s true, I never liked peanut sauce.
It probably has to do with the fact that my mom always served peanut sauce with boiled vegetables, i.e. the popular Indonesian dish gado- gado. C’mon, do boiled vegetables sound appetizing to you? I didn’t think so. To my 8-year-old self, gado gado’s only saving grace was the crispy shrimp crackers (krupuk) crushed and scattered atop this mound of rubbery greens.
In the U.S., however, it seems people don’t have such prejudices and just about everyone is enamored with peanut sauce. This fact is, of course, reflected on the menus of Southeast Asian restaurants all across the country. Without fail, you’ll find Swimming Rama (the Thai version of gado gado) on page 1 or 2, and if you look a little further down you’ll find the ubiquitous satay (grilled skewered meat) accompanied by its faithful companion–peanut dipping sauce.
Heck, even my husband adores peanut sauce!
Thankfully, I have seen the light in recent years. My peanut sauce awakening came in the form of a soba noodle salad tossed with a peanut dressing singing of ginger and rice vinegar. This was when I decided I could like peanut sauce after all. A quick call to my mom and a few days later I was making peanut sauce from scratch.
Many peanut sauce recipes start with peanut butter as a shortcut. Not for me. In fact, I’m so dead serious about making it from scratch I pass on the food processor and grind the peanuts using pure muscle power instead. (Ok, ok, so our food processor is in storage).
Indonesian cuisine has a dizzying array of peanut sauces, each with subtle nuances. Each region has its own version and a different dish to go with it.
By tweaking the basic recipe below, you can make a sweet and sour sauce for a dish called asinan comprising salad leaves, eggs, tofu, cucumbers, and cabbage tossed with the sauce. Just add dried shrimp (dry-fried in a wok) and enough sugar and vinegar for the right balance of sweet and sour.
Or mix in sweet cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste, vinegar and petis udang (black shrimp sauce), for tahu telor, a tofu omelet of sorts. I asked my mom how much garlic to add and she told me, “Supaya wangi bau bawang putih,” until it is fragrant with the smell of garlic. I love how poetic that sounds!
You could add any of the above ingredients to flavor your peanut sauce regardless of what you want to eat it with.
As a healthy veggie-eating adult, I usually toss the basic peanut sauce with a medley of vegetables like green beans, cabbage, and beansprouts (yes, they’re all boiled), and top it with fried tofu, potatoes, and/or hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes, I’ll rebel and use fresh vegetables like Romaine lettuce and cucumbers. Or I’ll mix it in with vermicelli rice noodles and tofu.
A light drizzle of kecap manis, plus the mandatory shrimp crackers, and lunch is ready.
The raw shelled peanuts I buy at the Asian market usually come with their skins on, but don’t worry, the skins aren’t noticeable once they’re all ground up. The 12 oz bag makes 2 cups of ground peanuts but since I like to make my peanut sauce in small batches, I only use 1 cup of ground peanuts at a time (half the total amount). I’ll fry the entire bag of peanuts at one go, grind them up and refrigerate the remaining cup. If you prefer to make the sauce all at once, just double the amount of water and increase the seasonings judiciously.
Makes: about 1 cup sauce
Time: 30 minutes
1/4 cup oil (or just enough to coat the peanuts)
1 (12oz) package raw peanuts (about 2 ¼ cups)
2 to 3 kaffir lime leaves
Sliver of shrimp paste (terasi), toasted (optional)
1 tablespoon seedless wet tamarind, or lime juice
3 tablespoons Indonesian palm sugar or packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chili paste like sambal oelek(or to taste)
Pour the oil into a wok or large skillet. Heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the peanuts and stir-fry them until the skins turn a darker shade of reddish brown and the insides turn golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes. Toss them continuously so they cook evenly and don’t burn.
When the peanuts are done, scoop them up with a slotted spoon and leave to cool on a plate lined with paper towels. Remove any burnt peanuts, they will taste bitter.
When the peanuts are cool enough to handle, grind them until fine like sand, in a food processor or pulverize them with a mortar and pestle like I did, in which case, grinding them till the texture of coarse sand will do. Otherwise your arm might fall off!
In a small pot, combine 1-1/2 cups water, the lime leaves, shrimp paste, tamarind, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, breaking up the shrimp paste and tamarind pulp. Inhale the intense fragrance of the lime leaves!
Using a strainer or slotted spoon, remove the leaves and any remaining tamarind pulp. Add 1 cup ground peanuts and bring to a boil. Save the remaining 1 cup for later. Simmer until thick and creamy like gravy, stirring often so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the sambal oelek. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Serve the peanut sauce with vegetables, over soba noodles, or as a dipping sauce with grilled meats like satay. Garnish with fried shallots, fried shrimp crackers, and kecap manis.
Pat’s note: The sauce will keep for up to a week in the fridge. To reheat, add a little water if it’s too thick, and warm on the stove or in the microwave.