"The first time I watched the sky bleed tones of orange and red as the sun set over the sea in my father's hometown of Kupang, Timor, it struck me as a moment of coming home – but to a place I had never been before," writes Australia-based chef and author Lara Lee in her cookbook, "Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen."
Evocative and energizing, Lee's book is a story of discovery and rediscovery, over and over, as she explores Indonesia in search of the food of her childhood and her father's youth. The flavors – spicy, salty, sweet and sour – conjure memories of the dishes her grandmother, who she called Popo, made for the family.
"I remember watching Popo grinding the ingredients for her creamy peanut sauce to a paste before she generously drizzled it over vegetables and boiled eggs for her gado-gado. ... I was mesmerized by the steam that rose from her pot. ... Back then I was too young to learn her recipes, but the flavors of Popo's food left an impression," Lee writes.
Those tastes became a vernacular for understanding and categorizing regional Indonesian foodways – and the food her father cooked for the family, adapted with local ingredients when necessary.
As the name of the book suggests, both coconut – in many forms – and sambal are central to the Indonesian table. Sambal, a category of condiments centered on chiles, is a key seasoning element. Sambals are more than sauces though; they're used as spice pastes, rubs, marinades and dips. When served alongside a dish, you're meant to eat a small amount with each bite. Lee includes nearly a dozen sambal formulas in her book, including fiery sambal ulek, sweet caramelized shallot sambal bawang, tomato sambal and sambal kacang, or peanut sauce. "For an Indonesian, no meal is complete without sambal," Lee writes.
"Coconut & Sambal" is as much a cookbook and guide to traditional and modern Indonesian dishes as it is a memoir of a diasporic childhood, filled with the expansiveness that comes from living and merging two worlds into one. She writes of her family's mixed mealtimes, which were just as likely to feature Australian sausage rolls, made by her mother, as satay, grilled by her father.
This recipe, for sate daging, or soy and ginger satay, was a signature dish of her father who was jokingly known as "the barbecue king." Savory with garlic, ginger and soy sauce, the marinade works just as well on chicken, pork, tempeh and mushrooms. Lee says that whenever she eats it, especially when it's served with her grandmother's peanut sambal, she is "transported to Indonesia" with every bite.
Sate Daging (Soy and Ginger Beef Satay)
Adapted from "Coconut & Sambal: Recipes From my Indonesian Kitchen" by Lara Lee (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Active time: 25 minutes | Total time: 55 minutes, plus marinating and pickling time
2 to 3 servings
For this sate, cubes of rib-eye, marinated in soy, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, get threaded onto skewers and quickly grilled. (If you don't eat meat, you can use the marinade on mushrooms or tempeh instead; it also works well with chicken or pork.) Sambal kacang, a spicy Indonesian peanut sauce fragrant with red chiles and garlic, provides an excellent counterpart, as does a small side of rice and a dish of slightly spicy, slightly sweet acar ketimun, a quickly pickled cucumber salad (see related recipe). Lara Lee, author of "Coconut & Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen" from which this recipe is adapted, recommends that if you use meat, you marinate it overnight for the best flavor.
You'll need 6 skewers. If using wooden skewers, you will need to soak them in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling.
Make ahead: The meat may be marinated overnight. The sambal may be made up to 1 week in advance.
Storage notes: Leftover sate may be refrigerated for up to 4 days. Leftover sambal may be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Where to buy: Light soy sauce, palm sugar, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and tamarind paste may be found at well-stocked grocery stores or online.
For the sate
1/4 cup soy sauce, preferably light
2 tablespoons rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 (2-inch) piece ginger (about 1 ounce), peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon palm sugar or light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 (14- to 16-ounce) rib-eye steak, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch cubes (may substitute the same weight of tempeh, cubed, or 8 to 12 ounces button or cremini mushrooms, halved)
Sunflower oil or another neutral oil, for the grill
Cooked white rice, for serving (optional)
For the acar
6 tablespoons rice vinegar or white wine vinegar, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt
2 Persian cucumbers or 1/3 an English cucumber (about 5 ounces), thinly sliced
2 small shallots, thinly sliced
1 red chile, deseeded and thinly sliced (use half or omit if you prefer less heat)
For the sambal
1 tablespoon sunflower oil or another neutral oil
1 to 2 long red chiles, deseeded and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 cup unsweetened, unsalted smooth peanut butter
4 teaspoons kecap manis , or more to taste (may substitute with 2 teaspoons soy sauce and 2 teaspoons light brown sugar)
2 teaspoons tamarind paste (may substitute with 2 teaspoons lime juice and 2 teaspoons brown sugar)
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, or more to taste
1/4 cup water, plus more as needed
Make the sate: In a large bowl or gallon-size resealable bag, combine the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, sugar and coriander. Add the beef (or other protein or mushrooms) and toss until thoroughly coated. Marinate in the refrigerator for 10 to 45 minutes; if using meat, it may be marinated overnight.
Make the acar: While the beef marinates, in a small bowl, using a fork, stir together the vinegar, sugar and salt. Add the cucumbers, shallots and chile, if using, and toss to combine. Set aside to pickle until ready to serve or refrigerate for up to 1 day.
Make the sambal: In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil. Add the chile and garlic and fry, stirring until softened, 3 to 4 minutes.
In a small food processor, combine the peanut butter, kecap manis, tamarind paste, salt and cooked chiles and garlic. Pulse briefly, then add a splash of water to loosen the sauce and pulse again. Gradually add 1/4 cup of water and continue to pulse until the sauce is pourable. Taste, and season with additional salt or kecap manis, if desired.
Cook the sate: If using a grill, lightly oil the grates with sunflower oil. Preheat the grill to 450 degrees. If using a charcoal grill, heat the coals until they smolder or cook skewers over indirect heat. Use a grill thermometer or the hand method: If you can hold your hand an inch from the grill for no longer than 3 seconds, the grill should be around 450 degrees. If using a grill pan, heat it on high just until it starts to smoke lightly.
Thread 4 or 5 cubes of beef (or other protein or mushrooms) onto 6 skewers (see headnote). Cook the skewers for 1 to 2 minutes on each side for medium, or until lightly charred and done to your liking. Drizzle some of the sambal over the skewers and serve with the acar, additional sambal, and rice on the side, if desired.
Nutrition information for sate per serving (based on 3: 2 skewers per person) | Calories: 254; Total Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 99 mg; Sodium: 661 mg; Carbohydrates: 6 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 31 g.
Nutrition information for sambal per serving (based on 3: about 2 tablespoons per person) | Calories: 193; Total Fat: 15 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 295 mg; Carbohydrates: 11 g; Dietary Fiber: 1.5 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 5 g.
Nutrition information for acar is not available as ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.