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How to Shop, Cook, and Eat Like an Indonesian

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A skillful waiter at a Padang restaurant

I tried a variety of different foods in Indonesia. In a country as big, there are of course different cuisines, but all of them (at least those that I tasted!) have one thing in common: they’re spicy. If a dish isn’t spicy, something spicy is added, usually one of the various kinds of sambal (chili paste) that exist in Indonesia. With many snacks, fresh chilies are served, which people simply eat whole. I tried and, believe me, it didn’t go well. I’m sharing a fairly mild recipe with you—but feel free to spice it up with some extra chilies or sambal if you like!

There’s a second thing I noticed about Indonesian food: it’s always a lot. «Let’s have a small, light meal,» is a sentence that probably no Indonesian has ever said. The basis of all meals is rice. With it, not one, but various meat, fish, and vegetable dishes are served. A very popular kind of food is Padang cuisine. Padang is a city in the province West Sumatra, but Padang restaurants can be found all over Indonesia. In these restaurants, waiters will literally pile up lots and lots of dishes on your table. Once you’ve finished you’re meal, you pay only for those dishes that you’ve chosen to eat.

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A Padang lunch table

On my last day in Indonesia, Service Engineer Rizky invited me and some colleagues from Metrohm Indonesia to his home to cook a traditional Indonesian dish: pepes ikan, fish in banana leaves. Before cooking, we met at a market near his home to buy all the necessary ingredients.

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Rizky, Gilang, and a market vendor who was very eager to have his photo taken

Recipe for Pepes Ikan: Fish in Banana Leaves

As Indonesian habit demands, we had several different dishes for lunch. I helped prepare one of them, and I’d like to share the recipe with you: pepes ikan. Pepes ikan is spiced fish steamed in banana leaves. Here’s what you’ll need:

For the spice paste:

  • 5 candlenuts
  • 5 cm piece of fresh turmeric
  • 3 shallots
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • 2 sticks lemongrass, chopped
  • 1 tsp white peppercorns
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp tamarind soaked in 60 ml of water
  • ½ tsp salt

Fry the candlenuts in coconut oil. Drain and set aside. Lightly toast the turmeric over an open flame (you can probably do this in the oven as well, or you can skip this step). Chop into small pieces and set aside. Add fried candlenuts, toasted turmeric, and all other ingredients except salt to your blender and blend until you get a uniform paste.

Fry the paste with some coconut oil while adding the salt.

For the fish:

  • 500–750 g whole fish (e.g., red snapper or tilapia), cleaned and gutted
  • 1 ripe tomato, chopped
  • 3 red chilies, chopped
  • 2 sticks lemongrass, cut in half and crushed using mortar
  • 1 handful of lemon basil leaves
  • Banana leaves cut into rectangles large enough to wrap one whole fish

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Make some slits on both sides of the fish. Spread the fish evenly with the spice paste.

Place the fish on the banana leaf and cover it with lemon basil, crushed lemongrass, chilies, and tomato. Turn the fish around and repeat on the other side. Then wrap the fish in the banana leaf and close it at the sides using tooth picks. Steam the fish for about 30 minutes.

When it’s ready, enjoy with rice and sambal (obviously …)!

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