The Indonesian Table

Image of The Indonesian Table
Release Date: 
April 12, 2023
Phaidon Press

“if you’re already intrigued by Indonesian food traditions or looking to learn a new and unfamiliar style of cooking, The Indonesian Table is an excellent introduction.”

When you think of the food of Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, pork is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet The Indonesian Table by Petty Pandean-Elliott features recipes like tinorangsak, a pork stew made fragrant with lemongrass, nutmeg and cloves; and brenebon, a Dutch-influenced stew of pork and beans also flavored with some of the legendary products of Indonesia’s “Spice Islands.”

These and other dishes in the book are drawn from the cuisine of Manado, the author’s home city on the island of Sulawesi, where most of the population is Christian. This is just one example of how Pandean-Elliott showcases the diversity of her home country’s food by drawing on her personal experiences, including her childhood in Manado and Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, and her later adult life working as a chef in the UK.

Intended as an accessible entryway for home cooks who are unfamiliar with Indonesian food, or at least have never tried making it themselves, the book provides an overview of Indonesia’s rich and complex cuisines, with chapters explaining different regional food variations, eating customs, and cooking techniques.

A glossary explains typical ingredients, and a chapter called “The Essentials” contains recipes for the building blocks of more complex dishes, like homemade coconut milk, pandan extract, and various types of sambal (chili sauce). A recipe for homemade kecap manis (a syrupy-sweet soy sauce infused with spices) stands out as a particularly useful hack for cooks lacking access to the store-bought version.

The recipes and index tend to favor English descriptive names over the original name of a dish: the famous mixed salad gado-gado is referred to as such in the text, but the header on the recipe calls it “mixed salad with spicy and tangy peanut sauce.” This means that if you’re looking for a specific dish by its Indonesian name, it may take a bit of extra searching to find it, but such labeling can be helpful if you’re a complete beginner to Indonesian food or looking for a dish based on its composition and ingredients.

Pandean-Elliott’s goal in presenting Indonesian food is not to strive for complete authenticity, but to “preserve the great traditions of classic recipes while exploring exciting new possibilities.” She places her own distinctive imprint on the dishes she includes, and many recipes in this book are, by the author’s own admission, modified from their traditional form. Usually, these modifications take the form of substitutions for less-readily available ingredients, like hibiscus to add red color to a drink instead of Indonesian sappan bark; in Pandean-Elliott’s words, her “approach is practically minded so that Indonesian recipes may be re-created sustainably, with ease and in support of local economies.” And modification doesn’t necessarily mean simplification: some of the included recipes are quite labor-intensive, such as kue lapis legit, an elaborate 12-layered spice cake made with 22 egg yolks.

Other recipes are Pandean-Elliott’s original creations inspired by the food traditions of her upbringing. For example, since satay (meat skewers) are not typically part of the cuisine of Manado, in a chapter on the satays of different regions, Pandean-Elliott presents an invented Manadonese-inspired pork satay with rica-rica, a sambal (chili relish) from her hometown. It’s Pandean-Elliott’s way of reminding you how different the basic flavors and ingredients can be from one region of Indonesia to the next, and she is sure to indicate the geographic origin of each of the 150 recipes featured in the book, with those that are not traditional labeled as “modern recipes.”

The practice of including the origin of each recipe, even if its origin is Pandean-Elliott’s own innovation, helps to drive home one of the book’s main goals: to present and celebrate the extraordinary diversity of culinary traditions across Indonesia. A country of over 270 million people speaking more than 700 local languages can’t really be said to have just one cuisine, and Pandean-Elliott goes into detail about some of the major influences that have shaped Indonesian food into what it is toda, in between sharing how to actually make the food in a practical and accessible manner.

Experts in preparing Indonesian cuisine probably won’t get much use from this book, but if you’re already intrigued by Indonesian food traditions or looking to learn a new and unfamiliar style of cooking, The Indonesian Table is an excellent introduction.