Tempeh. The super-food.

Tempeh. The super-food.

I’m planning a demonstration of some super simple but tasty ideas for cooking with tempeh. Watch this space!

Seems like you can’t open a lifestyle magazine at the moment without finding an article about gut microbes. You know the sort of thing: we have ten times more bacteria in our bodies than human cells (a highly questionable estimate) and many of these bacteria are essential to the proper functioning of our digestive system. As a result we are bombarded with advertising trying to sell us ‘probiotic’ supplements.

Now I am not a food-faddist. I believe that a balanced diet of predominantly natural foods (by which I mean not processed industrially) is what you need to stay healthy. But I reckon if there’s a chance that some of those natural foods could benefit the gut’s microbiota by providing ‘good’ bacteria, and they’re great to eat, then you have little to lose by eating them!

Most of the foods that contain beneficial bacteria are made through the process of fermentation—the conversion of sugars and starch by microbes into acid or alcohol. Some of the well known products made this way are yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi (Korean), miso (Japanese), and sourdough bread.

But there is one that I’m particularly fond of, because it is so delicious, and it comes from Indonesia! I’m talking about tempeh—apparently the only soya-based product that didn’t originate in China.

Tempeh is made from whole soya beans, bound together by the fermentation process into a cake. It is quite unlike the better-known tofu, which is made from soya milk. Tempeh has a firm texture and a nutty flavour, with a high protein, fibre, and vitamin content. Bit of a super-food really! My husband, Kevan, is luke warm about tofu. He absolutely loves tempeh. It seems to be cropping up more and more in the media, and becoming easier to get hold of. I get mine from my usual Chinese supermarket, but you can find it in health food shops, and as I write I see that Crossways Fruiterers, the charming independent greengrocer in Fernhurst, has just started stocking it.

Tempeh is so versatile. Recently I posted on Instagram a simple, yummy Javanese snack called tempeh mendoan sambal kecap, which makes a wonderful canapé. Thinly sliced tempeh is coated in a spicy batter, fried quickly, then topped with a fresh sambal made with sweet soya sauce.

Yesterday I made a batch of the delicious stir-fry called, in Javanese, oseng-oseng tempeh. Here’s how I make it.

1. Slice a block of tempeh into strips. Fry these for a minute or so in very hot oil—I use sunflower oil; rapeseed oil is an alternative. They should stay soft—don’t overcook them. Remove the tempeh from the oil and set aside to drain.

2. Coarsely chop shallots, garlic, chillies (red and/or green), and galangal, and fry in the same oil with a few lime leaves and bay leaves.

3. Once the vegetables have softened and their fragrance released, add the tempeh and stir together with kecap manis (sweet soya sauce), a little tamarind sauce, and salt and pepper.

4. Finally I might add halved cherry tomatoes for the last few seconds of frying.

5. Put everything onto a serving plate, or a freezer container. We like our food chilli hot, so I top with whole grilled green chillies. Let the dish stand for a few hours for the flavours to develop before warming and serving, or freezing.

All the ingredients can be found in the bigger supermarkets, even the galangal and tamarind sauce. I don’t think it will be long before they start selling tempeh too.

Give it a try. I hope you love it as we do. And who knows, its fermentation genesis might give you a bacterial boost!

And in case you’d like more inspirational ideas on what to do with tempeh I’m planning a cooking demonstration some day soon. Meanwhile let me know if you think it’s a good idea.

Two recipes for the price of one: sambal terasi & sambal terong

Sambal is one of the foundation stones of Indonesian cuisine. It is often referred to in translation as chilli relish—but it is so much more than just a condiment, such as mustard or tomato ketchup. It might be served as a side dish, to accompany a main dish. But it is also often made into a main dish in its own right. I’m going to show you how to make a basic sambal, sambal terasi, and then turn this into a dish that is more of a main dish—sambal terong. ‘Terong’ means ‘aubergine’ in Indonesian. Sambal terasi, as its name implies, is essentially chillies and terasi, or shrimp paste, which I wrote all about in my last blog. I think of this as being the basic sambal. My family in Jakarta call it sambal ulek. But I know that some cooks use this name for an even more basic sambal, which doesn’t even have terasi—it’s just chillies ground with salt.

Ulek-ulek and cobek: pestle and mortar

ulek + cobek 1024

The traditional way of making sambal, as well as grinding the herbs, seeds, nuts and spices in many Indonesian dishes, is with a shallow stone mortar and a stone pestle. The pestle is called an ulek-ulek, from the Javanese for ‘to grind’ — hence the name sambal ulek. You can use a food processor and still get perfectly good results, but I reckon the effort of using a pestle and mortar really connects you with the raw ingredients, and somehow the end result tastes that little bit better!

Unfortunately it’s not easy to find these shallow stone pestle and mortars in the UK, where I live. I use two, both of them brought from Indonesia. I think you can find them in some Chinese supermarkets—if I find a supply I’ll post it on my blog. If you are in the US there is an online operation called Indo Food Store that sell them, together with most the ingredients you’re ever likely to want. Click to go to their website page.

I have seen recipes for sambal that call for the chillies to be boiled first. Personally I don’t do this. I prefer to use them raw. This retains their fresh, vibrant flavour. I also keep the seeds, which some discard in the interests of reducing the heat level. Sambal terong is really just sambal terasi with a couple of extra ingredients. It is still essentially a dish of raw ingredients, with the exception of the shrimp paste, which has been cooked in advance. This recipe is in fact my mother’s. The common way to serve sambal in Indonesia is to put the basic sambal ulek, or sambal terasi, in its own dish on the dining table, together with plates of different vegetables (or even fruits). You take a selection of vegetables, some lightly boiled, some raw, put them on your plate, and eat them together with a liberal quantity of sambal. Simple, but oh so delicious! Well my mum decided one day to serve a couple of the raw vegetables, the aubergines and the long beans, together with the chilli relish ground together on the same dish. The Soekardjo version of sambal terong was born!


Quantities shown are for enough sambal terong for four, served as a side dish, served with a main dish of meat or fish. If we have it at home on its own, just with rice, we would eat this amount between the two of us.

sambal terasi ingredientslime + palm sugar 1024terong, beans, basil 1024

For sambal terasi

  • Red chillies | 6 or 7 (the long, finger-size ones that supermarkets sell; possibly jalapeño, but the variety is rarely specified)
  • Green chillies | 9 or 10 (the small, hot ones; usually called finger chillies—though they’re smaller than anyone’s fingers— or the smaller, hotter bird’s eye); quantity depends on how hot they are, and how hot you want the sambal! You can even leave them out completely.
  • Cooked shrimp paste | 3 tsp (or an equivalent sized chunk if it’s still in solid form)
  • Sea salt flakes | 2 tsp
  • Lime | 1 quarter
  • Palm sugar | 1 tsp

For sambal terong

  • White aubergines (the small, hard, round ones) | 2 or 3
  • Chinese long beans | 3 or 4
  • Fresh basil | 3 or 4 sprigs

Click to jump to notes on ingredients and where to find them


  1. Red and green chillies Cut the stalks off and break them into a food chopper or processor. The green chillies are small enough to be popped in whole. Blitz for a few seconds to break the chillies down to a coarse pulp.
  2. Scrape out the chilli pulp onto a mortar.
  3. Sea salt, terasi Spoon the salt and the terasi onto the mortar, then combine them with the chillies using the pestle, until you get a uniform mixture. This process should take a minute or so. You want the to break the chillies down a bit more, but you’re not looking for a smooth paste.
  4. Lime, palm sugar Squeeze lime juice over the mixture, add the palm sugar, then grind for another 30 seconds or so, to incorporate everything nicely together.

    At this stage you have your basic sambal terasi. You can serve this as a relish to accompany many other dishes, or as an ingredient in recipes that call for red chillies. It will last in a jar with a lid for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

  5. White aubergines, Chinese long beans If you are going to carry on and make sambal terong, roughly chop the aubergines and cut the beans into 2 cm long pieces, and add to the mortar. Lightly smash the vegetables into the chilli mixture. You’re looking to break up the surface of the pieces, rather than reduce them in size.
  6. Basil Pick the leaves off the basil stalks and scatter over the mixture. Then just bruise the leaves with the pestle.
  7. With a table spoon just give the mixture one final stir, making sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed.

If you don’t have a pestle and mortar there’s really no reason you can’t get perfectly good results doing all these steps using a food processor. Just be sure not to reduce everything to a uniform pulp. It needs to be chunky! Be particularly careful when adding the aubergines and beans—just a very quick burst so as not to chop the vegetables too small. And break the basil leaves up by hand and add them to the sambal after you’ve removed it from the processor.


If you are using a mortar you could do worse than putting it straight on the dining table. The dark grey stone surface really sets off the bright red and green mixture —one of the advantages of using one. You can treat the sambal as a very tasty, very healthy light meal, just served with boiled white rice. (Make sure you use good quality, fragrant basmati rice—‘basmati’ in fact means ‘fragrant’ in Hindi. I’m planning to write a blog shortly about rice.)

Or for something more substantial you can serve it as as a side dish with a main dish of meat or fish.

Notes on ingredients

  1. Red and green chillies. I wrote a blog about chillies a while back. It is very difficult to specify the type, since retailers are usually pretty vague about the variety on offer: if you look for ‘red chillies’ on the Tesco website you’ll see that the little packs they sell are the produce of ‘UK, Jersey, Egypt, India, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, the Netherlands, Senegal, Spain, Zimbabwe’—so I guess it’s hardly surprising! The inescapable fact, as I wrote in the blog, is that you just don’t know from one batch of chillies to the next how hot they are going to be—even if you use the same type. Welcome to the world of natural cooking, where things do vary from one session to the next! Just bear in mind the rule: the smaller the hotter.
  2. Shrimp paste (terasi). Covered in depth in my last blog.
  3. Sea salt. For my catering I buy Malvern salt flakes in a big plastic tub. I prefer flakes to crystals, since they are easier to incorporate into dishes that are not cooked.
  4. Lime. My secret weapon. I use lime juice in nearly everything I cook. It seems to add an extra flavour dimension to food, whether savoury or sweet. And it’s good for you—no sugar, no fat, no salt, and packed with vitamin C! The more lime juice you use, the less salt you need.
  5. Palm sugar. The sugar made from a number of members of the palm family, including the Palmyra palm, the sugar palm, and the coconut palm. The abundant sap from these trees is boiled down into a thick syrup, or further into crystallized blocks. Most the big supermarkets now sell it in a granulated form in jars. Unlike the cane and beet sugars we use as a rule in the west, palm sugar has a distinct and delicious nutty, winey flavour.
  6. White aubergines. These are delicious eaten raw. They are hard and crunchy, not at all like the standard purple aubergines which we are more familiar with. They were though probably the first variety known in the west, and make sense of the American name for aubergine: egg plant. For where to buy them, see below “Where to find ingredients”. On Amazon they’re called “fresh Thai round eggplant”. Since this recipe calls for them to remain uncooked I wouldn’t recommend substituting the softer common aubergine.
  7. Chinese long beans; also called yard-long beans, and asparagus beans. They look like big French beans—but they’re not. They are crunchier, with a similar flavour, but stronger. They are in fact more closely related to the mung bean and black-eyed pea. See “Where to find ingredients”—the Asian supermarkets usually have them, and at the time of writing so does Thai Food Online.

Where to find ingredients

It has become so much easier to find Asian ingredients in the UK since I started cooking in this country over 30 years ago. Back then I was always giving my husband long shopping lists for him to get me in London’s Chinatown. He’d struggle home on the train with as many overflowing carrier bags as he could carry, smelling like—well, an Asian supermarket! Now most small towns have a shop selling at least some fresh Asian ingredients, and the big supermarket chains stock an ever-growing selection. You can also buy most things on Amazon. Just bear in mind that the supermarkets and Amazon do tend to use ‘Thai’ as the generic description for any ingredients from South-East Asia, including Indonesia. There is also a website called Thai Food Online that sells most things. Personally I get the majority of my Asian supplies from Sun Hung Chang a wonderful supermarket that has been going for 20 years at the top end of Commercial Road in Portsmouth. There’s are some photos in my last blog. Everything for this sambal recipe can be bought there. For those living near my home town of Haslemere, Surrey there is a newer, smaller, but closer place in Bordon. They don’t have anything like the range of Sun Hung Chang though.

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Terasi: the secret ingredient

Terasi: the secret ingredient

Months—well actually years!—ago I wrote a blog introducing one of the key ingredients of Indonesian cookery: the chilli. I said that I was planning a series on sambal, the range of sauces, relishes, and dishes that chillies are made into. My apologies for the laughable delay to all those who said they were looking forward to it.

How to make a sambal is most definitely in the pipeline—promise! But first, since as well as chillies nearly every sambal includes it also, I think terasi deserves its own little blog. Terasi (the ‘e’ is hardly pronounced, so it sounds like ‘t’rasi’) is another hugely important ingredient in much South-East Asian cuisine. Amongst its many other names are belacan (Malaysia) and kapi (Thailand). I am Javanese, and my Indonesian cooking roots are Javanese. In Java terasi is used in practically everything! It works in much the same way as a stock cube, or MSG, in adding umami to a dish, and magically working in synergy with other flavours to enhance them.

Shrimp drying in sun

Block of raw terasi

So what is it? It doesn’t actually sound (or smell!) very attractive. It’s fermented shrimp paste. Basically small shrimp are harvested, rinsed, and mixed with sea salt, then laid out in the sun for a few days until the shrimp have broken down and become a dark brown pulp. This is drained and pounded into a paste before being compressed into blocks, wrapped, and sold.

Serious foil wrap

Unwrapped after baking

Cooked block & crumbled

Before you can eat it terasi has to be cooked. You can fry or grill or bake a batch of it for adding to dishes that aren’t themselves going to be cooked—like many sambal recipes. My preferred method is to wrap a block with several layers of aluminium foil and bake it for 30 to 45 minutes, at 180º. After it’s cooked the cake becomes friable: you can crumble it into a coarse powder, which makes it easier to spoon out into whatever you’re making. You can keep it almost indefinitely. Mine lives in the fridge, but that’s not strictly necessary, any more than it is with Marmite. What is definitely a good idea is to keep it in an airtight container. It smells a lot stronger than Marmite!

If you are going to add terasi to a fried dish you just add a little of the raw paste to the other spices and flavour ingredients—garlic, chilli, etc—and cook it with them.

Asian supermarket P’mouth

Malaysian belacan (terasi)

Malayasian terasi (belacan)

Blocks & jars of shrimp paste

Shelves-full of shrimp paste


More jars of shrimp paste

Tesco shrimp paste

Sainsbury’s shrimp paste

Waitrose shrimp paste

Where to buy it

I buy a lot of my supplies from a fantastic Asian supermarket in Portsmouth. They sell several different types of raw terasi in blocks. They also sell dozens of different brands of shrimp paste in jars (which is how they tend to be sold in countries other than Indonesia and Malaysia). You can also buy jars of Thai or Filipino shrimp paste in virtually any supermarket these days—though I don’t know how the flavour compares with the more artisanal products. I can tell you that the brands they sell in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose contain just shrimp and salt. So that’s all good! I’ll be honest, I also don’t know whether you can treat these jar products as cooked, and just add them to a raw sambal recipe: there’s no harm in frying however much you need before using it in this way.

Further reading 

For an interesting account of the history and making of terasi I recommend an article by Su-Mei Yu in the University of California journal Gastronomica. Her story is set in modern-day Thailand. The first recorded use of terasi was when  southern Thailand and Java were part of the same Indonesian empire of Srivijaya.

If you have any questions, or are interested to know more about terasi, or sambal, or Indonesian cooking in general, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Selamat makan!

Spring, family gatherings, and Ottolenghi

Spring has arrived early this year. The lovely weather was enjoyed first when we went to the south of France to get things ready for the season in our little house.  I was hoping to get some food ideas, eating out while we were there but, unfortunately, we went too early and there were few good eating places yet open.  We did have to compromise on some and to our delight, found one, quite a gem, run by a young couple who had opened the restaurant only a month earlier.

Back in England, encouraged by our visit to the Mediterranean and the warm weather here, I decided to cook dishes from Ottolenghi’s first book to celebrate our daughter’s 18th birthday for family and godparents.  His cookery books are full of inspirational recipes.

I love the way the dishes are served and put together in abundance which always brings back memories of how my mother used to cater for family gatherings.  My father, being the oldest in the clan in Jakarta (his family mostly live in East Java), hosts Ramadan (Eid-al-Fitr) every year and all the younger relatives pay their respects by visiting him.  Nowadays, it’s not as big an event as it used to be as my mother (who will be 80 years old this year) finds it hard and tiring to cook for up to 100 people who would start arriving from 8am through to 4pm at the earliest.
The ingredients of different dishes would be bought a week before the event and made into sauces and paste, ready to be cooked with chicken, beef or mutton, eggs, vegetables, rice or rice cakes a day or two before. As far as I can remember, no relatives of my parents would miss this occasion to celebrate the Eid together and enjoy my mum’s sensational food.
The dining table would be covered with my mum’s best table cloth and laden with scrumptious food you would see only once a year.  The guests would arrive soon after they finished early prayers.  We, the children and grandchildren, on one hand loved to see everybody, but the thought of  doing the washing up, cleaning and clearing the house after all the guests had left, was one we were not looking forward to (all my parents’ house staff would be on their yearly holiday at this time of the year).  Nobody could disappear and make feeble excuses, to see friends or get something from the shops. (No shop would be open and all friends would be busy with their own family gatherings!)
Nowadays, there are fewer and simpler dishes being served, but the number of visitors keeps going up.  Like the rest of the world, food prices, especially chicken, beef and mutton, are expensive.  My mother, who has the ability to create amazing dishes based on vegetables (agreed, there seems to be more variety of edible plants in Asia), eggs and soya-based produce, would still make the food the highlight of Eid, even though her budget is a fraction of what it was once. She will carry on providing lovely dishes as long as she is able to, as without food, she feels she’s letting down the family tradition.  But I know the truth: she just loves seeing her family and relatives enjoying her food and eventually, once food is consumed,  they are all relaxed and feeling good to have had yet another memorable feast!


Back to Ottolenghi.  The dishes I served for my own gathering were;
a rice dish, Kosheri (page 85), a vegetable dish (page 36), a fish dish (mackerel, page 136) and a turkey dish (page 126).  I’ve decided to write about these dishes, even though they are not my own, because they are lovely, tasty dishes and you wouldn’t feel poor when you come home after buying the ingredients.  I spent around £40 for 2 meals for 15 people in total. My mum would approve!

I would recommend this book to those who like to add to their food repertoire as most of his recipes are simple and easy to follow and ingredients can be substituted with other similar ingredients with still delicious results.

Grilled mackerel with green olive, celery and raisin salsa

Marinated turkey breast with cumin, coriander and white wine

French beans, soya beans, peas and hazelnut in orange dressing

This is my version of the French beans dish:
serves 4 people (with other dishes)

1 bag of extra fine French beans –
1 bag of frozen baby broad beans
1 small bag of frozen garden peas
1 large orange
1 large garlic clove, crushed with some coarse sea salt
100g unskinned hazelnuts
3 tablespoon olive oil

Blanch the French beans for approx 4 minutes, then run under cold water to retain the colour.  Drain them well

Pour boiling hot water over the garden peas and leave for 20 seconds then drain.  Reserve the still hot water and use it to pour over the broad beans.  Leave the beans in the water for 30 seconds then drain.  When slightly cool, peel the outer skin and then mix with the French beans and the peas.

Heat up a small frying pan.  When hot, dry fry the hazelnuts until slightly charred.  When done, put in a small sandwich bag and bash roughly.  Don’t overdo this as we want some whole, some halves and some bits.

Grate the skin of the orange and squeeze the juice straight into the vegetable mixture.  Add and mix the skin and the olive oil.
Before serving, mix in the hazelnut bits.

What’s quick to assemble for the weekend?

It’s that time of the year…we all feel it, the over indulgence of the festive holiday finally hit us! I’ve agreed to do some sort of ‘diet’ with Aisha.  Nothing too strenuous and we’re doing it till the end of February.  If and when we’ve achieved our goals, we’d do it longer.  The goals are; for me, an October wedding (yes, a long way away) and for Aisha, her celebration of end of school, going to Ayia Napa in July.

The most difficult thing for me is to give up my one-only-teaspoon of unrefined sugar in my tea.  I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember.  Okay, it was more like 3 tablespoons in my teenage years.  Reduced to 2 when we moved to Europe and it’s been 1 for the last 20 years.  SO, not easy…I just don’t drink tea as much now. Cold, fridge cold water is better and easy to get.  By the way, I know people don’t like drinking water, especially water coming out of the kitchen tap and supposed to be cold.  It is never cold enough to be pleasantly drinkable, more tepid than cold, unless you let the water running for a good couple of minutes and wasting gallons just for 1 glass of water.  I’d put it in the fridge in a glass bottle and probably squeeze a few drop of lemon/lime juice prior to drinking it.  Very refreshing.

Back to the diet….drop the sugar and no second helping for any meals.  The first helping is served in a small bowl or a smaller than normal size dinner plate.  Again, how long have we been eating out of our normal size plate? Donkeys! It’s just nice to have all the food there in your plate as traditionally in Indonesia,  all different dishes, which could be up to 6 items, are served together, in the centre of the table. You either have 2 or 3 to start with then you add more when the first choice is depleting and when you see that the other people who are sitting around the table are hungrier than you….grab quickly! I’m one of 7 children and we are all keen eaters as our mother and grandmother (deceased) are great cooks.  Seriously brilliant. I don’t have people fighting after my food here, but husband and daughter are keen eaters and would eat any food put in front of them.

Found this packet in the kitchen larder, a good cupboard ingredient to have.  With a little help from some garlic, oven-baked cherry tomatoes, some chillies and parsley and of course good quality e/virgin olive oil….ready in 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, had a packet of courgettes in the fridge, sliced them and put them on the griddle for a quick striping.  That was it for supper.  Kept us satisfied till breakfast time the next day.

This is the end result of the lentil salad.

Seriously, this is a week since my last sugared tea and I still find the taste of drinking tea a let down.  Whereas eating less carbs (obvious ones, like rice pasta and noodles) has been easier than expected.  Not a big fan of potatoes, so no problem there.  Is honey in tea acceptable?

Prepared this salad (not very wintery, I know) for lunch yesterday.  I quite fancied something fresh and crunchy.  I had all ingredients in the fridge which was handy. The amazing thing is…it’s easier to find hard stoned-like mango and papaya in the supermarkets than ripened ones.  Unfortunately, you do need the palm sugar in the dressing.  Well, the amount put in the whole dish is divided for 4 to 6 people, so it’s nothing per portion…

(Mango, papaya (pawpaw), mint, chillies and chopped peanuts in palm dressing salad)

Below is the best way to get rid of the peanuts skin, once they are cooked. They are just monkey peanuts without the shell and used widely in Indonesian dishes.  I made a batch and kept them in a jar.  As you can see in the picture, I used them in my salad for contrast in texture.