Lara Lee and her new cookbook, ‘Coconut and Sambal’
Over the month of October we’ve been celebrating all things cooking and food with our annual Kino Eats Cookbook Month. We’ve featured authors showing off their favourite recipes, equipment that they can’t live without and the people who inspire them.
Lara Lee is a London-based, Indonesian and Australian chef and cookbook author and her new book, Coconut and Sambal is a Kino Favourite!
What are some of your favourite recipes from the book?
My favourite savoury dish is beef rendang, which is a caramelised beef dish famous in Padang, West Sumatra. This was the first dish I ever cooked with my mentor, the Indonesian food writer Sri Owen who was born in the area where rendang originates. The rendang begins in a large pot filled with coconut milk, chunks of stewing beef and a fragrant spice paste that includes chillies, galangal, garlic, shallots and turmeric, along with aromatics like lime leaf and lemongrass. It simmers on a low heat until the beef has softened, the sauce is thickened and the oil from the coconut milk has split and risen to the top of the rendang. The heat is turned up, and the coconut oil browns and caramelises the beef until all that is left is a darkened and powerfully flavourful sauce that has absorbed all the luscious flavours of the spice paste, a heavenly dish to eat.
My favourite sweet dish is my pandan and coconut cake, inspired by my grandmother who would often make a similar cake for me when I was little. My version is filled with desiccated coconut and coconut milk, producing a light crumb, herbaceous flavour and luminous green hue from the pandan leaves. It is a real celebration of my grandmother and her love for cakes.
What are some pieces of kitchen equipment that are essential for you?
There are two ingredients I find incredibly useful for cooking recipes from my Indonesian cookbook Coconut & Sambal – the first is a cobek and ulekan and the second is a food processor!
Indonesians grind their spice pastes in a stone mortar and pestle known as an ulekan (pestle) and cobek (bowl). It can crush the hardest of ingredients, from lemongrass to shredded coconut and galangal, breaking down the cells within the food to release pungent aromas (spice heaven for the nose!). This is why so many traditional cooks prefer a cobek and ulekan over a food processor – the ulekan crushes the aromatic compounds in ingredients whereas food processors very finely shred them, resulting in a deeper level of flavour wherever an ulekan is involved. That said, I confess to using my food processor more to save time and I still find the final result mind-blowingly delicious. If you are cooking for 4 or more people or making a large quantity of sambal or a spice paste, I would always opt for the food processor or you may spend a long time trying to grind every ingredient by hand.
Who are the people who inspire you?
My Timorese grandmother was widowed at the age of 36, and ran a small bakery in Kupang, Timor to support her family. I carry her love and passion for good food with me to this day.
Sri Owen has been a culinary mentor, passing down her extensive knowledge of Indonesian cuisine to me and acting as a guide as I researched Indonesian food and its culture.
Fuchsia Dunlop has been a supporter of mine since the early days of my cookbook when it was still in its proposal stage. I admire her work deeply and the way in which she honours tradition and food culture. She has spent the last two decades researching, writing and celebrating Chinese cuisine, and I am in awe of her.
Jeremy Pang, a Chinese cookery author and owner of the School of Wok, inspired me to change careers. I did a culinary course at his school many years ago, and felt encouraged to make a career out of food. Jeremy’s passion and enthusiasm is infectious, his food is delicious and he remains a good friend.
What are some of your favourite cookbooks?
Indonesian Regional Food & Cookery by Sri Owen
A pioneer in celebrating what Indonesian cuisine should be known for – the diversity of its regional cooking. This book inspired me to research and discover my own connection to Indonesian food.
Chin Chin: The Book by Benjamin Cooper
This restaurant founded in Melbourne conjurs up my favourite modern Australian takes on Southeast Asian cuisine and a recipe book I turn to time and time again for punchy, memorable dishes that I adore.
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Beautifully written with equally delicious recipes and travel photography, this book is a favourite of mine and transports me to the heart of Jerusalem, a place I have visited. I love all of its details, even down to the texture of its cover.
Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop
Approachable, authentic and delicious – this book is a celebration of fresh simplicity – highlighting the joy of cooking both vegetables as well as meat. It is Chinese home cooking at its finest and exquisitely written.
Greatest Hits by Katherine Sabbath
One of the greatest cake bakers of our time, this Australian baker brings “extravaganza” to the kitchen with her original neon bakes which I find a source of constant inspiration. Not only are her cakes mindblowing – but it’s the only pop-up cookbook I have ever seen!
Thanks so much Lara for telling us about some of your favourites!
You can pick up Lara Lee’s Coconut and Sambal in store and online.