Indonesian herbs and spices explained

In her cookbook, in addition to the history of Indonesian cuisine in the Netherlands, Beb Vuyk has also included a chapter with the most important Indonesian spices and other ‘unknown’ ingredients listed and explained. On this page you will find all the ingredients that Beb Vuyk discusses in her book.

If I come across new exotic herbs or products, I will of course add them to this page, so that it becomes a nice work of reference.

List with Indonesian herbs and spices

Asem = tamarind

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is the compressed flesh of the ripe fruit of the tamarind (tamarindue Indica). It is used, among other things, to tenderize meat and poultry.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 30.

The taste of tamarind could be described as sweet-sour. Candies are also made from it. Asem is a perfect substitute for vinegar. It makes meat tender and Beb also says in her book that it takes away the ‘pungent smell’ of fish if you rub it with asem paste.

I like to buy asem in a jar. Then everything has already been filtered. Fresh tamarind is also fine, but you will have to do some prep work. The contents of such a bean should be soaked in a few tablespoons of water. Then you can easily remove the seeds and fibers and use the rest for your dish.

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Bihoen (noodles)

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Noodles made from flour or rice. Flour noodles can also contain egg. That gives the noodles a different, creamier taste. Rice noodles can be completely transparent and are also very thin. Rice noodles are also called glass noodles. For example, rice noodles are very tasty in soto ayam or in Vietnamese spring rolls.

There is also sweet potato noodles. This is mainly used in Korean cuisine. Sweet potato noodles are quite firm and need to be cooked for a long time, unlike regular egg noodles.

Laksa (so-oen) also mentions Beb often in her book. The description in her book is: “transparent Chinese vermicelli”. Still, I have eaten a lot of laksa that was not transparent. I’ll do some more research on it.

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Jeruk purut (kaffir lime leaf/ lemon lime leaf)

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The leaf of Citrus hystrix, a type of lemon with small warty fruits. Both the fruit and the leaves are used to add flavor to certain dishes. Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch kookboek, page.

You may be familiar with this herb because it is widely used in Thai cuisine and is called makrut. The citrus fruit is also called kaffir lime. However, Kaffir is a racist word. Want to know more? Check out this link from the NY Times.

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Jahe = ginger

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(Zingiber officinale), the wrestling stick of the ginger plant. Used as a condiment in many dishes, both Indonesian and Chinese.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek page 31.

Jahe is ginger. You can use it in powder form or fresh. Beb works a lot with powdered herbs in her book because at the time the book came out (1973) there weren’t much fresh herbs and spices available in Holland. You can absolutely replace the powders with fresh ones in Beb’s recipes. I don’t think powdered herbs are inferior. They sometimes taste slightly different and that can add a lot to the specifically Eurasian flavor of her dishes.

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Jinten = Cumin

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(Cuminum Cyminum), is available both as seed and in ground form in bottles and bags […] Unground cumin must be pounded before use in Indonesian cuisine.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 31.

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Dendeng = thinly sliced pieces of meat

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is made from thinly sliced pieces of meat, lightly salted and rubbed with saltpeter. […] Fried it is eaten as a dish with rice, but cut into small pieces it is also added to a dish as a flavoring agent.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 31.

Dendeng is a meat dish, but is also in the list of Beb’s herbs because it can also be used as such. Below is my version of dendeng blado. It is a wonderfully tasty dish.

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Ebi = dried shrimp

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They are soaked and added to various dishes, but also mashed with the seasoning. Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 31.

I get Ebi dried in a container at an Asian store. I like Ebi much better than fresh shrimp. I often use them in nasi goreng, but you can also make a great sambal with ebi, for example.

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Tepung hun kwe / hun kwe four

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is a fine and fragrant flour, which is used for making puddings and biscuits. It is made from katjang hidjau. From Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 31.

Tepung hun kwe is great. You can make delicious desserts from it, such as tjendol dawet. It is the flour of mung beans and mung beans are the beans from which you grow bean sprouts. You can also make porridge from mung beans. The famous bubur kacang hijau.

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Gula Jawa (Javanese Sugar)

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In addition to the juice of the sugar cane, it is also prepared from the sap from the cobs of many palm species such as the corn palm and the coconut. Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek page 31.

Gula Jawa is indispensable in Indonesian cuisine. It means sugar from the island Jawa. In Beb’s recipes, gula is often used in bumbu’s, sambals and of course desserts. I like to buy round slices of gula jawa and not loose Javanese sugar. The slices look like candy and are so full of flavor that everything tastes better. I add good quality gula jawa to my klepon or wajik, for example.

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Kacang Hijau = mung beans

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(Phaseolus radiatus), dried peas. Bean sprouts are made of it. The peas are also used during the preparation of both soup and porridge. Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, Page 32.

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Click here for great mung bean soup. Also Hun-Kwee flour is made of mung beans and is used in many desserts, like cendol!

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Klapper = coconut

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is the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos Nucifera). The white flesh of the ripe fruit is used to make oil in Indonesia. The grated pulp mixed with water is squeezed out to produce a liquid, santen, which is used as milk or cream in Indonesian cuisine. Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch kookboek, page 32.

Coconut milk is a basic ingredient in Indonesian cuisine. Most curries require coconut and even some sambals. I buy coconut milk in a can or in a block of hard santen. 1 block of hard santen is equal to 1 liter of coconut milk. Beb even says that she makes 12 dl of coconut milk from it. If you want to make milk from your block of hard santen, dissolve the block in boiling water.

Read carefully what is written on a pack of coconut milk when you buy it at the store. Sometimes it says coconut cream. That is much thicker coconut milk, almost as thick as porridge. That’s delicious for some dishes, but not for others. Coconut cream is fantastic as an extra on a bubur hitam ketan, for example, but is often too greasy for nasi kuning. If you accidentally bought coconut cream, dilute it with just some water.

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Keluak

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is the nut of the Pangium Edule. There is no Dutch name for it. It is a seasoning with a very dominant taste, which is used in certain meat dishes, including rawon. Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 33.

I buy keluak from the freezer at an Asian store. The nut has already been cracked (because it is super thick) and the contents have been placed in bags. Keluk is poisonous, but a special fermentation process makes the contents edible. The contents smell bitter, but the taste is not. It reminds me a bit of tamarind, but with more of an earthy flavor to it. It’s delicious.

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Kemangi = lemon basil

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is the leaf of Ocimum Basilicum/Citratum. Used in certain dishes in the same way as celery and parsley. The Indonesian variety is not available here. At least in the summer it can be replaced by its Dutch sister, the garden herb Basil.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 33.

I think it is perfectly possible to get Kemangi in the Netherlands these days. I haven’t come across it yet, but I haven’t looked for it either. I have not yet made a dish with kemangi from Beb’s book. It sounds like a delicious herb. So if I find it, I will definitely make something with it.

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Kemiri = Candle nut

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is the note of Aleurites Moluccana. These are strong-tasting nuts that are finely ground and used in various dishes and are sold peeled in bags. They are always first roasted before use.

Kemiri nuts are very similar to macadamia nuts. They are also very greasy. Kemiri are often used in bumbus and sambals. It makes them nice and thick. It works like a kind of binder, like starch. The nut also gives off a creamy taste; delicious in curries. Below you see a sambal kemiri. The creamy nuts give the whole sambal a tender flavor. This actually allows you to taste the peppers better.

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Kenari = Javanese almonds

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The notes of the Canarium Commune (Java Almond). They are used for various dishes in eastern Indonesia. They can also be eaten raw like almonds.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 34.

I haven’t found them at the store yet, but I haven’t specifically looked for them. Beb does indeed prescribe Kenari in some of her recipes. Soon I will try one.

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Kencur

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the rhizome of Kaempferia Galanga. Available in ground form in bottles and sachets. Kencur has a strongly dominant flavor and is added in small quantities to certain dishes in combination with other herbs. Be careful with the dosage!!

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch kookboek, page 33.

Beb is absolutely right, of course, because kencur quickly becomes dominant. If the recipe says ‘pinch point’, really listen to it!

I really love kencur. The smell and taste make my dishes extremely Asian. It almost smells like perfume. If you smell kencur, you will understand why an Asian shops smells like it does. Kencur is easily available in powder form at the grocery store and because you often only need a little bit of it, powder is very practical. Still, I recently had the fresh version and that was great too. The taste with the powder form does not differ much. Kencur is delicious in this sambal, for example: sambal goang kencur.

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Kecap

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Indonesian soya made from soya beans, to which various herbs, including anise, have been added. You can choose from three types: sweet, salty and semi-salty. The latter type is used in most dishes.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesian Kookboek, page 34.

Sweet kecap is often used in Indonesian cuisine: kecap manis. When Beb talks about kecap in her book, she always means the sweet one. When she writes soy sauce, she means salty kecap. Kecap is made from fermented soybeans. There are many types of soy sauce and they also vary in quality. Just like wine, tea or coffee, kecap can be of super quality for which you have to pay a lot.

For my kecap manis, I use kecap from ABC. I like that the best and it is the sweetest I know. For salty soy sauce, I love a medium salty version. The Japanese well-known Kikkoman has a lighter version (green cap). But at the store I also like to go for the Lee Kum Kee brand.

Smoor with beef soy sauce - kecap manis - classic recipe


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Ketumbar

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(Coriandrum Sativum), the Dutch name is koriander. Available both as seed and in powder form. In my recipes I use the ground form a lot. Ketumbar is used in combination with jinten in many Indonesian dishes. With a few exceptions, the ratio is 1 part jinten to 2 parts ketumbar.

Translated from Beb Vuyk Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 34.

Ketumbar is finely ground coriander seed and has a slightly anise-like taste. Jinten is cumin and has a very warm flavor. The combination is great in curries.

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Kunyit

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the root end of curcuma demstica, called kurkuma or geelwortel in Dutch. It not only gives aroma but also a beautiful yellow color to the dishes.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 34.

In Asian cuisine, kunyit is important and often used. Even sometimes in sweet dishes such as in a bika Ambon. In contrast to saffron, turmeric has quite a strong flavor. The fresh root is available at many the grocery stores in Holland. Make sure you use gloves to cut it, otherwise your fingers will remain yellow for days. The powdered herbs also work well and can be used without much spillage.

Loulou (4 jaar) mixt de kruiden kunyit en laos in de tjobèk.
Loulou (4 years) mixes the spices kunyit (turmeric) en laos (galangal) in de tjobèk.

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Kuping Tikus

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literally mouse ears. A type of dried Chinese mushroom (Auricularia spec. div.), used in Chinese dishes. Soak for some time before use.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 35.

I think mushrooms are delicious. What’s great about mushrooms is that the dried version actually works just as well as the wet one. These mouse ears are also called tree ear mushrooms. I usually buy the dried version, which I then let soak. The same goes for shiitake.

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Kucai

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Chives, also called onion herb, available fresh in summer. Can easily be grown in the open ground or in a flower pot or flower box.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 35.

Chives are often used in Indonesian cuisine, such as in this delicious sambal chives. The crispy chives are fantastic in the hot sambal.

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Krupuk

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There are thirty types of prawn crackers in Indonesia. Here in the Netherlands you can only get three types. The Krupuk Udang, made from a lot of flour and grains; the Krupuk Palembang, made from flour and fish and the Emping belindjoe; made from the belindjoe fruit.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 35.

Who doesn’t know it: prawn crackers. Just take a look at the store. I am completely addicted to tempeh prawn crackers, but I think emping (prawn crackers belindjoe) is the tastiest of all. Emping is made from a type of nut: belindjoe, also called melindjoe. On Wikipedia it is called ‘a nutty seed’.

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Laksa (So-Oen)

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Transparent Chinese vermicelli. I can get this in any supermarket.

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Laos (Galangal)

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is the rhizome of Alpinia Galanga. The Dutch name is large galanga, but not many people will know that.[…] I use the powdered form in my recipes. Laos is used in almost all sayurs and sambal gorengs and in many other dishes. So don’t buy them in small quantity.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 35.

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Lombok

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the fruit of the Capsicum Annuum or chili pepper.[…] There are red and green lomboks, the latter is less hot and is used in certain dishes

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 35.

You could really write a whole book about peppers. There are many types. I usually use the well-known chili pepper, but if you want it really hot, go for rawit or Madame Jeanette and use gloves if you have to cut a lot. 🙂

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Mie (noodles)

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is a type of Chinese spaghetti, made from wheat or tapioca flour. Used as a raw material, among other things, in bakmie.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 36.

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Pandan

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Beb Vuyk did not mention this wonderful herb separately in her book, but I have of course included it here because pandan leaf is one of the most important herbs in Asia for me.

The taste of pandan, or to be precise the species: Pandanus amaryllifolius, is for me perhaps the most tropical smell and taste that exists. Pandan scent is described as warm notes with vanilla or sweet freshly baked white bread or buttered hot popcorn. It is also known as the ‘Vanilla of Asia’, I read on the English wiki. Vanilla originally comes from Mexico.

I have written a separate piece about pandan, read more here.

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Petai beans

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strong smelling Parkia Speciosa beans, used in sambals goreng and sajoers.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek

This is truly my favorite bean. These stinky beans make every dish something special. You can also use petai beans in sambal or stir-fry them with shrimps and/or beans. I also often make my devilish beef with petai beans. It makes the meat devilishly delicious :-).

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Petis

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Pasta made from fermented shrimp.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 36.

I had not heard of petis before I worked intensively with Beb’s book. But this pasta is cool. It doesn’t taste like trassi at all, but it is a kind of molasses. You could perhaps compare it with marmite, but it does taste differently. It is made from shrimp, salt, sugar, water and flour. These are the few recipes I have already made with petis from Beb’s book.

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Rebung

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bamboo shoots, only available in the Netherlands in cans from Hong Kong. Used in Indonesian and especially Chinese dishes.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 36.

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Salam

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leaf of Eugenia Polyantha, the laurel. The leaf is slightly darker in color and slightly different in taste than the bay leaf that we use in European cuisine. However, it can possibly be replaced with that.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 37.

When I first started cooking from Beb’s book, I thought salam leaves wouldn’t make much of a difference in Indonesian food. The opposite is true. This leaf, which is also called Asian laurel, provides a delicious earthy flavor that tends towards cinnamon.

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Sedep Malem

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the flower of Polianthus Tuberosa, tuberose. Used in dried form (soak beforehand) in Chinese recipes.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 37.

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Sereh

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Andropogon Nardus, citronella grass. Sold in dried form and usually used in combination with salam leaves in many dishes.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 37.

Lemongrass or lemongrass is a fantastic herb. It is often stewed in dishes, but I also love finely chopped lemongrass in a sambal, for example, such as in sambal matah. If you use lemongrass in its entirety in a dish, loosen the hard blade of grass a little by, for example, hitting it briefly.

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Shallots

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Allium Cepa. Small red-purple onion. There are about 10 to 2 in 100 grams. They are used in almost all Indonesian recipes.[…] They are more fragrant than the large onions and sharper, but can be replaced by them in case of emergency.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 37.

Onions and garlic form the basis of every bumbu. I like to use red onions because they are a bit sweeter. Shallots are a bit spicier. Sometimes I replace regular onions with spring onions. There are small taste differences, but they make a big difference in a sambal, for example. This simple sambal onion, for example, is made with spring onion in this photo. A sambal onion is eaten raw and is quickly prepared.

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Bean sprouts

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is made from katjang hijau, which has been allowed to germinate in a moist and warm atmosphere.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 37.

Bean sprouts can therefore be grown very well yourself, in the dark! Watch how I do it here. The dish below is a delicious vegan Indonesian dish: tofu lengko covered with fresh bean sprouts, under which lies crispy tofu, in a sweet-sour-spicy soy sauce.

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Tahu – Tofu

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is made from soybean flour and sold in bars of +/- 25 cm long.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 37.

Beb was a lover of vegetarian cuisine. Her book is full of vegetarian dishes (also common in Indonesian cuisine) and her publisher also released a vegetarian version of her Groot Indonesisch Kookboek. View Beb’s delicious dishes with tofu and tempeh here.

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Taoco

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dark brown paste of fermented different types of Chinese beans. Taoco has a strong, slightly wine-like taste.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 37.

Taoco could be a vegetarian replacement for trassi. It provides a fermented taste, but is made from beans. It gives dishes a deep, warm flavor. I really enjoy cooking with taoco. This chicken dish, for example, is a very good example.

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Temu Kunci

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young rhizome of Gastrolichus Panduratum. Available in Indian shops; is only used in certain recipes.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 38.

In the photo the temu kunci are the four the yellow roots. At the store they were labeled as ‘Chinese ginger’. I used them in my wild mushroom soup. I think they do indeed taste like ginger, but slightly milder than the ginger you normally see.

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Tempeh

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cakes of soya beans, onto which a certain fungus has been grafted, which makes the soya bean very easy to digest.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 38.

Tempeh is typically Indonesian. You can also make these ‘cookies’ yourself. I haven’t done that yet, but I think it would be great fun to do. Tempeh can be processed into crispy krupuk or used as a base for a delicious coconut curry. I buy tempeh at the grocery store, but tempeh is often also available in the vegetarian section of the supermarket.

Krokant gebakken Tempé beslag

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Trassi

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is prepared from shrimp and pressed into cakes.[…] It smells very strong when raw. You can also buy pre-baked terasi, which lacks the annoying smell. Store in a tightly closed jam jar or plastic, not in the refrigerator.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 38.

“Trassi doesn’t smell, trassi smells strongly,” a colleague of mine always says. She learned that from her Indonesian aunt and she is absolutely right. The scent is intense, very intense, but that is of course the intention. Trassi is a real seasoning. Don’t overdo it with trassi, because it quickly becomes overpowering. By the way, Beb uses a different spelling. She writes ‘terasi’.

Trassi is widely used throughout Southeast Asia and Southern Chinese cuisine. Shrimp are fermented and pressed into slices. According to wiki, “shrimp pastes are […] essential ingredients in many dishes in Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Suriname, Thailand and Vietnam. It is used, for example, in curries in Thailand, salads in Malaysia and Indonesia and in many Surinamese-Javanese dishes from Surinamese cuisine […]”.

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Teri

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small dried fish, quite salty. They are sold in bags and used either as a separate dish or as an ingredient for a dish. They must be stored in a dry place.

Translated from Beb Vuyk’s Groot Indonesisch Kookboek, page 38.

Oh I eat these fish out of hand; addictive. They are dried anchovies so super salty. You can make a great sambal from anchovies. I usually serve ikan teri as a seasoning, next to sambal and serundeng, for example.

Bakken van Anchovies (Ikan Teri)