COOKBOOK REVIEW: Tracing a family heritage, dish by dish

“Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen” by Lara Lee (Bloomsbury, $35)

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“Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen” by Lara Lee (Bloomsbury, $35)

“Coconut and Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen” by Lara Lee (Bloomsbury, $35)

Lara Lee learned about her Chinese-Indonesian heritage from her grandmother, who lived with their family while she was growing up in Sydney, Australia. Popo, as she was called, gifted her granddaughters with colorful batik dresses from the homeland, played island folk music on the record player, and cooked meals of gado-gado salad (vegetables and boiled eggs drizzled with peanut sauce) and chicken satay basted in kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and lime.

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After her death, Lee visited the vacated family home in the worn little seaside town of Kupang, Timor, where she found, among the porcelain cats and Jesus plates, her grandmother’s old cookbooks and recipes for breads and cakes she used in the bakery she ran. These handwritten treasures fueled Lee’s passion for cooking, leading her to a career as a chef who runs a high-profile catering company, and as a food writer hungry to discover her true culinary identity.

Several years ago, she set out on a journey through the Indonesian archipelago, befriending street vendors and home cooks and soaking up every detail so she could re-create those tastes in her London kitchen. “Coconut and Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen” (Bloomsbury, $35) allows us to follow along in ours.

No meal in Indonesia, she writes, is complete without sambal, a hot chile relish with countless interpretations. She offers a chapter-full of sambals from mild to super-hot with suggested pairings: one with tomatoes, tamarind, and red chiles for Spiced Corn Fritters; another with green chiles, anchovies, and kaffir lime leaves for Fish and Prawn Lemongrass Satay.

The recipes, for the most part, don’t appear that difficult, but some of the ingredients (long red chiles, pandan leaf) may require a search, or some adapting. Aromatic Chicken Noodle Soto was plenty flavorful even without the suggested Fermented Shrimp Sambal Terasi accompaniment. And Coconut and Lime Ice Cream was a no-churn revelation I’ll be making again.

Lee’s mesmerizing prose and travel photography, along with styled food shots as vivid and textured as the landscapes and street scenes, inspire me to venture out of my comfort zone more often — especially around dinnertime.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at

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