Satay, by now, is so much a part of American food culture that there’s rarely a wedding or other catered event that doesn’t feature some kind of bland chicken-on-a-stick appetizer served with peanut sauce. I’m old enough to remember when satay started becoming popular in the 1980s, with the rise of Thai and fusion restaurants. It quickly went from unknown to one of the most accessible, crowd-pleasing “Asian” dishes that Americans enjoy. Satay is so mainstream and taken for granted that when you taste a bite of the real thing, prepared by an Indonesian or Malay cook, the experience can be transcendent.
My own satay experience has mostly been in South Philadelphia, which has one of the largest Indonesian populations in the U.S. and even boasts an Indonesian-language newspaper. There are a bunch of low-key Indonesian restaurants here, including a humble, longtime spot called Hardena — renowned for its amazing satay — which was a semifinalist for a James Beard award a few years ago. I certainly enjoy other Indonesian classics, such as beef rendang (beef shanks slowly braised in coconut milk for hours and infused with spices and herbs) and chicken nasi goreng (chicken fried rice served with a duck egg and prawn crackers), but there’s something special about satay’s simplicity.
Which is why I was so excited to chat recently with Lara Lee, whose beautiful new Indonesian cookbook, Coconut & Sambal, was recently published in the U.S. I was worried talking with her about satay might be too basic, but she assured me that it wasn’t. “Indonesian food is still relatively unknown,” she said. “I felt I had a duty to write with a broader perspective.”
Lee grew up in Australia with a Chinese-Indonesian father and an Australian mother. “Having grown up in Australia, I had very little access to Indonesian culture,” she said. “This book was my way of reconnecting to my heritage, reconnecting with my grandmother.” Now living in London, Lee left a sales career to start an event catering business called Kiwi and Roo. Coconut & Sambal is her first cookbook.