Monday 7 December 2020

Warming up inside: Sayur Lodeh

Over the last months people have laughed at me in my thick scarf, woollen hat and gloves. ‘It isn’t cold,’ they’d grin. ‘Just you wait until winter really starts.’

More than chilled enough by autumn, I would shudder. And now it happened: winter started. We’ve had frost at night and during daytime the temperature stays in single digits. Yes, I know, it can get much worse still, but this is bad enough for my tropical bones. Our mornings are a flurry of looking for hats and mittens for the children who complain of having to cycle to school in the crisp dark – this time of the year the sun won’t rise until after school started and sets somewhere mid-afternoon. I’m not sure yet what is worse, the cold or the darkness. The kids quickly caught on to the fact that Dutch winds are always headwinds when you cycle to school, and then somehow defy physics by being the same when you turn around. 

A few weeks back we were stuck without heating for a weekend and now, in the chilling wind and drizzle, the new heating system struggles to keep our old, leaky house as comfortable as I’d like it to be. So what can one do to heat up? Cook warming, spicy, Asian food! I spent our last year in Singapore painstakingly noting down recipes for Indah’s amazing Indonesian food, and when we miss her, miss the sunshine, we cook it and warm our chilly guts. I get many requests to share Indah's recipes - her cooking was famous amongst family and friends, and not without reason: her food is amazing. 

Foraging Singapore for wild greens

Today it is time for Sayur Lodeh. The great thing about this dish is how versatile it is. Sayur simple means vegetable, and lodeh signifies they are cooked in a coconut milk gravy. The dish is mostly vegan, apart from the dried prawns, but those can easily be left out if you don’t eat them.

The soul of any curry is the rempah, or spice paste for the gravy. This particular one is a base you can use for many different varieties of vegetable curries. It’s a great dish to empty your vegetable drawer as most things work. In Singapore we would go and forage for our vegetables: tapioca leaves, moringa, jackfruit, tiny round aubergines. But for lack of those, kale, carrots or green beans work just as well.

We are lucky that the Hague boasts a large community of Indonesian people, so most of the ingredients are available easily enough. Although the only place that sells fresh (well, frozen) galangal is half an hour drive away, so I do sometimes resort to powdered. And I really don’t understand why all the crispy fried shallots here are made with wheat flour (which I’m intolerant to) when in Asia they never are! If you can get fresh ingredients, do so, but with dried spices this dish will still be nice. Candlenuts (kemiri) can be replaced by macadamia or brazil nuts. 

Rijsttafel, an Indonesian feast

Sayur Lodeh

Rempah (spice mix)

8 small (or 3 bigger) shallots
3 cloves garlic
2 or more chilis (mix large ones for colour with small ones for heat)
3 cm fresh galangal
3 cm fresh ginger
2 stalks lemongrass, hard outer leaves discarded
3 cm turmeric,
8 candlenuts,
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (belachan in Malay, terassi in Indonesian)
1 tbs dried shrimp

As with all Asian recipes, quantities are indicative, kira kira. Indah’s original recipe that she wrote down for me just has a list of ingredients, but I added some indications of how much to use because I know working intuitively is difficult if you are less familiar with these spices. Based on the strength of the spices you use and your personal taste, use more or less of each. If you use dried, about one teaspoon of dried spice roughly equals 3 tablespoons of fresh.

Chop all rempah ingredients coarsely and blend them to a paste. Add some oil and/ or water if needed. I do this in a bender, if you are a traditionalist you can use a grinding stone or pestle and mortar.

Fry the spice mix in large pot with thick bottom until fragrant, five minutes should do it. Add your vegetables (see below for some suggestions), a few cups water and bring to boil. You an add more water later if it gets too dry, you are looking for thin curry/ think soup consistency. Add some salam leaf, kaffir lime leaf, and salt to taste.

Boil 15-20 minutes then add coconut milk, about 400ml should do it. If you use fried tofu, add this only at the end. Sprinkle with crispy fried onion. Sayur lodeh can be part of a nasi campur or rijstafel, a selection of different dishes served together with rice and spicy sambals. But for a simple weekday meal it is fine on its own served with rice.


As I said, you can throw anything you like in this gravy, but I’ll share two classic versions that I love. 

Singkong lodeh is even better the day after as leftover lunch!

Singkong lodeh (tapioca leaves)

One of our favourites is lodeh with tapioca leaves, which in Singapore and Bali we’d pick wild in front of our house. In the Netherlands I’ve found them frozen in an Asian supermarket. Take the thicker stalks off the leaves, wash them, then boil the leaves for 20 minutes. Squeeze out excess moisture, then chop them roughly. Add the leaves to the gravy as described above. This curry is usually made with only the one vegetable. It is quite an ‘adult’ dish to me and the first time I tasted it, Indah made it for herself for lunch. Suffice to say, the heat of the dish blew my tastebuds to pieces. Although I don’t make it as hot as Indah, I still like my singkong lodeh on the spicier side. If you can’t find tapioca leaves any dark green leafy vegetable like spinach, kale or beet greens will work as well. 

Classic sayur lodeh

Classic Sayur Lodeh 

The best known version that is served over Indonesia usually contains a mixture of green beans, carrots, aubergine and cabbage as well as cubes of fried tofu. It is the one that can be seen in the picture of the rijsttafel above right in front.

Wash and chop the vegetables into bitesize pieces, then blanch them briefly - be careful not to overcook, they still need some crunch at this stage. You can either buy ready fried tofu puffs or fry cubes of firm tofu in oil before adding them. Add the tofu to the curry at the end only, and boil until thoroughly heated and the tofu has soaked up all the flavours.

Lodeh with wild aubergines

Festive Fusion Pudding, Brexit proof

As much as the country has been annoying me recently (Brexit, anyone?) I have to admit no-one does Christmas like the Brits. My English great-grandmother and international upbringing are likely to blame, but ever since my childhood, nothing shouts Christmas to me like silly hats and bad jokes from Christmas crackers, and a good slice of Christmas pudding doused in brandy butter.

Living all over the globe, catering to guests from all walks of life, and having to stick to a diet for medical reasons, I have created my own ‘recipes’ for many classic dishes that can be adapted not only on the preferences of you and your guests, but also on what is available locally where you live. With the current Marmite crisis caused by Brexit, you never know what is going to happen, so it makes sense to stock up on mincemeat and crackers before it's too late!

If you break down any recipe to basic food chemistry (I knew that MSc degree would have some use eventually), it is easy to see what can and cannot be substituted. The rest, particularly the flavourings, are simply a matter of taste. Something we Dutch know cannot be argued about. I love to use Dutch speculaaskruiden to stir things up a little. 

Weren't they cute then?

Traditionally this pudding is made on stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday before advent, but my Dutch brain can’t do Christmas before St Nicolas has left for Spain, so just after the 5th works well for me. For luck, the whole family is supposed to take turns stirring!

Festive Pudding for all

900 g mixed dry fruit, chopped fine
100 ml liquor (brandy, or for non-alcoholics use fruit juice)
3 ts mixed dry spices (nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, ginger)
1 ts baking powder
pinch of salt
100 g chopped nuts (almond, macademia, walnut)
175 g dark sugar (palm sugar, or any other)
sugared lemon/orange peel
175 fat (suet, coconut, butter)
100 g flour (can be wheat or glutenfree)
225 g breadcumbs (can be glutenfree)
4 eggs
300 ml liquid (apple cider, fruit juice, sweet wine, port, sherry, dark beer)

The heart of the pudding are the dried fruits. Ironically for a pudding often called ‘plum pudding’ plums, or their dried version prunes, are not necessarily included, but they do work well. Raisins, currants and sultanas are your obvious choice, but I love dates, apricots, cranberries, apple, and dried mangos as well. There are really no limits. I’ve done a tropical version once with pineapple. Whatever you choose, dose them in brandy or your liquid of choice and soak overnight.

(I’m suddenly thinking up a gin & tonic themed pudding, well, there’s always next year… this year I opted for Middle Eastern with dried limes, apricots, mango and lots of cardamom)

For the fat, make sure to use one that is fairly solid, so olive oil is out. Even in the UK the traditional suet is getting harder to get (particularly if like me you boycott the nasty supermarket ‘vegetarian’ version of chemically hardened palm oil covered in wheat flour) If you want to be proper, do ask your butcher for suet, but by all means butter or coconut fat work perfectly fine too .

When the fruit is ready, add all the dry ingredients together in another bowl, then add the fat, eggs and last your liquid of choice. When mixed well toss the dried fruit in as well, let everyone have a stir and your mixture is ready to steam. All you need now is patience.

My first puddings I steamed in a earthenware bowl with some parchment, but water leaked in and they became soggy, so I invested in some plastic pudding bowls with lids. Place them in a pan with water, that does not reach the top of your bowl, as no water should get in. Add a lid and steam them for hours, at least five; the longer, the darker and richer the pudding will get. Then let it cool and rest in a cool dark place until Christmas. If you like your pudding proper boozy you can ‘feed’ it with a few spoons of brandy once in a while.

At Christmas dinner steam it again for half an hour to heat it up, or cheat by popping it in a microwave. Don’t forget to add brandy butter, which is butter mixed with generous slosh of brandy and some powdered sugar (mix 100g of room temperature butter with 100g icing sugar and 4 spoons of brandy, then stiffen in fridge). For a real show stopper heat up some brandy in a metal spoon, let it catch fire and serve your pudding flaming!