10 May / Q+A with Petty Pandean-Elliott, Author of “The Indonesian Table” (+ a Recipe!)
Award-winning Indonesian chef, writer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Petty Pandean-Elliott is the author of several bestselling Indonesian cookbooks. In April, Pandean-Elliott launched a comprehensive and personal book presenting 150 accessible recipes interspersed with recollections of her culinary journeys throughout Indonesia, beginning with her childhood memories in remote Manado.
Now based in the U.K., Pandean-Elliott spent several years developing and adapting recipes for home cooks using easily sourced ingredients and uncomplicated cooking methods.
In “The Indonesian Table,” Pandean-Elliott focuses on the food traditions of eight key regions in Indonesia: Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara, Maluku Islands, Sumatra, Papua, and Kalimantan. Dishes from these regions include fragrant coconut curries, tasty laksas, fortifying sotos, vegetables dishes such as Gado Gado and Roasted Aubergine (Eggplant) with Spicy Pili Sauce (click here for the recipe), and numerous different types of Sambal. There are traditional desserts such as Bubur Sumsum, a coconut pudding with palm sugar syrup , and drinks such as jamu, healthy herbal tonics.
While there are other cookbooks of Indonesian staples, “The Indonesian Table” offers an authentic contemporary approach suited for modern Western kitchens, narrated from the perspective of a native insider who has lived both within and outside Asia. A culmination of Pandean-Elliott ‘s lifelong commitment to making her national cuisine more accessible.
“With this book, I hope readers enjoy discovering the food culture of my homeland through the tastes, aromas and textures of the local cuisine. Indonesian cooking is a celebration of diversity and all about layering flavours to create good food for the body and soul,” says Pandean-Elliott.
I had the pleasure of asking Pandean-Elliott a few questions about her new book.
PT: “The Indonesian Table” is your third book after “Papaya Flower” and “Jakarta Bites.” The first two were very focused, on Manadonese cuisine and Jakarta food. What inspired you to write a book that is so much more “big picture” cuisine?
PPE: “Papaya Flower” and “Jakarta Bites” were self-published in Jakarta for the Indonesia market. “The Indonesian Table” is my first with a truly international publisher, Phaidon, who have a broad reach in USA and Europe among other major markets around the world, so it made sense to build not just a bigger picture of Indonesian food but to make it accessible and interesting to readers outside Indonesia many of whom have never visited nor experienced our cuisine.
I had a 14-year career as a food journalist and 8 years in professional kitchens as a chef in Indonesia before I moved to England in 2018. It was my second time to live in England with my family, the first from 1999 to 2001. So it was a great opportunity to use my personal experiences in Indonesia and deep knowledge about the cuisines to help put Indonesian cuisine into the global map. The experience of living in UK, helped me build an understanding of this market, and of course the hard work and time needed to establish new contacts and networks in a ‘new’ country.
Indonesia’s rich food culture, interspersed with its history – the spice island trade in nutmeg and cloves for example – and the diversity of the nation thanks to its unique geographical position as a crossroads between South Asia, the Middle east and China – all contributed to inspire me to write ‘The Indonesian Table.’
PT: You write that spices are an integral part of the history and cultural exchange that helped define Indonesian cuisine. How have spices and other cultural influences influenced the recipes and stories you chose to include in your book?
PPE: Indonesian cuisine is in the true sense a fusion of Chinese, Indian, Arabian, European influences over hundreds of years. Also, we are part of the ‘Peranakan’ cuisine culture. And while Indonesia (spice islands) brought nutmeg to the world, we also accepted many spices from around the world introduced by the traders and explorers. The introduction of the chili pepper is a classic example, now at the heart of our national passion for sambal. The outside influences were combined and blended with the best local ingredients such as pandan leaves, kemangi/(lemon) basil, curry leaves, ruku-ruku leaves (holy basil), (makrut) lime leaves and lemongrass, etc. And of course, our fantastic climate and rich soils made it easy to cultivate these adopted foods. Another good example is Aceh noodles, Mie Aceh (in the book) a much-loved dish and a reflection of Arabic, Indian and Chinese influences featuring many different spices and soya sauce, all in one wok.
PT: You are known as a pioneer of modern Indonesian cuisine. What does modern Indonesian cuisine mean to you?
PPE: To me, modern Indonesian cuisine means creativity and opportunity: to give new ideas for cooking Indonesian food using adaptations in cooking techniques – ideas such as using a modern oven, modern more accessible grilled equipment. It also reflects my desire to bring freshness and colour to dishes, with a little reduction in the spice level in certain regional dishes (especially the fiery food from my birthplace Manado) to help build interest in overseas markets, and to keep an open mind so that selected ingredients not available outside Indonesia can be substituted without losing authenticity in flavour.
It is important that I provide good narrative with background information and stories about traditional cooking and historical flavours. I really value and respect those traditions and remain fascinated about old cooking techniques such as the use of bamboo segments, the hot stones from Papua, the use of palm leaves (woka) and banana leaves.
PT: How has living abroad influenced your cooking and appreciation of the food of your motherland?
PPE: Living abroad has influenced me to create the modern Indonesian dishes as explained above. To give an insight of our tastes to ordinary home cooks who are time poor, and unable to always to follow the old styles and access some of the more esoteric ingredients.
I have no doubt we appreciate our food and culture much more when we live abroad. My husband is British, so it was a great opportunity to share my food culture and culture in general with my husband’s family and friends, over the past three decades. It took a move to England 5 years ago, to help me realise the value of our own modern culture, particularly, Unity in Diversity, Bhineka Tunggal Ika as so many countries struggle with diversity in these changing times.
PT: I love that you have broken down recipes according to seasons on your blog. (I have a cookbook broken down by seasons!). Do you think seasonal cooking is just as important in Indonesian cooking? Are there seasons in Indonesian cooking?
PPE: Yes, I do. I think seasonal cooking is important in Indonesian cooking. Based in the UK I like the idea of using local seasonal ingredients as it does it help reduce the food carbon footprint and also supports local growers and is therefore more sustainable. Of course climate means some tropical ingredients cannot be grown in Europe or the US and so I still need to use imported lemongrass, turmeric, ginger and lime leaves, etc. but for protein and vegetables there are good UK ingredients available.
In Indonesia, apart from wet and dry seasons, we don’t really think much about ‘seasons,’ as our ingredients are mostly available all year round – with some exceptions such as mango, mangosteen, rambutan and durian etc.
PT: Indonesian cuisine can be complicated and time consuming to make. Do you have any tips on how to simplify prep, and any guidelines for ingredient substitutions? Do you have any shortcuts?
PPE: Yes, some Indonesian dishes are complicated and time consuming, but so many dishes are easy to make, just take all our stir-fried dishes. To simplify and speed the preparation, I make big batches of bumbu (spiced pastes *PT note: please see my article on epicurious here: https://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/indonesian-spice-pastes-bumbu-dasar-article) which I can store in the refrigerator in jars topped with a touch of oil. So when you need to make kalio, rendang, woku, or say sayur lodeh, the paste is already available.
I also make the basic sambals such as sambal bawang, shallot sambal (shallots, garlic, chilies) in big quantities and using the same preserving method, it stays fresh for a couple of months. Such sambal is good for stir fried nasi goreng or mie goreng or simply as a condiment or dip.
Sauces, such as gado-gado or pecel sauce (these are both peanut-based sauces) or tahini sambal can also be kept in large quantities in the refrigerator. This simple idea means you have done half of the cooking already which means more time with family and friends.
PT: Unlike Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, Indonesian cuisine is not a very well-known SE Asian cuisine in the U.S.A. especially. What are your hopes for the future of Indonesian cuisine on the global culinary scene? Do you have plans and/or ideas to expand its reach?
PPE: Well ‘The Indonesian Table’ is a small but positive step towards greater awareness and enjoyment of Indonesian food. I am going to work on another book to keep the momentum going, and as the world is now opening up again for travel, I will resume my schedule of guest chef appearances, talks and demonstrations. I am addressing an audience at the Smithsonian in Washington DC this month, as well as traveling back to Indonesia for guest chef works and some events in London in the summer. We do need to invest in quality Indonesian restaurants overseas and encourage more chefs to travel and work overseas.
Most of all I believe it requires strong collaboration and partnership between Government the private sector in Indonesia with support from all Indonesian embassies and Indonesian diaspora globally.
There are several key actions needed:
- Build a solid Indonesian (regional) cuisine programme in every culinary school around Indonesia to provide knowledge to the young future chefs of Indonesia so they can learn about regional food diversity.
- Strengthen the production of quality ingredients (sambal, sauces, kecap manis , tempeh, dried spices using Indonesian brands to export globally. With good ingredients available in major supermarkets around the world, the public will cook Indonesian food in their own home
- Encourage Indonesian writers and chefs to collaborate with international chefs to exchange culture and knowledge and campaign about Indonesian food.
- Government can play a leading role working with the private sector in the culinary industry through global campaigns for at least a year (non-stop).
- Social media is powerful but ineffective alone without actual restaurants available for those who would like to try Indonesian food without having to actually travel to Indonesia. Equally, such restaurants serve to remind those who have enjoyed an Indonesian holiday to relive their memories and consider making another visit.
PT: What are your favorite ingredients to cook with?
PPE: Chilies, shallots, lemongrass, basil, tomatoes, citrus (lime or calamansi)
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Petty!
“The Indonesian Table” by Petty Pandean-Elliott (Phaidon, April 12, 2023) is available on Bookshop.org and wherever books are sold.
For more information, please visit the Phaidon website here.