Indonesia is a tropical land that boasts a mind-boggling number of herbs and spices, many of which are frequently used in cooking. Of these, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves are probably the two best-known outside the Indo-Malay world, thanks to the global popularity of Thai cuisine, which also uses these herbs.
Here’s a list of 5 common herbs (with many more such lists to come!), with their Indonesian names bracketed.
1. Lemongrass (Serai)
Lemongrass is very common in Indonesian cooking. As with Thai cuisine, lemongrass can be roasted, chopped, fried, or boiled to give a distinctive aroma of freshness. To begin using lemongrass, peel its outer layer to reveal younger, cleaner inner layers. Typically, each stalk of lemongrass is sliced diagonally, leaving the butt. The butt is then bruised by pounding, which releases the fragrance hidden within it. The butt is pan-roasted or lightly-fried, either with the rest of the sliced lemongrass or on its own, leaving the remaining lemongrass to be used for other purposes.
Sometimes, the rest of the lemongrass (i.e., the stalk) is diced and shredded into tiny little pieces, making it almost powder-like. This can be used as part of a marinade, or deep fried with other spices to form tasty crisps served with fried food like chicken or tempe. Lemongrass is also often used in herbal drinks (known as jamu) as part of home remedies for various ailments.
Good lemongrass is young and fresh, and has a yellowish-white butt, which slowly morphs into light lime-green stalks. If lemongrass is too old, its colour will become much duller, displaying a dull yellowish-brown with deeper green stalks. Old lemongrass won’t have a strong fragrance, and is more difficult to slice and pound.
2. Lime leaves (Daun jeruk)
This usually refers to kaffir lime leaves, the same as what’s used in Thai cooking. Lime leaves, like lemongrass, add a fresh, slightly citrus-y aroma to the dish. Each lime leaf should be removed from the stalk and torn by hand right before cooking, to release the fragrance. The stalks are usually thrown away.
Usually, if you’re cooking for one person, about 4-5 individual leaves should be enough because the fragrance can be quite strong. Beware, though, of cooking lime leaves for too long – this will cause it to lose its aroma to dissipate. That’s why lime leaves should be either sautéd early on (if it’s a fried dish) to infuse the fragrance and allow it to mix with the other herbs, or should be added just before turning off the stove, if you’re making a soup.
Be careful when you’re peeling lime leaves – they usually come in stalks that can be thorny, so there’s a slight chance of injuring your finger while tearing them into pieces.
3. Indonesian bay leaves (Daun salam)
Indonesian bay leaves are a special breed and differ quite a bit from the Indian bay leaves, which are often used in biryanis and many, many other Indian dishes. Unlike Indian bay leaves, which are usually dried, the Indonesian counterpart is always used fresh. It’s usually put in soups and stews to give a slightly dark, earthy flavour, and to tenderize meat. In my family, it’s most often used in meat and chicken dishes, although it’s occasionally used in vegetable soups.
Indonesian bay leaves are difficult to find outside Indonesia. Even in Singapore, it can be tricky to find it at supermarkets, even though it’s an important part of Malay cuisine. If you’re in Singapore, your best bet would be the wet market. Many people here grow it, potted, at home.
If you have trouble finding it, like I sometimes do, you can leave it out of the dish altogether although this will mean a lack of “something” in the dish. Or, you can replace it with the Indian bay leaf, which are more readily available, but this will slightly alter the taste of the dish.
4. Galangal (Lengkuas)
Galangal, which is a rhizome also known as Thai ginger, is fantastic. It’s bright pink and white, and has a fresh flavour that’s missing from ginger. Unlike ginger, it isn’t spicy or sharp-tasting. Galangal should be skinned and then cut into small pieces before cooking, blending, or pounding. Galangal is most often used in stews and soups, and is often a part of spice pastes containing many ingredients.
When buying galangal, it’s really important to choose a young one. Old galangal becomes very hard, almost too hard to cut if your knife isn’t very sharp. It also loses its freshness, fragrance and taste. Young galangal has a bright pink outer layer and white flesh (as white as radish), with hints of pink. When the galangal turns too old to use, its outer layer becomes a dull orange, and its flesh is slightly yellow.
5. Candlenut (Kemiri)
Candlenut is a hard nut frequently used in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking to give gravies and stews a creamy, slightly nutty taste. It can’t be eaten raw, and is sometimes lightly roasted before cooking. Candlenuts should be pounded or blended into a paste along with other ingredients, which will later be sauteed before adding water to make a thick, delicious gravy.
Candlenuts were once hard to find outside Southeast Asia, but now, many Malaysian supermarkets sell them in little packets. When unavailable, some people use macadamia nuts as a substitute.