An Indonesian cookbook that my husband bought for me recently was just the inspiration and help I needed to finally take on some of the more straighforward dishes in the cuisine. I thought I’d start with gado-gado, a classic Indonesian salad. It’s a great way of combining virtuous vegetables, a good dose of protein (tofu and eggs), and the comforting, spicy (and decadent) richness of peanut sauce.

The original sauce recipe called for fresh kencur root, apparently related to galangal. When I wasn’t able to find this or the dried ground version, I called on my grandma yet again for her advice. As expected, she said that it wasn’t really possible to substitute anything for kencur, and so would I like her to send me some in the mail? Loving the idea of a packet of spice arriving for me in my mail box, of course I accepted. But alas it wasn’t to be: my grandma’s spice packet had been refused at the post office because it was too smelly! And so, I give you the recipe below with her suggestions for making the sauce without kencur.

Don’t be put off by the 1-hour simmering time: it is straightforward to make and worth the wait. Other recipes I’d seen involved frying the individual ingredients, but this method doesn’t involve any frying at all. The only fiddly bits involve the tamarind and trasi. If you don’t have time or couldn’t be bothered doing these bits, you can substitute a bit of tamarind concentrate and just omit the trasi altogether.

The salad part of gado-gado is robust and flexible. When we made this with help from friends on the weekend, we hadn’t been able to find the bean sprouts at the shop that day, and I forgot to include the carrot. So feel free to experiment with quantities and the selection of veges according to your own taste. The salad is traditionally served layered on a big central plate or individual plates (ie a layer of potato, then the cabbage, then the beans etc) – I give all credit for the beautiful presentation in the photo below to our dinner guests – and served at room temperature or barely warm.

Gado-gado: Indonesian salad with spicy peanut sauce
Adapted from Authentic Recipes from Indonesia, with tips from my grandma

For the sauce (serves 4)

150g roasted unsalted peanuts (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2-3 red bird’s eye chillies, deseeded
1 kaffir lime leaf, shredded finely
3 tablespoons kecap manis
2 tsp tamarind pulp
1/4 tsp trasi (Indonesian shrimp paste), toasted (optional)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups water
Fried onion bits, for garnish

For the salad

Cabbage, shredded and blanched
Green beans, trimmed and blanched
New potatoes, steamed and sliced into 1cm rounds
Carrots, steamed and cut into batons
Tomatoes, cut into wedges
Eggs, hard boiled and cut into wedges
Firm tofu, browned in a pan and cut into slices
Bean sprouts

Krupuk (prawn crackers), to serve

To make the sauce: prepare the trasi (if using) by wrapping it up tightly in a sealed foil parcel, and baking in the oven for 15 minutes at 200 degrees. Trasi is very, very aromatic, so make sure you fold up the parcel really tight. While the trasi is toasting, prepare the tamarind pulp by soaking a golfball sized chunk of fresh or dried tamarind in boiling water for 15 minutes, then firmly pressing through a sieve (discard the fibres and seeds). Set the prepared trasi and tamarind aside until needed.

In a food processor or with a hand blender, process the peanuts, garlic and chilli into a coarse paste. Add a little of the water as needed to keep the mixture moving in the blades. Put the paste in a medium saucepan with the rest of the sauce ingredients (except garnish) including the remaining water, making sure the trasi is well incorporated (I squashed it with the back of a spoon). Slowly bring to a simmer, and keep simmering at low heat for about 1 hour until the mixture has thickened, stirring frequently.

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the salad ingredients and arrange on a serving plate or individual plates.

I like to serve the gado-gado sauce, slightly warm, in a separate bowl, topped with the fried onion garnish, and to have a bowl of prawn crackers on the side as well. Then hoe in to the salad, and top generously with the sauce and crackers.