Cooking Abroad

Making Sambal Without The Shrimp Paste


There is a saying here: “Buon sangue non mente”, which means that nobody can choose which blood flows in their veins (descent). I find that to be very true, especially in terms of food preferences.

In my case, I always long for Indonesian food. If anyone asks what foods I miss most, my answer is: a plate of hot rice with charcoal grilled fish, stir fried water spinach, and chili sauce! Even though I cannot speak Sundanese, the native tongue of the region in Indonesia from whence I originate, I have strong ties to West Java on my father’s side. Fortunately, my favorite foods are not difficult to prepare here. I don’t have to wait for a trip home to Indonesia to get the ingredients I need to make Sundanese food!

Granted, not all of the ingredients are readily available, but with a little culinary creativity I can feed my longing.

When I first came to Udine eleven years ago, finding Asian ingredients for Indonesian was not as easy as it is now. Udine is a province in the northeastern part of Italy, set between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea and bordering on Austria and Slovenia. I am sure that soccer fans are familiar the Udine team, while foodies are certain to have tasted the fine prosciutto (ham) from San Daniele, my husband’s hometown. The panorama here may not be as attractive as in some other better known places in Italy; and its location not as strategic for travelers, but it has a climate that makes in a tourism and immigration favorite; especially for people coming from the tropics.

In the past few years, there has been such an influx of immigrants from North Africa, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand that a number of shops selling ethnic food ingredients have begun sell a wide range of Asian spice. Now it is so much easier to get most of the spices and other ingredients necessary for cooking Indonesian food. One boon for Muslims in particular, is that there are now some places selling halal (religiously acceptable) meat. As is usual in most European cities, in Udine the ethnic food shops are concentrated around the train and bus stations.

Udine’s proximity to the ocean means that fish of all kinds are readily available. I can also find water spinach in the Asian food stores. However, no matter how hard I have tried, I have always had to settle for some alternative to the shrimp paste that we call terasi in Indonesia. The Asian shops do carry similar products, such as bagoong from the Philippines, or kapi from Thailand.

However, those products do not even come close to the quality and flavor of terasi from Bangka Island, my mother’s place of origin in Indonesia.

Besides that, there are limitations as to when I can cook with terasi, especially in the winter time when it is too cold to open the kitchen window, so the strong smell of the terasi permeates the house. In order to ward off complaints from my husband about the smell, I have replaced terasi with the salted anchovies readily available in local supermarkets.

Besides having to replace terasi with a local ingredient, I often use other alternative ingredients for original Indonesian ones. For example, macadamia nuts make a good substitute for candlenuts. Also, lime zest replaces orange leaves well, while brown sugar, like muscovado or panela, is a good substitute for gula merah or gula Jawa. As well, I can use desiccated coconut with canned coconut milk instead of freshly grated coconut, while Asam Jawa can be replaced with balsamic vinegar. Hopefully this information can be of some use to wanderers from the archipelago, who like to cook Indonesian dishes.