1. Useful Tools and Utensils
Having the right tools for the job makes cooking a joy. Here are some items that I think make the whole Indonesian cooking experience easier, more enjoyable, and produce tastier results. Typically, Indonesian kitchens are simply outfitted, but it’s difficult to argue that some modern conveniences can save time and hassle without affecting the quality of the food.
Asian Butcher Knife/Cleaver As cliché as it might sound, it’s true that a dull knife is far more dangerous than a sharp one. I have experienced this myself, cutting my fingers in nasty accidents due to dull, low quality knives. I’m forever loyal to my Asian butcher knife with its huge rectangular shape and seemingly invincible steel heft. I know some of you may not be familiar or comfortable with this type of large cleaver when you try it you’ll find it to be an extremely versatile and useful tool. This is useful for everything from mincing garlic to cutting vegetables and chopping through all types of meats with bones. These can be purchased at almost every Asian grocery stores.
Asian Strainers There are many types of these strainers, the good ones feature some type of mesh-looking wire material in a rounded shape with a long wooden handle attached. Asian strainers are great for picking up noodles, vegetables, and anything you’re either boiling or deep-frying that need to be drained. Make sure to purchase one with a long handle; it will save your skin from potential hazards while removing whatever you’re cooking from its liquid. This tool beats using tongs for picking up noodles or something like shrimp chips where you’re cooking a large quantity and need to drain them quickly. Certain recipes require a particular kind of strainer which can be difficult to find in Western countries. The closest tool would be the ladle strainer, which looks just like a regular metal ladle but has small round holes.
Cutting Board An often-overlooked tool in kitchens is a strong, sturdy cutting board. Many Indonesian kitchens use large wooden butcher blocks as cutting boards, which is a great tool if you have a lot of space to thoroughly clean it and don’t mind their weight. My preference is a large cutting board made of plastic or silicone with at least half an inch of depth. A good sized plastic cutting board will serve as a multi-purpose tool, however it is now quite common to have different coloured boards for vegetables and meats, to avoid cross contamination especially from raw meats to salads. Always clean your cutting boards with detergent and hot water, allowing them to air dry thoroughly. The Cuts and wear and tear on a chopping board means they need to be bleached and scrubbed.
Food Processor In lieu of a traditional mortar and pestle, a modern day food processor is a fabulous tool. Besides grinding all types of herbs and spices that produce many of Indonesia’s sambals and pastes, these nifty gadgets are a huge time saver when it comes to grinding all types of meats and mixtures. Were you so inclined, you could of course do everything the old-fashioned way and manually chop meat into its grounded state. While markets nowadays offer pre-ground meats, some recipes call for further fine grounding and mixing with other ingredients, which food processors complete in seconds. Like any other tool, investing in a good quality food processor will save on costs in the long run—a sturdy one should last for many years if not several decades.
Meat Pounder This is a tool that is not often discussed in Indonesian cooking but it is a great way to make perfectly cooked meats. For example any recipe calling for Chicken Steak often requires pan- frying chicken breasts. One side is often much thicker than the other which means that cooking will be uneven and one side will be completely cooked while the other is still raw on the inside. Using a meat pounder solves this issue easily. It is good practice to lay the meat across a plastic cutting board and cover it with a large piece of plastic wrap to protect from splattering bacteria all over the kitchen, other ingredients, and myself. With this method, you can then pound on the meat to the desired thickness without worry.
Metal Ladle A metal ladle with a long handle is necessary to work with soups and certain noodle dishes. Purchase one that’s a good size with a sturdy handle, preferably one that is metal throughout or those with an outside layer of wood on the handle. Plastic ladles are easily damaged if used in Indonesian cooking unless for serving desserts or cold dishes. Wooden ladles can often impart a flavor from the last dish into the current cooking, so should be avoided as well.
Mortar and Pestle (Cobek or Ulek) A traditional Indonesian mortar and pestle is one of the greatest kitchen tools of all time. Unlike those from other countries, Indonesia’s version is flatter and more open on top, like a plate with rounded edges rather than an enclosed bowl-like contraption. The pestle is also shaped differently, having a distinctive curvature for ease of grip allowing for Indonesia’s unique technique of grinding. Made of basalt stone, the Indonesian mortar and pestle allows herbs and spices to have optimum surface area contact with the rough stone that produces the delicious and spicy sambals with their smooth texture. Typically heavier than their Thai or Mexican counterparts, the Indonesian mortar and pestle is more readily available in Western regions in recent years. These should never be washed with soap of any kind but rather rinsed thoroughly with warm water and allowed to completely air dry before storing.
Rice Cooker One of the easiest tools to use in an Indonesian kitchen is a good quality rice cooker. I can’t imagine any modern day kitchen without one; it saves on time, cleanup, and effort while cooking perfect, fluffy rice. You should follow the general instructions of your particular rice cooker though my personal rule of thumb for perfect white rice is 2 parts water to 1 part uncooked rice. These days you can find all types of rice cookers with price tags ranging from as low as $15 to as high as several hundred dollars. For the average home kitchen a rice cooker somewhere in the middle range does just fine. It does pay in the long run to invest in at least a decent rice cooker rather than the cheapest one because this is a tool that should last you for years. The great thing about
modern day rice cookers is that you can just set the rice to cook and it will stay warm from at least a few hours to a few days (for the more expensive models) and you never have to worry about burning the rice or water over- flowing.
Wok (Wajan) One of the most invaluable tools in an Indonesian kitchen is of course, the wok. The type of wok you need depends on whether you have an electric or gas range. Home cooks with gas stoves are lucky because nothing surpasses the quality or speed of a real fire. However, with the proper tools, you can create great dishes on either type of stove. If you have a gas stove, you can use the traditional and original cast iron wok with its rounded bottom. Make sure to find one with a long, sturdy handle on one side rather than the two short handles on either side. Unless you’re a professional wok chef, working without a handle will be extremely difficult. Depending on the exact shape of your gas stove, you may also need a wok ring to stabilize it. For those of you with an electric stove, you’ll do best with a carbon steel wok with a flat bottom so it can sit properly on the range. This too should have a long, sturdy handle. When purchasing a wok, don’t be afraid to look it over carefully and run your hands all over it, roughly yanking at the parts to ensure that it is in fact, a sturdy model. There are plenty of people who have all types of fancy methods of caring for a wok but most of those steps are really unnecessary for modern day woks. If you’re handling a brand new wok, simply pour a few tablespoons of vegetable oil on a paper towel and rub thoroughly all over the inside of the wok. Place the wok on the stove over high heat until smoke rises. Tilt the wok in every direction so all parts of the wok come into contact with the heat. Do this for just a couple of minutes. Remove the wok from the heat and cool. Once it has cooled, rinse thoroughly under warm water and air dry. Once you begin using the wok regularly, make sure to use a soft sponge to clean with soap and water. Never use harsh bristles or any type of steel wool sponge. When working with the carbon steel type woks, also make sure to use only wooden or silicone spatulas and never metal ones that can scrape and ruin the wok.
Wooden Spatula With many Indonesian recipes calling for stir-frying techniques, it’s essential to have at least one very sturdy and good quality wooden spatula. These come in various shapes and sizes; any of them are fine as long as they feature a long enough handle, a wide enough surface area and are sturdy.
Below is a short summary of the other utensils you will find used in an Indonesian Kitchen
bamboo skewers—Long, thin bamboo sticks used for roasting pieces of food over hot coals
colander—A bowl with holes in the bottom and sides. It is used for washing food or draining liquid from a solid food.
Dutch oven—A heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. Dutch ovens are often used for cooking soups or stews.
food processor—An electric appliance with a blade that revolves inside a container to chop, mix, or blend food
mortar—A strong bowl used with a pestle to grind, crush, or mash spices and other foods
pestle—A club-shaped utensil used with a mortar to grind, crush, or mash spices or other foods
slotted spoon—A spoon with small openings in the bowl, used to remove solid food from liquid
steamer—A covered pot with an insert something like a strainer, used for steaming vegetables