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Indonesian Peanut Sauce

By Iris Brooks
Published March 20, 2007

The peanut is not a nut; it’s technically a legume. And its origins date back to South America—historians suggest Bolivia, Brazil, Peru or Mexico—evidenced in 3,500-year-old Inca pottery.

For me, peanuts are reminiscent of happy childhood memories eating peanut butter sandwiches (the National Peanut Board estimates the average American child eats 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before finishing high school). For other Americans, they’re an iconic ballpark snack. Peanuts are popular around the globe: served in paper cones in India, sand-roasted in Senegal, and dusted with chili powder in Mexico. The peanut’s versatility also makes it perfect for soup, salsa, stew, sauce, and salad dressing.

The peanut is not a nut; it’s technically a legume. And its origins date back to South America—historians suggest Bolivia, Brazil, Peru or Mexico—evidenced in 3,500-year-old Inca pottery. Spanish and Portuguese explorers carried potatoes, chocolate, chilies, tomatoes, corn and peanuts as they traveled the world. And the peanut, like its gooey butter, stuck in many places.

The peanut thrived in the tropical environment of Southeast Asia, and today, they can be found roasted and chopped finely, topping a variety of dishes and in marinades and dipping sauces.

“Indonesian peanut sauce represents a sophisticated, earthy thing rather than a sweet, gloppy sauce,” says James Oseland, editor of Saveur magazine and the author of a substantial new cookbook. Cradle Of Flavor (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006) is an accessible book about home cooking in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Rather than focus on differences, Oseland—passionate about introducing readers to these dishes—sees these countries as part of one contiguous culture with different regional shavings. “I wanted to honor the food as I know it, but didn’t want to include ingredients unavailable here.”

Among the recipes, one of my personal favorites is Indonesian gado-gado. Literally translated as “potpourri,” this signature dish is a combination of raw and cooked vegetables served with a peanut sauce. Oseland calls it a miracle dish, succulent and savory. “Gado-gado is an emblem of that delicious adaptability of the people. It stylistically speaks of so many places, and tastes global although it is specific to Indonesia and Malaysia.” The vegetables in gado-gado vary with each chef (as do the subtleties of the accompanying peanut sauce). Commonly we find carrots and potatoes, introduced by the Dutch, peanuts and chili brought from South America by the Portuguese and Spanish, mixed with indigenous ingredients such as bean sprouts, coconut, and greens.

Gado-gado is eaten with peanut sauce throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, showcasing the delicate balance of sweet and sour. And it’s easy to believe there are as many varieties of peanut sauce as there are cooks in Southeast Asia. Balinese artist Tjokorda Gde Arsa Artha claims the secret to good peanut sauce is “not too thick and not too watery.” The sauce may be a bit thicker than its counterpart for dipping satay (small bits of grilled meat on a stick). Indonesian peanut sauce tends to be less sweet than the Thai one (which is a hybrid adaptation).

During my travels through the Indonesian islands of Bali, Java and Lombok, the soothing and dynamic sounds of gamelan intermingle with the tastes of peanut sauce. Back home, I still enjoy an occasional peanut butter sandwich, and reserve gado-gado for dinner parties.

Indonesian Gado-Gado
(from Cradle Of Flavor)

4 medium waxy potatoes (Maine or Yukon Gold), peeled and cut into 1/3 inch slices
peanut oil for frying
2 cups mung bean sprouts
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced diagonally (1/4 inch thick)
40 green beans, stemmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
1/2 head leafy green lettuce, torn into large bite-sized pieces
1 Kirby (pickling) cucumber, unpeeled, stemmed, and cut diagonally into 1/2 inch chunks
Kosher salt (optional)
Shrimp chips (optional)

To fry potatoes, pour oil to a depth of 1/2 inch into a saucepan and heat ove