Featuring 150 accessible recipes, interspersed with recollections of her culinary journeys throughout the archipelago, the latest book by Petty Pandean-Elliott, ‘The Indonesian Table’, is a love letter both to a country and its cuisine.
Over her now 20-year career, Petty Pandean-Elliott has received many accolades. The award-winning chef, writer and entrepreneur has been a judge for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants as well as Indonesian Iron Chef, and not to mention her bestselling Indonesian cookbooks. Under all of this, and indeed the drive that powered these achievements, has been one thing: to see Indonesian cuisine get the global recognition it deserves.
“The Indonesian diaspora is not so prominent, and so the demand for Indonesian food abroad is not huge, we don’t have a global or international framework to promote Indonesian ingredients – food brands and regional cuisine, and there are many other reasons” explains Petty when asked why the cuisine isn’t as well-recognised as other Southeast Asian food. “There are 2000 Thai restaurants in the UK, whilst there are only around 20 Indonesian.”
Petty Pandean-Elliott and her family moved to the UK in 2008, seeing an opportunity to pursue this mission, where she could make more of an impact from inside the country, like a trojan horse, rather than calling from the sidelines. In that time she has cooked for numerous, prestigious dining events with Indonesian food as its focus, opening the cuisine to a wider audience.
“Food is a great unifier, and we need to invest in Indonesian restaurants and to have strong culinary diplomacy overseas,” she states. It indeed is a vehicle that attracts people and opens conversation about Indonesia’s cultural diversity, as well as an awareness for the country’s produce — especially as the home of the famed spice islands. “Through food, we can open discussions about Indonesian heritage, indigenous communities, environment, health, agriculture, imports, farmers,” adds the passionate author.
‘The Indonesian Table’, published by Phaidon, is an extension of this mission. While there are other cookbooks of Indonesian staples, it offers an authentic contemporary approach suited for modern Western kitchens, making it more accessible for cooks from across the globe to try their hand at Indonesian cooking. Through the perspective of a native insider who has lived in the UK, it is a bridge between two worlds.
What is evident in the book is its attempt to represent regional cuisines from across the archipelago. Pandean-Elliott focuses on the food traditions of eight key regions in Indonesia: Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara, Maluku Islands, Sumatra, Papua, and Kalimantan.
Dishes from these regions include fragrant coconut curries, tasty laksas, fortifying sotos, satay, seafood and salads such as gado-gado and numerous different types of sambal and different type of bumbu,’spiced paste’. There are traditional desserts such as Bubur Sumsum, a coconut pudding with palm sugar syrup, and drinks such as jamu healthy herbal tonics. The original dishes, and the stories of the cultures they represent, have been beautifully visualised in the book by photographer Yuki Sugiura.
Though the book itself took roughly 10 months to write, it is really a culmination of a decades-long exploration of the recipes, ingredients and techniques of authentic Indonesian food.
This meant travelling across the archipelago to taste and understand the regional cuisines firsthand. Going to markets, dining in local eateries and speaking to, most often, the women in the kitchen. “The community who lives in remote places or small towns, including the indigenous people are the keepers of the old traditional cuisine, just like my grandmother” says Petty. As such, The Indonesian Table provides thoughtful background on local culture and other influences on cuisine from the physical landscape, religion, trading, and migration.
Cooking is a personal journey for Petty, with certain foods triggering Proustian reveries of her childhood: from learning to cook Manadonese food from her Oma as a child, to eating bakso and gado-gado on the side of the road in Jakarta as a teen. Even the sound of the wandering mie tek-tek seller springs to mind upon preparing the dish. “The street life is what gives these foods their character,” says Petty, whose previous books ‘Papaya Flower’ and ‘Jakarta Bites’ paid specific homage to the regional dishes and memories. These are further explored in ‘The Indonesian Table’.
After 20-odd years on this mission, it seems finally the world is listening. The book, and Petty’s message, has already been featured in the Telegraph, Guardian and BBC London. The Indonesian Table is on the list of The 23 Best Cookbooks of spring 2023 by Bon Appetit Magazine and soon she will head to the USA for an event at the Smithsonian National Museum. The topic of Indonesian food is very much on the table.
In the process of making this book, Petty developed a newfound appreciation for Indonesia’s motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity. Noticing that food was such a tangible, visible manifestation of the country’s cultural diversity, as well as the local wisdom found in rural regions.
Ironically, this has sparked a new mission. Seeing how food trends are changing in Indonesia, she is worried that many of the traditions will be left behind. The contrast as tempe grows popular in the west, steaks are growing in the east. So perhaps a campaign is needed to remind her home nation of the real riches they possess. For now, the successful food diplomacy abroad continues!
‘The Indonesian Table’, published by Phaidon, is currently available in Art & Science, ASHTA District 8 in Jakarta (artandscience.id) and Periplus Jakarta. She will also be cooking at Amandari Ubud as part of the Ubud Food Festival 2023.