How to Make Mie Goreng, Indonesia’s Beloved Noodle Dish

Mie goreng is one of Indonesia’s most popular noodle dishes and gets its sweet, savory flavor from kecap manis, a thick soy sauce with caramel notes. Tossed with vegetables and served with crunchy shrimp crackers, it’s an easy, satisfying meal that takes just 15 minutes to make.

Stir-fried noodles with vegetables on a plate.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Comprised of skinny wheat or egg noodles stir-fried with garlic, shallots, vegetables, eggs, and meat or seafood, mie goreng is one of Indonesia’s most well-known dishes. The sweet, salty noodles are widely eaten across the Indonesian archipelago, with variations aplenty based on region and individual preference. Across the country, you’ll find renditions like mie goreng sapi (stir-fried noodles with beef) and kwetiau goreng jawa (Javanese stir-fried noodles prepared with rice noodles). In northern Indonesia, there’s mie goreng Aceh, a dish of thicker noodles with a spicy, curry-like flavor that’s named for the province it comes from. Mie goreng is also eaten in other parts of Southeast Asia, like Singapore and Malaysia. 

It’s likely that mie goreng was inspired by fried noodles like chow mein that Chinese immigrants brought over during the 18th century, when many emigrated to Indonesia for opportunities in the mining industry. Though chow mein is typically made with light and dark soy sauces, Indonesian mie goreng calls for kecap manis, a thick, sweet soy sauce essential to many Indonesian dishes.  

The ingredients in mie goreng can vary. If you order mie goreng at a warung (roadside food stall), you may get a simple dish of noodles, eggs, and nothing else. Typically, vegetables like carrots and cabbage are used. However, depending on the cook’s personal preference and market availability, you may find versions with bean sprouts, mustard greens, or spinach. Because Indonesia is a mostly Muslim country, mie goreng doesn’t usually contain pork. The most popular protein choices are chicken and shrimp, but my family enjoys fish- or beef-balls too. The noodles are always served with fried shallots and crunchy shrimp crackers, which may just be my favorite part. 

Since I live in the U.S. and can’t just pop into a warung to get my mie goreng fix, I make it at home. Taking inspiration from mie goreng Jawa (Javanese fried noodles), I season my noodles with bumbu dasar putih (a basic white spice paste that’s used as a foundation in many Indonesian dishes), kecap manis, and soy sauce. As for the other ingredients, it all depends on what I find at the market or have in my kitchen.

Although I can’t achieve proper “wok hei” (a Cantonese term used to describe the smoky, charred finish of a stir-fried dish) at home, I do follow a few guidelines to avoid a wok full of steamed, soggy noodles: I cook smaller portions at a time to avoid overcrowding the pan, and monitor the heat rigorously, adjusting the burner as needed so there is a constant sizzle. The result? Fragrant stir-fried noodles with tender vegetables that remind me of the mie goreng I used to enjoy at roadside stalls in Indonesia. Served with fried shallots, sambal oelek, and crisp shrimp crackers, mie goreng is a satisfying taste of home.

Stir-fried noodles on a plate.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Add the noodles and cook for 1 minute less than package directions; the noodles should retain a slight chew and not be fully cooked. Using a colander, drain immediately and rinse with cold running water to stop the cooking process. Shake the colander well, allowing any excess water to drip off.

Noodles in a colander.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In a large bowl, toss noodles with 2 tablespoons kecap manis along with soy sauce to evenly coat.

Tossing noodles in a bowl with tongs.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In a large wok or nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallot and garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 15 to 30 seconds.

Cooking aromatics in a wok.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Increase heat to medium-high and add the carrot, onion, salt, and pepper. Stir frequently, and cook until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the cabbage, and stir-fry until tender, 2 to 4 minutes.

Cooking vegetables in a wok.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Add seasoned noodles and cook, tossing frequently, until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and add 1 tablespoon kecap manis, if desired. Add scallions and stir through.

Stir-frying noodles and vegetables in a wok.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

For Serving: Divide noodles among 2 plates and sprinkle with fried shallots. Serve hot with acar timun, sambal, and shrimp crackers, if desired.

Garnishing noodles with fried shallots.
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Special Equipment

Large wok or skillet

Notes

I use Chinese wheat noodles to make mie goreng but you can use egg noodles or even the noodles from instant noodle packages. You can find fresh noodles in the refrigerated sections at Asian markets. Thin wonton noodles, Hong Kongstyle pan-fried noodles (chow mein), and lo mein all work great! If par-cooked, simply rinse with cold water to loosen the strands and remove any clumps. Dried Japanese noodles called chuka soba or Chinese chow mein noodles are available at most mainstream supermarkets. Ramen noodles work as well. Gluten-free rice noodles work too, and this dish is called bihun goreng.

Don’t overcrowd your pan while cooking. The ingredients won’t cook evenly and you won’t achieve the “wok hei” so sought after in stir-fried dishes. If you only have a small wok or pan, divide the ingredients in half and make one serving at a time.

If you have bumbu dasar putih (Indonesian white spice paste), substitute the shallot and garlic with 2 tablespoons of this paste.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Mie goreng can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

How to Make Tender, Juicy Chicken Satay at Home

Smoky, juicy, and savory chicken satay is one of Indonesia’s most beloved dishes—and with a set of skewers and a grill, it’s actually quite easy to make at home. With a few techniques I’ve picked up from my family, you may even be able to make satay that’s as good as my mother’s.

Overhead view of chicken sate
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

When I was a kid, satay—smoky, juicy, savory grilled meat on bamboo skewers—was a regular feature at my family’s barbecues. My mum always made two kinds: sate ayam (chicken satay) and sate babi (pork satay). She served the skewers with peanut sauce, sambal kecap (sweet soy sauce with chopped bird’s eye chiles and shallots), compressed rice cakes called lontong, and raw shallots and cucumbers. After devouring the grilled meat, I’d use the skewer to pierce bits of lontong and shallots, popping the pieces into my mouth after a quick dip in peanut sauce.

Satay is one of Indonesia’s most beloved dishes, and perhaps one of the most recognizable, too. Though the dish is enjoyed in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, many scholars believe it originated on Madura, an Indonesian island off the Java coast sometime during the 15th century. Writing about Indonesian food and identity in the Routledge Handbook of Food and Asia, Dr. Christina Nope-Williams notes that satay can be traced back to kebabs introduced by Arab Muslim merchants, which then spread to other parts of the region. 

Overhead view of finished chicken sate
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Today, you’ll find numerous varieties of satay made with chicken, beef, lamb, pork, rabbit, and even goat testicles, among many other meats and proteins. Though my favorite is satay babi, chicken is arguably the most popular in Indonesia and around the world. 

In the West, satay is offered at many Southeast Asian restaurants, and many might think of it as a restaurant dish. But if you have a set of skewers and a grill, satay is actually quite easy to make at home—and with a few techniques I’ve picked up from my family, you may even be able to make satay that’s as good as my mother’s.

Marinate Your Satay

Though my mother always makes her marinade shortly before grilling, I prefer preparing it well in advance so I can marinate the chicken, giving it more time to fully season the meat. As fellow Serious Eats contributor Tim Chin found, marinating your chicken for at least an hour helps to enhance browning and results in juicier, more tender meat that’s also more flavorful. I recommend marinating for at least an hour, but eight hours is best if you can spare the time.

Overhead view of marinating sate
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Traditionally, satay is marinated once skewered: You thread the meat onto the sticks, then flip-flop the raw skewered meat in the marinade, a technique used by abang abang sate—satay street vendors who plied the Jakarta streets of my mum’s youth. Though it’s a method my mother swears by, I prefer to marinate the chopped chicken in a bowl before skewering. Not only do I find this to be a more effective way of evenly coating the chicken, but it also means I don’t have to make room in my fridge for 30 sticks of satay.

Use Dark Meat

For satay that stays juicy even after grilling, it’s best to use dark meat. Unlike white meat, which dries out quickly, dark meat has connective tissue and additional fat that makes it a more forgiving cut, allowing you to give the meat a nice char for extra flavor without sacrificing texture. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are my preferred cut for satay—they’re just as easy to work with as chicken breasts, but are far more tender and flavorful.

Skewer Your Satay Correctly

Before bamboo skewers were common, sticks were often fashioned from the spines of coconut leaves called lidi. Though most parts of Indonesia use bamboo skewers today, cooks in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta often use metal skewers made from bicycle spokes to thread pieces of goat or mutton for sate klatak. (Bamboo skewers can easily be found in most grocery stores, but it’s worth investing in a set of reusable metal skewers if you plan on making satay regularly.) 

Beyond the material of your skewers, how you cut the meat matters, too. Some people like to slice the meat lengthwise into longer strips, while others, like my family, prefer cubed chunks of meat. Using strips of meat can speed up the cooking time, but also increases the risk of it overcooking. Cutting your chicken into chunks means you can pack it onto the skewer tightly and, as Kenji noted in his Thai-inspired satay recipe, “reduces the ratio of surface area to volume,” allowing you to adequately brown the meat while also keeping the interior of the chicken moist. 

Skewering chicken sate
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Once the chicken is marinated, I thread the meat onto the skewers carefully. It’s a task I’ve been perfecting since I was 12, when my mum put me in charge of assembling all the satay for our barbecues. After all the hours spent skewering meat, I can practically do it with my eyes closed. I always weave each chicken piece onto the stick longways, trying to catch as much meat as possible. This discourages floppy pieces of meat and ensures that as much surface is exposed as possible. Push the pieces close together, covering the bamboo tip, so that the skewer doesn’t burn.

How to Set Up Your Grill for Satay

For that crisp, caramelized exterior, satay is typically grilled directly over an open fire (no grill grates!), often with coconut husks as an alternative fuel source. Though you could use a traditional grill setup, it really isn’t ideal. As former Serious Eats editor Sasha Marx wrote in his guide to setting up a grill for skewers, satay benefits from being closer to coals for higher heat so you get a good char without overcooking the interior of the thin pieces of meat. “Cooked on a more standard charcoal grill, with greater distance between coals and food, the skewers’ exteriors end up dried-out and leathery rather than charred and juicy,” he notes. “And the spread-out coals, coupled with a longer cooking time, can easily burn the exposed surfaces of wooden skewers.”

Arranging glowing coals between two parallel walls of foil-wrapped bricks for cooking skewers in a kettle grill.

The easiest solution is to use a coal-fired hibachi or konro grill. Another method, if you’re using a kettle grill, is to modify your existing grill set up with some foil and a few bricks.

  1. Wrap four bricks in aluminum foil.
  2. Place several pieces of scrunched up foil at the bottom of your grill. Build two parallel walls with the bricks, set three-quarters of a skewer’s length apart. 
  3. Pour lit coals into the tunnel between the bricks to create an area over which to cook your skewers.

And if all you have is a gas-fired grill, your satay will still be tasty—you just won’t get the same gosong (charred) flavor. (You can always run a blow torch over your finished skewers to give it that smoky flavor—just be mindful of safety when doing so.)

How to Serve Satay

Even though peanut sauce is the most popular dipping sauce for satay in the West, there are many other condiments and dishes to serve with it. If you have goat satay (sate kambing), the peanut sauce on the side may be flavored with petis (black shrimp paste) which adds a salty-sweet hint of umami. Sate klatak, skewers of goat meat, are usually accompanied by gulai, a rich soup spiced with aromatics like lemongrass, cloves, cumin, and coriander. Sate Padang, beef satay from its namesake city in Sumatra, comes with a thick yellow sauce flavored with turmeric, coriander, galangal, and cumin, among other spices. And sate taichan, chicken breast marinated with garlic and fresh lime juice, is enjoyed with a simple sambal and more lime juice. Though these are all delicious options, peanut sauce—or sambal kacang—is among the easiest and most accessible for most home cooks in the West.

Overhead view of drizzling sauce
Serious Eats / Melat Citrawireja

Still, you can take the time and effort to make a superb peanut sauce that outshines the ready-made stuff in stores. There was a time in my life when I’d make the effort to fry red-skinned peanuts in a wok and grind them to make sambal kacang, which is what my mother did when I was growing up. Nowadays, she unashamedly starts with store-bought chunky peanut butter.

I settled on middle ground for this recipe, and use store-bought unsalted, roasted peanuts that I grind to a paste with a food processor. To streamline things, you can make the peanut sauce in advance. I personally recommend always keeping a jar on hand—for all the times a satay craving hits; and once you realize how easy and versatile peanut sauce is (it’s great for other preparations too!), I suspect you’ll want to make it all the time.

In a large bowl, whisk 1/4 cup peanut sauce with the kecap manis, oil, lime juice, salt, and lime leaves until combined. Season to taste with additional kecap manis, lime juice, and salt as needed. Add chicken to marinade and toss to evenly coat. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Two image collage of whisking marinades
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Thread 4 to 5 chicken pieces onto each skewer, packing them together tightly at the pointed end. Repeat with remaining chicken and skewers; reserve leftover marinade for basting.

Two image collage of skewering chicken
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Open grill's bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter 2/3 filled with charcoal briquettes (about 4 quarts). When top coals are lit and partially covered with grey ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and open lid vent fully, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set the burners on a gas grill to the medium-high setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.

Two image collage of oiling grill
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Working in batches if needed, place chicken skewers over hot side of grill and cook, turning often and basting occasionally with reserved marinade, until cooked through and lightly charred, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer cooked satay to a plate or rimmed baking sheet and cover with aluminum foil while grilling the remaining skewers.

Four image collage of girlling skewers
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Arrange satay on a large platter with shallots, cucumber, and lontong, if using. Drizzle satay with peanut sauce and kecap manis. Sprinkle with fried shallots. Serve immediately with a small bowl of peanut sauce for dipping. 

Four image collage of dressing skewers
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Notes

Some grocery stores carry bamboo skewers and you can easily purchase them online, but if you plan on making satay regularly, it’s worth investing in a set of reusable metal skewers. 

To soak bamboo skewers, place them in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish and cover with water. Let soak for 30 minutes.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Chicken thighs can be marinated up to 24 hours in advance.

Cooked satay can be removed from skewers and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

How to Make Gado Gado, Indonesia’s Iconic Salad With Peanut Sauce

Served with a savory peanut sauce and loaded with fresh vegetables, boiled eggs, and fried tofu or tempeh, gado gado is an iconic Indonesia dish that’s fit for both dinner parties and easy weeknight meals.

Overhead view of Gado Gado
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Considered one of five national dishes by the Indonesian government, gado gado is a cherished meal that street vendors, restaurants, and home cooks serve across the country. The simple but hearty dish typically consists of blanched cabbage, mung bean sprouts, green beans, potatoes, fresh cucumber, and lettuce, along with other accouterments like hard-cooked eggs and fried tofu or tempeh. There are no hard rules about what you can and cannot include—any seasonal vegetable is fair game—and many, including myself, garnish the dish with fried shallots. Krupuk, Indonesian crackers made from shrimp, tapioca, or the melinjo nut, often accompany the dish.

Overhead view of individual serving of gado gado
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Many Indonesians believe that gado gado was created to imitate the salads Dutch colonizers ate. The word “gado” comes from “digado” and “menggado,” words in the Jakartan language Betawi meaning “to eat without rice.” Though this is technically true of the dish, many serve gado gado with steamed rice or lontong, compressed rice cakes traditionally wrapped and steamed in banana leaves.

Throughout Indonesia, there are many riffs on gado gado. Like gado gado, the following variations, which go by different names, pair fresh vegetables with savory peanut sauce gussied up with aromatics and spices, such as kencur (sand ginger), makrut lime leaves, and extra garlic, among many other seasonings. 

  • Pecel: Green beans, cabbage, baby spinach, and mung bean sprouts with steamed rice and peanut sauce.
  • Karedok: Green beans, cabbage, cucumbers, mung bean sprouts, lemon basil and peanut sauce made with kencur and shrimp paste.
  • Lothek: Green beans, cabbage, baby spinach, mung bean sprouts, boiled eggs, fried tempeh, and peanut sauce.
  • Ketroprak: Rice noodles with vegetables, tofu, and peanut sauce.


Gado gado is one of my mum’s go-to dishes for large crowds, and it often makes an appearance at dinner parties. Just before serving, she’d toss all the ingredients together with peanut sauce and bring the gado gado out on a big serving platter. Like my mum, I often prepare the dish for dinner parties—but I prefer to keep the ingredients and sauce separate to prevent the vegetables from getting too soft. 

What makes the salad such a great dish for gatherings is also what makes it a wonderful weekday lunch or weeknight dinner: It’s simple, delicious, and relatively easy to prepare in advance. All you have to do is slice up a variety of vegetables (blanching some and keeping others raw), boil some eggs, and whip up a rich peanut sauce to dress it all with. Paired with store-bought fried tofu, it’s a filling, vegetable-packed meal that takes 30 minutes to assemble—which helps explain why it's such a popular recipe throughout Indonesia's homes, restaurants, and street stalls. 

For the Peanut Sauce: If using roasted peanuts, process in a high-speed blender or food processor until a paste with the texture of wet sand forms, 3 to 4 minutes. (It will be coarser than peanut butter; you will get about 1 cup). Transfer peanut paste to a small bowl and set aside.

Overhead view of peanut paste
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Add shallots, garlic, red chiles, bird’s eye chiles, palm sugar, salt, and shrimp paste to the now empty food processor or blender and pulse until the mixture resembles cooked oatmeal, about 30 seconds to 1 minute, using a flexible spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add 1 or 2 teaspoons of water if mixture is too thick and not turning in the food processor.

Two image collage of shallots and chiles in food processor
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In a small saucepan, bring lime leaves, tamarind, and 1 cup (240ml) water to a gentle boil over medium heat. Simmer, using a spoon or spatula to break up the tamarind pulp as much as possible, to infuse the flavors, about 5 minutes. Remove the lime leaves and remaining tamarind solids.

Two image collage of cooking tamarind paste and removing leaves
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Stir in ground peanuts and chile paste and continue to cook until the mixture starts bubbling, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often to prevent sauce from sticking to bottom of the pot, until thick and creamy, 4 to 6 minutes. If you prefer a looser sauce, add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you reach your desired consistency. Add lime juice, if using, and season to taste. Set aside.

Four image collage of finishing cooking peanut sauce
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

For the Gado Gado: Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add potatoes, and cook until fork tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Using a colander, drain potatoes; set aside. 

Overhead view of boiled potatoes
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Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Prepare an ice bath by filling a large mixing bowl with water and ice. Add Cabbage to boiling water and cook until translucent and just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Using tongs or a fine-mesh strainer, transfer to ice bath. When cool, remove cabbage from ice bath and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet lined with paper towels to dry. Set cabbage aside. Repeat with green beans, blanching until bright green and tender, 1 to 2 minutes; transfer to ice bath, then towels. Finally blanch bean sprouts until just wilted, 15 to 30 seconds; transfer to ice bath, then drain on towels.

Overhead view of prepping vegetables
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To Assemble: Arrange potatoes, cabbage, green beans, bean sprouts, cucumber, eggs, and tofu on a large platter, then serve: Diners should select an assortment of ingredients from the platter, transfer them to their individual plate,  drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons sauce, and garnish with shrimp chips and fried shallots.

Overhead view of finished gado gado
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Special Equipment

Food processor, blender, or mortar and pestle; medium saucepan; colander, tongs, or fine-mesh strainer

Notes

The recipe can easily be scaled up if desired. To make this dish vegetarian, omit the terasi. 

For peanut allergies, use cashews or almonds instead. Peanut butter is a convenient option, however, I encourage you to at least start with store-bought roasted peanuts. The texture and flavor does not compare.

1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce; 15g) sambal oelek can be substituted for 2 red chiles.

Shrimp paste, makrut lime leaves and kecap manis are often available at Asian grocery stores, especially those specializing in Southeast Asian ingredients. While shrimp paste, makrut lime leaves, and lime juice aren’t necessary, they make a sauce that’s more deeply flavored. 

Look for fried tofu in the refrigerated section at Asian markets. They can be labeled as deep fried tofu, tofu puffs, or soy puffs (I like Nature’s Soy brand). Baked tofu also works well. I always buy my fried tofu from a specialty tofu shop called Thanh Son Tofu in Northern Virginia. Perhaps there’s a similar store near where you live. 

Make-Ahead and Storage

The peanut sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. To reheat, warm peanut sauce in a saucepan set on medium-low heat. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to loosen to desired consistency.

How to Make Indonesian Peanut Sauce for Satay and More

With a rich nuttiness and bold flavor from shallots, garlic, red chiles, palm sugar, and tamarind paste, peanut sauce is a delicious staple in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Here’s how to make it at home.

Overhead view of peanut sauce
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Oh, peanut sauce, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

In Indonesia, peanut sauce is a staple served alongside many dishes, including satay, gado-gado, and meat- or fish-stuffed vegetables called siomay. Traditionally, cooks prepare peanut sauce by pounding roasted or fried peanuts to a paste using a mortar and pestle. The condiment has a rich nuttiness and gets its bold flavor from a mix of shallots, garlic, red chiles, and palm sugar, while a touch of vinegar, lime juice, or tamarind paste lends it an acidic kick. The sauce is ubiquitous throughout the country, where it goes by sambal kacang, saus kacang, or bumbu kacang, depending on the region. 

Overhead view of peanut sauce
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Though these all refer to peanut sauce, they can vary in their preparations. Some may call for fried garlic and chiles, while others may incorporate fragrant makrut lime leaves or lemongrass, savory shrimp paste, and kecap manis (a sweet soy sauce), among many other ingredients. Across Indonesia, you’ll find sauces that are as thick as gravy and others as thin as heavy cream. Despite their differences, each is as essential to Indonesian cuisine as the others. Satay would be incomplete without the thick version sauce it's served with for dipping, and kroket (meat-filled potato croquettes) would be much less enjoyable without the fiery heat of the variation called sambal kacang. Karedok, a salad from West Java similar to gado-gado, gets its additional brightness from a peanut sauce infused with peppery, herbaceous sand ginger. 

It’s unclear when Indonesians first began preparing peanut sauce, but the arrival of the peanut in Indonesia can be traced back to 1690, when Spanish and Portuguese colonists brought the legume to Asia. According to culinary historian Andrew F. Smith and author of Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, peanuts had made their way across India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China by the 18th century. This may explain why peanuts and peanut sauce are also present in other Southeast Asian cuisines.

Overhead view of peanut sauce
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja


In Thailand, for example, peanut sauce is frequently eaten with its version of satay. Thai peanut sauce almost always contains red curry paste, which tints it red and infuses it with aromatic galangal, lemongrass, cilantro roots, and makrut lime leaves. And that peanut sauce you dip your Vietnamese rice paper rolls in? Its salty-sweet flavor comes from a blend of fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and granulated sugar. In Singapore, hawkers pour chile-infused peanut sauce over satay bee hoon, rice vermicelli noodles with bean sprouts, water spinach, and cuttlefish. 

The peanut sauce recipe below is a simpler take on my Indonesian Chinese mother’s, who likes to toast raw, skin-on peanuts in a large wok until golden, then grind them—either by hand with a mortar and pestle or in the bowl of a food processor—until the nuts have the consistency of wet sand. It’s a slightly thicker version that’s best eaten with gado gado, satay, and ketropak, a rice noodle dish with vegetables and tofu.

Though I occasionally go to similar lengths, I typically choose the easier, more convenient route by using store-bought crunchy peanut butter, albeit the natural kind that contains only peanuts. Still, I recommend trying this with whole peanuts: Not only are whole peanuts more economical to purchase, they’re also more flavorful when freshly ground. As I once wrote for Epicurious, peanuts, like spices, tend to stale and go rancid quickly once ground, so using whole will generally produce a more fragrant peanut sauce. But there's no right or wrong, and if you need peanut sauce in a hurry, do as I do and go for the peanut butter. It's better than the alternative—which is no peanut sauce at all.

If using roasted peanuts, process in a high-speed blender or food processor until a paste the texture of wet sand forms, 3 to 4 minutes. (It will be coarser than peanut butter; you will get about 1 cup. If using a mortar and pestle, grind roasted) Transfer peanut paste to a small bowl and set aside.

Overhead view of peanut paste
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Add shallots, garlic, red chiles, bird’s eye chiles, palm sugar, salt, and shrimp paste (if using) to the now empty food processor or blender and pulse, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed with a flexible spatula, until the mixture resembles cooked oatmeal, 30 seconds to 1 minute. If paste is too thick and not turning in the food processor, add water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it loosens to your desired consistency.

Two image collage of shallots and chiles in food processor
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In a small saucepan, bring lime leaves, tamarind, and 1 cup (240 ml) water to a gentle boil over medium heat. Simmer, using a spoon or spatula to break up the tamarind pulp as much as possible and infuse the flavors, about 5 minutes. Remove the lime leaves and remaining tamarind solids.

Two image collage of cooking tamarind paste and removing leaves
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Stir in ground peanuts and chile paste, and cook over medium heat. When the mixture starts bubbling, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until thick and creamy, stirring often to prevent sauce from sticking to bottom of the pot, 4 to 6 minutes  If you prefer a looser sauce, add water 1 tablespoon at a time until you reach your desired consistency. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve.

Four image collage of finishing cooking peanut sauce
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Special Equipment

Food processor, blender, or mortar and pestle

Notes

The texture and flavor of peanut butter cannot compare to that of whole peanuts, but if you’d prefer the convenience of peanut butter, use 2/3 cup natural unsalted crunchy peanut butter (6 ounces; 170g). Try to look for the freshly ground peanut butter in grocery stores, as it’s the closest in taste and texture to freshly ground peanuts. Use creamy if that’s what you prefer. 

Almonds or cashews can be substituted for peanuts.

1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce; 15g) sambal oelek can be substituted for 2 red chiles.

Indonesian palm sugar, known as gula merah, gula Jawa or gula aren, is less processed than the more ubiquitous pale yellow version used in Thai cooking. Gula Malacca from Malaysia is similar. Gula merah can be found at Asian grocery stores, especially those specializing in Southeast Asian ingredients. Coconut sugar or dark brown sugar can be substituted for palm sugar. 

Shrimp paste, makrut lime leaves and kecap manis are often available at Asian grocery stores, especially those specializing in Southeast Asian ingredients. 

Tamarind concentrate sold in jars and tubs is not my first choice because they vary in quality. You will likely have to use two to three times the amount listed in my recipe. Just taste as you go.

The recipe can easily be doubled if desired. 

To make peanut sauce with a mortar and pestle: Grind roasted, unsalted peanuts until they have the texture of coarse sand. Transfer peanut paste to a small bowl and set aside. Using the now empty mortar and pestle, pound shallots, garlic, red chiles, bird’s eye chiles, palm sugar, salt, and shrimp paste (if using) until the mixture is thick like oatmeal. Proceed with step 3.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Store peanut sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. To reheat, warm peanut sauce in a saucepan set on medium-low heat. Add water, one tablespoon at a time, to loosen to desired consistency. 

This Aromatic Spice Paste Is My Shortcut for Easy Weeknight Meals

This white spice paste is the cornerstone of many Indonesian meals and is the base of many other essential flavorings within the cuisine. Plus: Having a jar in my fridge means I can whip up my favorite meals at a moment’s notice.

Overhead view of white spice paste
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In Indonesian cuisine, spice pastes called bumbu bumbu—repeating the noun makes it plural— are the cornerstone of many dishes. This white spice paste, known as bumbu dasar putih, is one of several bumbu dasar (basic pastes) that serve as the foundation for many Indonesian dishes. It’s typically made with garlic, shallots, candlenuts, and coriander, but some cooks may incorporate aromatics like makrut lime leaves, galangal, and/or lemongrass to add complexity to  it. Like other Indonesian spice pastes, bumbu dasar putih is named for its color. Unlike other deeply hued and bold spice pastes, however, this white one has a neutral taste that complements a wide range of ingredients. 

Overhead view of finsihed bumbu putih
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

White spice paste is an easy way to flavor dishes, but I also use it as a base for preparing other bumbu dasar. For fiery red bumbu dasar merah, I incorporate spicy red chiles like Fresnos or bird’s eye chiles into it; for yellow bumbu dasar kuning, I add a hefty amount of earthy turmeric; and for black bumbu kluwek, I use the dark seed of the Pangium tree, which lends a smoky funkiness. These spice pastes are building blocks for many iconic Indonesian dishes: Crisp ayam goreng kunyit (turmeric-fried chicken) and my favorite chicken noodle soup, soto ayam, get their bright hue from bumbu dasar kuning, while bumbu dasar merah gives beef rendang (a dry beef curry) and telur balado (hard-boiled eggs in spicy sambal) bold heat. And rawon, a beef stew redolent with lime leaves and lemongrass, relies on bumbu dasar kluwek for its distinct earthy flavor and slight bitterness that’s reminiscent of dark chocolate and mushrooms.

Candlenuts (kemiri), a high-fat nut similar to macadamias, lend these spice pastes their velvety texture. Like walnuts, they have a mild, albeit slightly bitter flavor. Because they’re toxic when raw, they should only be consumed when fully cooked. Pounded candlenuts are used as a thickener in many Indonesian stews and curries. Though candlenuts are readily available online and at Southeast Asian grocery stores, you can substitute with macadamia nuts if you can’t find them. It’s rumored they’re called candlenuts because their high oil content makes them flammable, and they were once strung and used as candles.

What differentiates this white spice paste from others is its pleasant, mellow flavor. Because spice pastes are such a fundamental part of Indonesian cuisine, having ready-made bumbu dasar putih in the fridge makes it easier and faster for me to whip up treasured Indonesian meals, including opor ayam putih, a rich and creamy coconut-based chicken “curry” spiced with coriander and cumin. I make a big batch of white spice paste during the weekend, which sets me up for success all week long. With just a few tablespoons of bumbu dasar putih—which I fry in oil until fragrant before incorporating vegetables, proteins, and starches—I’m able to add exponentially more flavor to a simple stir-fry, soup, or fried rice.

Overhead view of ingredients
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Like my Indonesian Chinese mother, preparing my own spice pastes from scratch has become a part of my cooking routine. When I was growing up in Singapore, my mother made bumbu bumbu the traditional way with a mortar and pestle. Every day, she’d prepare fresh spice pastes for dinner that evening. I’d come home from school in the early afternoon to find her sitting on a stool in the kitchen, steadily pounding away. Depending on what was for dinner, she’d incorporate other ingredients like chiles, turmeric, or galangal to flavor the spice paste—but garlic and shallots were always a must.

While I respect my mother’s commitment to the mortar and pestle, I do not have such an affinity. More often than not, I rely on my trusty food processor to churn out my spice pastes. Not only is it quicker, but it also produces a more evenly-textured paste. Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve found that pulsing the paste—instead of puréeing it continuously—prevents overprocessing, liquefying, or bruising the ingredients, and results in a creamier paste. When the spice paste is too thick, I’ll add just enough liquid like oil or water to keep the mixture turning around the blades. But if you find yourself unable to effectively pulse the paste, I recommend using a spatula to scrape as needed.

Though the food processor is a much more efficient method, I do enjoy the meditative practice of grinding ingredients with a mortar and pestle when I’m not in a rush—plus, a mortar and pestle crushes the ingredients instead of chopping them, which releases more of their aromas into the paste. Making spice paste in the food processor also requires the addition of a small amount of oil to keep everything turning in the bowl, but you won’t need oil when using the mortar and pestle, as the paste will create its own emulsion as you pound.

Here are tips to keep in mind if you choose to go the mortar and pestle route:

  • Ingredients that are hard to pound, like coriander seeds, should be finely ground beforehand.
  • Pound the ingredients in order of hard to soft. Start by grinding the candlenuts. Then, incorporate tough aromatics like lemongrass and galangal, if using, followed by softer ones like shallots and garlic. (All the aromatics should be roughly chopped beforehand.) Finally, add the finely ground coriander and white pepper. 
  • Add a pinch of salt with each ingredient. This increases the friction and helps to more effectively break down the ingredients as you pound.

In a small stainless-steel skillet, toast candlenuts over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and aromatic, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer toasted nuts to a small bowl and set aside.

Overhead view of toastin pine nuts
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Add coriander seeds to the now-empty skillet and toast over medium heat until lightly browned and fragrant, about 1 1/2 minutes. Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind coriander into a coarse powder. (If using ground coriander skip this step and proceed with step 3.)

Two image collage of toasting and grinding coriander seeds
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In a small 3- or 4-cup food processor or blender, process toasted candlenuts, ground coriander, shallots, garlic, salt, pepper, and oil, stopping and scraping down sides as needed, until thick paste forms, about 1 minute. (Spice paste should have the texture of cooked oatmeal; if it is too thick, add oil or water, 1 tablespoon at a time until thick and creamy.)

Two image collage of overhead view of spice paste in food processor before and after
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In a wok or medium nonstick skillet, add the spice paste and fry over medium heat, stirring continuously until it is aromatic and deepens in color and the paste separates from the oil, about 15 minutes. Reduce heat as needed if the paste is browning too fast to avoid burning.

Two image collage of cooking white spice paste
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Transfer to a heat-proof bowl and let cool completely before transferring to an airtight glass container (see notes.) Seal tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Overhead view of finished white spice paste
Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Special Equipment

Mortar and pestle or spice grinder, 3- or 4-cup  food processor, flexible spatula, wok or nonstick skillet, glass container

Notes

Mildly toxic when raw, candlenut (kemiri) is used as a thickener in Indonesian cooking. In Hawaii, it is known as kukui nut and is a common ingredient in poke. You can find candlenuts at some Asian grocery stores (especially those specializing in Southeast Asian cuisines) and online. Macadamias have a similarly high oil content and texture when pounded and are a good substitute. 

This recipe can be easily halved or doubled. 

To prevent the aroma of the spice paste from permeating the fridge, store the paste in a container that can be tightly sealed. I recommend using glass, as plastic can take on the smell of the spice paste. Wrap the container with plastic wrap if needed.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Bumbu dasar putih can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to two weeks or or frozen for up to 3 months.

To freeze the spice paste, spoon spice paste into ice cube trays and freeze until solid, about 4 hours. Remove frozen cubes and transfer to a zip-top bag or airtight container, then keep frozen to use as needed.