Cook this: Tempe manis — sweet soy tempeh — from Coconut and Sambal

'You've got the heat and the sweet, and you've got a bit of saltiness,' says Lara Lee

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Our cookbook of the week is Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen by Lara Lee. Over the next two days, we’ll feature another recipe from the book and an interview with the author.

To try another recipe from the book, check out: Martabak daging (lamb martabak) and nasi goreng ayam (chicken nasi goreng).

Sticky, sweet and gently spicy with the crunch of roasted peanuts and snap of snow peas, Lara Lee learned how to make tempe manis (sweet soy tempeh) in central Java.

“Central Java is really quite famous for loving sweet food. Some regions are very spicy but in central Java it’s very sweet,” says Lee, adding that since palm sugar is produced on the island, it naturally finds its way into the food.

Lee devotes a chapter to vegetables, tofu and tempeh in Coconut & Sambal. All hold a special place on the Indonesian table, but it’s tempeh that’s known as the country’s “gift to the world.”

The soybean cake originated in Java, where it’s fermented in banana leaves and used to its fullest. Indonesian cooks use it in a wide range of dishes, says Lee, whether deep-fried, grilled, poached, steamed or stir-fried.


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Shallow-fried until golden, the irresistible aspect of this dish is the crisp outer coating and nutty, toasty flavour the tempeh takes on in the pan.

It’s rich in aromatics — makrut lime leaves, bruised lemongrass, garlic and shallots — with a touch of red chili heat. Simply made by mixing palm sugar with kecap manis, the finishing sauce comes together quickly.

More On This Topic

  1. Lamb martabak from Coconut and Sambal.

    Cook this: Martabak daging — lamb martabak — from Coconut and Sambal

  2. Chicken nasi goreng from Coconut and Sambal.

    Cook this: Nasi goreng ayam — chicken nasi goreng — from Coconut and Sambal

  3. Indonesian and Australian chef Lara Lee runs a catering company, Kiwi & Roo, in London, England.

    'It's always a feast': In Coconut and Sambal, chef Lara Lee shares recipes from her Indonesian kitchen

“Although it would seem like it might be too sweet, it just works. You’ve got the heat and the sweet, and you’ve got a bit of saltiness,” says Lee.

“It’s such a lovely, lovely meal to eat. But something that you can actually easily make on a Tuesday night, which I love about it because it feels like a special-occasion food even though it’s something that’s very easy to whip up.”

Coconut and Sambal by Lara Lee
Coconut and Sambal is London-based chef Lara Lee’s first cookbook. Photo by Bloomsbury


Tempe Manis

Origin: Java
Chili heat: Moderate

90 g unsalted peanuts or unsalted roasted peanuts
400 g tempeh, cut into 1 x 3-cm chunks
Large pinch of salt
3 small banana shallots or 6 Thai shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 long red chilies, thinly sliced (deseeded if you prefer less heat)
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised and tied in a knot
4 makrut lime leaves or 2 bay leaves
6 thin slices of ginger or galangal, skin on
200 g snow peas, trimmed
3 tbsp kecap manis (recipe follows or store-bought), plus optional extra for grilling
2 tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar mixed with 2 tbsp water
Sea salt, to taste
Coconut oil or sunflower oil, for frying


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Step 1

If roasting your own peanuts, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F), scatter the peanuts over a baking sheet and bake for 5–10 minutes or until golden, shaking the sheet during cooking so they roast evenly. Set aside. If using store-bought roasted peanuts you can skip this step.

Step 2

Heat 4 tablespoons of oil with a large pinch of salt in a frying pan over a high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add half the tempeh and fry until golden, about 3–4 minutes, then drain on a tray lined with paper towels. Repeat with the remaining tempeh, adding a little more oil if necessary. Alternatively, if you prefer to grill your tempeh, brush it with a mixture of 1 tablespoon each of oil and kecap manis and place it under the grill on a high heat for 3–4 minutes each side.

Step 3

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the shallots, garlic and chilies with the lemongrass, makrut lime leaves and ginger or galangal until fragrant and softened. Increase the heat to high, add another 1 tablespoon of oil and cook the snow peas for 1 minute. Add the fried tempeh and roasted peanuts, stirring them continuously. Finally, add the kecap manis, and sugar and water mix to the pan, stirring until it is caramelized and clinging to the ingredients. Season with salt. Remove the lemongrass stalk and slices of ginger or galangal, then serve immediately.

Serves: 4

Note: Best served with red rice, tempe manis lasts for up to 3 days in the fridge.


60 mL (1/4 cup) light soy sauce or gluten-free tamari
90 g palm sugar or brown sugar

Step 1

Combine the soy sauce and sugar in a small saucepan, place over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and thicken to the consistency of maple syrup. This should take no longer than 5 minutes. Leave to cool.

Makes: about 120 mL (1/2 cup)

Recipes and image excerpted from Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen by Lara Lee. Food photography by Louise Hagger © 2020 Reproduced by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved.

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