You often don’t realize how good something is until it is no longer there and out of your reach. I first moved abroad to the Netherlands in 2015 for my studies, I remember then I don’t often eat Indonesian food because well: eating out is expensive for students, Indonesian ingredients seems to be out of reach, cooking Indonesian food (in my head) is very complicated with many raw ingredients, and truth be told I am not sure if I can cook Indonesian food and replicate the food that I dearly love as a child.
Fast forward 2019 — I finished my studies then, I started working in the Netherlands and I started questioning my roots, my values, and what makes me unique. In this self-discover phase, I unearth my love for Sundanese food. I was raised in Jakarta but growing up I got exposed to many Sundanese saung restaurants, home cooked sayur asem, different kinds of pepesan and karedok. When having to face self-quarantine, I missed home even more. I missed the fresh, tangy, sweet and umami taste of sayur asem. Lucky for me I am able to gather all the main ingredients of sayur asem in Asian grocery stores in the Netherlands. From learning one dish I realized that the main components of many Javanese dishes are; onion, garlic, candlenut, salt, terasi, daun salam, and cabai. If you have these ingredients at home, you are guaranteed a tasty stir fry, soups, fried rice, and so much more.
Although sayur asem is now my go to dish when I would like to cook for Dutch colleagues, families and friends here; I thought this complex and tasty soup would not be complete without tempe goreng, sambal, and karedok. What I found difficult to find the last two years is daun kemangi or in English its known as lemon basil. Daun kemangi is the key ingredient to making fresh sambal tempe, karedok, and pepesan. I thought at first that I can potentially substitute daun Kemangi with Thai basil but I was wrong.
Thai basil have a more sturdy structure, it taste a bit minty but for me really different than the subtle taste of Kemangi. Kemangi is a lot more fragile in structure, but its subtle lemon/lime flavor is just the perfect herb to use to make sambal tempe and karedok. I tried to find kemangi in Asian supermarkets in bigger Dutch cities like Den Haag and Rotterdam, but no luck. At some point I gave up on trying to find this or trying to find a substitute for Kemangi. But what a nice surprise to have found kemangi hidden in local seasonal vegetables in a small suburban area of London under the name lemon basil. I fell in love immediately, mind you that I have not eaten kemangi for a good 5 years when I found them in a small community farmer’s market.
I was in awe and disbelief but also still wondering how people around the area use this herb in their kitchen. That my friend is still a mystery because I see very few south east Asian communities in the area where this famer’s market is located. Alas, I stuck to my roots and made sambal tempe right away after purchasing kemangi. It was the way I remember it, subtle yet brings much more flavor character to the food. After that day onwards, I am a bit on a mission to find kemangi in the Netherlands. And while it is available in bigger Asian supermarkets, at one moment I made karedok from scratch. Quite proud that I can make authentic Sundanese food but I would have not thought that at some point in my life finding kemangi is like finding a gem out of the sea of herbs.