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Indonesian spice pastes (bumbu)

Indonesian spice pastes are a blend of spices and herbs, and the Indonesian name 'bumbu' (or boemboe in Dutch), commonly appears in the names of spice mixtures, sauces and seasoning pastes. The bumbu is the absolute foundation of lots of Indonesian dishes and it can be found throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Typical bumbu ingredients are ginger, turmeric, galangal, chillies, shallots/ onions, and garlic, combined with various spices and herbs, to enhance the flavor of food.

Different colored Indonesian spice paste's (bumbu) in a bowl on a table
Different colored Indonesian spice pastes (bumbu)

Indonesian bumbu history

During the age of European exploration in the 16th century, the Maluku islands were already known as 'Spice Islands' and world cuisine was influenced by their native spices. Spices and herbs such as nutmeg, mace, clove, pandan, and galangal, are native to Indonesia and were combined with spices and herbs from India and mainland Asia, such as black pepper, turmeric, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, cinnamon, candlenuts, coriander, ginger and tamarind. Spring onions and garlic were introduced from China. New World (South American) ingredients like chili peppers (Spanish chili) and tomatoes were introduced by Portugese and Spanish traders during the 16th century. Combining old and new ingredients, Indonesians made and improved their signature bumbu spice pastes over the centuries into the ones we all love nowadays.

Indonesian bumbu use

Indonesian spice pastes can be quite similar to Thai spice paste (nam prik) because of the use of fresh ingredients, and are unlike Indian spice pastes which favor a dried spice powder mix. Traditionally, fresh aromatics, herbs and spices are ground into a moist paste using a mortar and pestle. Nowadays, modern cooking tools like blenders and food processors are used to make a paste of the ingredients. The bumbu mixture is usually stir-fried in hot cooking oil (coconut, peanut, sunflower) first to release its aroma and cook the shallots/ onions, prior to adding the main ingredients such as meats, poultry, fish or vegetables.

Indonesian pestle and mortar used traditionally to grind spice pastes (bumbu) and sambals
Indonesian pestle and mortar used traditionally to grind spice pastes (bumbu) and sambals

The main goal of bumbu is to add flavour and aroma to food, but prior to the invention of refrigeration technology, spices were used as preservatives to extent shelf life. Garlic, shallots, ginger and galangal have antimicrobial properties and serve as natural organic preservatives. Rendang Daging (Indonesian slow cooked beef in coconut) is a perfect Indonesian example of preserving large amounts of meat in a tropical climate. Its durability is one of the reasons that nowadays prepackaged Rendang is sent as food aid to natural disaster survivors in Indonesia. If cooked properly, dry Rendang can last for as long as four weeks!

Indonesian bumbu varieties

In Indonesian cuisine there are many variations of bumbu spice paste mixtures, varying based on individual recipes and regional cuisine traditions. However, there are four basic bumbu's generally recognized in Indonesian cuisine and identified by color.

  1. Bumbu dasar putih (basic white bumbu) consists of ground shallot, garlic, galangal, candlenut and coriander. The color of this bumbu is white (putih) because of the large amounts of shallots and garlic. White bumbu spice pastes are generally used in Indonesian dishes with a whitish color, such as Sayur Lodeh, Opor Ayam, and various soups (soto or sop) like Mie Sop Ayam Medan. White bumbu spice pastes are sometimes complemented by adding Indonesian bay leaf (daun salam), Kaffir lime leaf (daun djeruk perut (Kaffir lime leaf) and lemongrass (sereh). White bumbu spice pastes can also be used to stir-fry vegetable, tofu and tempeh dishes.

  2. Bumbu dasar merah (basic red bumbu) consists of ground red chili pepper (lombok merah and/ or cabe rawit), shallot, garlic, tomato, roasted shrimp paste, coconut sugar, and salt. It can be used for various Indonesian dishes that have a reddish color such as various stir-fried vegetables (like Terong Balado), fried rice dishes (Nasi Goreng) and various sambal goreng dishes, such as Sambal Goreng Udang Peteh. Sometimes Indonesian bay leaf (daun salam), Kaffir lime leaf (daun djeruk perut), bruised lemongrass (sereh) and galangal (laos) are added while cooking.

  3. Bumbu dasar kuning (basic yellow bumbu) consists of ground shallot, garlic, candlenut, turmeric, coriander, ginger, galangal, and pepper. It is used in various Indonesian dishes that have a yellowish color, such as soups like Soto Ayam and fish dishes like Ikan Pepesan. Sometimes a pickled Acar variety can be used to top grilled or fried fish dishes (Ikan Bakar, Ikan Goreng).

  4. Bumbu dasar jingga/oranye (basic orange bumbu) consists of ground red chili pepper, shallot, garlic, anise, coriander, candlenut, turmeric, ginger, galangal, and pepper. It is used in various orange-colored Indonesian dishes and in dishes from the island of Sumatra such as Indonesian curries (like Kare Cumi) and of course Rendang Daging.

Want to learn more about spice pastes and make them yourself? Follow one of my Indonesian cooking workshops and I'll tell you all about them! In my essential cooking workshop you'll learn to make basic bumbu's for dishes such as Ayam Rica and Ikan Bali. In my advanced cooking workshop I'll guide you into making more challenging bumbu's like the one for Rendang Daging.

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