Sayur Asem is an Indonesian vegetable soup with tamarind. The tamarind tree originated from Africa but is currently one of the most common trees in Indonesia. It produces pod-like fruits that contains a brown, edible pulp used in cuisines all over the world. In fresh or processed form tamarind adds an acidic or sour flavor to many Indonesian dishes like this Sayur Asem.
The origin of Sayur Asem can be traced to the Sundanese people of West Java, Banten and Jakarta. Of course several varieties exist nowadays throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Sayur Asem is a popular soup dish consisting of vegetables such as beans, corn, cabbage and sometimes jackfruit. Exotic ingredients like chayote and the leaves and unpeeled seeds of melinjo are also common. Chayote can be found at Asian supermarkets but melinjo is hard to find.
Chayote, also known as mirliton squash, is an edible plant belonging to the gourd family. Chayote was one of the several foods introduced to the Old World during the Columbian Exchange (when Columbus discovered the America's and introduced several fruits and vegetables native to the America's to Europe). The fruit of the chayote does not need to be peeled to be cooked or fried in slices and it has a very mild flavor. Nowadays chayote is used a lot in Sundanese cuisine on Java. If you can't find chayote at an Asian supermarket you can substitute it with zucchini.
The melinjo tree a small to medium-size tree native to southeast Asia and growing up to 15–20 metres tall. The melinjo tree is commonly cultivated throughout the Aceh region on Sumatra and is regarded as a vegetable of high status. Both the leaves and the nuts are used in many Indonesian dishes. Melinjo leaves and nuts are hard to find in the Netherlands. If you can't find melinjo substitute the seeds with raw peanuts and omit the leaves.
Because I couldn't find melinjo leaves and nuts anywhere in the Netherlands I substituted the nuts with regular raw peanuts and omitted the leaves. Ingredients I used for my version of Sayur Asem are lemongrass, shallots, galangal root, garlic, candlenuts (kemiri), ginger, raw peanuts, palm sugar (gula jawa), one Thai bird's eye chilli, three Spanish chillies (lombok), salam leaves (daun salam), tamarind, trassi shrimp paste (substitute with 1 teaspoon salt for a vegan Sayur Asem), green beans, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, sweet corn and chayote.
The ingredients as pictured above are for 2 people by the way. My version of Sayur Asem is a bit too reddish compared to others but that's because I like it spicy and added some more chillies.
To prepare Sayur Asem first make the spice paste (bumbu). Add the spice paste ingredients to a food processor and pulse until a smooth paste forms. Add a bit of water if needed. Set aside.
Next, heat oil in a large (soup) pan. Add the spice paste and stir-fry until fragrant, about 2 minutes or until the shallots are cooked.
Once the spice paste is fried, add 1,5 liters of water (for 4 to 6 people), salam leaves, bruised lemongrass stalks, peeled and bruised galangal root piece, tamarind and palm sugar to the pan and bring to a boil. Add melinjo leaves and nuts (or raw peanuts) to the pan as well and boil for 10 minutes on medium heat with the lid on the pan.
Add chayote, green beans, sweet corn, cabbage and tomatoes to the pan. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15-20 minutes with the lid on the pan until vegetables are tender and cooked.
Have a taste and season with salt and sugar as needed. This Sayur Asem should be sweet, tangy, savory, and slightly spicy. Serve as a starter or add cooked rice and/ or (rice) noodles to the soup for a whole meal.
Ingredients for 4 - 6 people
For the soup:
100gr/ 3,5 oz melinjo nuts (or substitute with raw peanuts)
100gr/ 3,5 oz melinjo leaves (daun melinjo)
300gr/ 10,5 oz chayote (labu siam), peeled and cut into cubes, or substitute with zuccchini
100gr/ 3,5 oz green beans (cut in half)
1 sweet corn cut into 4cm pieces (or canned corn kernels)
200gr/ 7 oz (Chinese) cabbage leaves (cut into large pieces)
2 tomatoes (quartered)
6 salam leaves (daun salam)
2 lemongrass stalks (sereh), bruised
25gr/ 0,9 oz galangal root, peeled and bruised
5 tablespoons tamarind (asem Jawa)
3 tablespoons palm sugar (gula Jawa), or substitute with brown sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (coconut, peanut or sunflower oil)
1,5 liters/ 6 cups of water
Salt and extra sugar to taste
For the spice paste (bumbu):
1 thumb-size piece galangal root (peeled and sliced)
1 thumb-size piece ginger (peeled and grated)
3 shallots (cut roughly)
5 long (Spanish) chillies (lombok)
1 Thai bird's eye chilli (cabe rawit)
3 garlic cloves
4 candlenuts (kemiri)
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (trassi) – or substitute with 1 teaspoon salt for a vegan Sayur Asem.
First make the spice paste (bumbu). Add the spice paste ingredients to a food processor and grind into a smooth paste. Add a bit of water if needed. Set aside.
Heat oil in a large (soup) pan. Add the spice paste and stir-fry until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Add 1,5 liters of water, salam leaves, bruised lemongrass stalks, peeled and bruised galangal root piece, tamarind and palm sugar to the pan and bring to a boil.
Add melinjo nuts and leaves and boil for 10 minutes on medium heat.
Add chayote, green beans, sweet corn, cabbage and tomatoes to the pan. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15-20 minutes until vegetables are tender and cooked.
Have a taste and season with salt and sugar as needed. This Sayur Asem should be sweet, tangy, savory, and slightly spicy.