Gado gado, or steamed vegetable salad with spicy peanut sauce (Indonesia)

Indonesia is a geographically small country in Southeast Asia consisting of almost 18,000 islands, several of which only partially belong to it. Yet it has over 250 million inhabitants (nearly as many as in the U.S.!) belonging to over 300 ethnicities, with over 700 different languages, which is quite special. At least one country where the national motto makes a lot of sense. “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” means “Unity in diversity”. While there has been conflicts, I think the country is surprisingly stable considering the diversity. It is a Muslim-majority country, but officially a secular one, though there is administrative district ruled by Sharia law. Until the end of second world war, Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands, which remains very visible in both countries. E.g. Indonesian food is hugely popular here and considered ordinary everyday food. The Sumatran orangutan lives on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Batik and other textiles have been culturally important, while badminton and football are the most important sports, with the country particularly exceling in the former.

Of course Indonesian cuisine reflects the diversity, as well, though it is still surprisingly recognisable as a whole, mostly due to the plentiful use of spices and some ingredients. Tempeh, a fermented soy product and probably the healthiest way to eat soy besides natto (miso is hardly a “food”) was invented in Indonesia and remains very popular, in no way exclusive to vegetarian dishes. The same goes for tofu. Oncom is a fermented product somewhat similar to tempeh. Most meat-free dishes feature fish sauce, shrimp paste and/or boiled eggs. Typical ingredients, some of which do not commonly feature in Indonesian restaurants abroad, include e.g. kangkong (water spinach), sweet potato, corn, eggplant, cucumber, bitter melon, chayote, calabash, drumsticks, luffa and yard-long beans, though there is a huge variety of vegetables used.

Spices are often ground into spice pastes or bumbu. They include e.g. clove, nutmeg, ginger, galangal, chili, coriander, Indonesian bay leaf, turmeric, lemongrass, pandan, cinnamon and candlenut. Bumbus are so complex it’s often difficult to discern individual spices. Coconut, peanut, palm sugar, shallots, lime juice and tamarind also add important flavour. Kejap manis is a sweet soy sauce with palm sugar. The most famous Indonesian dishes are probably nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay (meat skewers with peanut sauce). Several dishes, sides and condiments are usually served at once, culminating in the rijsttafel feast, which is a table full of dishes. Foods are usually served with rice, sambal (chili sauce) and krupuk (prawn crackers), often also pickles and things to sprinkle over, like spiced coconut. There are many types of cakes and pastries. Fruit and fruit juices are very important. There are many sweet, thick, iced, often soup-like drinks that are served like desserts. Fruit may also be served as fruit chips.

Gado gado is one of my favorite dishes and there are varying ideas of what goes into it. Some list potatoes as mandatory while others as optional or do not include them at all (I’ve never seen gado gado with potatoes in the Netherlands). Usually it seems to feature cucumber, bean sprouts, green beans, and cabbage, sometimes carrot. Some recipes include e.g. tomatoes, spinach, water spinach, jackfruit, bitter melon, chayote and/or corn. Eggs, fried tempeh and fried tofu are almost always included. I’ve had gado gado that included cubes of rice. Which vegetables you include is probably not so important. Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and such would also work nicely.

There is also wide variation in how the peanut sauce is flavored, depending on the island of origin, but all recipes seem to use palm sugar and most have tamarind, though the amount varies. Kejap manis (sweet soy sauce) and lime juice are also common. Others feature coconut milk, sambal oelek, garlic, galangal and/or lime leaves. Most recipes have shrimp paste or fish sauce, too, so I used a little marmite. Gado gado is usually topped with fried shallots, emping crackers and shrimp crackers, but I don’t like emping. Luckily there are other types of vegan crackers available. If you can’t find fried shallot (they seem surprisingly hard to find here, finally found them outside of Chinatown), use packaged fried onion.

I based my recipe mostly on Maangchi‘s but also looked at some others, both from blogs and cookbooks. If you want truly authentic gado gado, you should use roasted peanuts and grind them yourself, but natural (sugar-free) peanut butter is not a bad base.

Gado gado

Gado gado

For the sauce

1 heaping tbsp tamarind paste + 1/4 cup boiling water
(2 lime leaves or 1/4 tsp grated lime rind)
1-3 bird’s eye chilis, ground
1 cup/2.5 dl natural peanut butter (preferably chunky) or 1 cup roasted peanuts (see notes)
3/4 cup/1.8 dl hot water
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1/4 cup/0.6 dl palm sugar (or coconut sugar for ease of use)
1.5 tbsp kejap manis
(1 tsp marmite/vegemite)


white cabbage
bean sprouts
green beans
and/or other fresh vegetables, see the notes
firm tofu (or fried tofu from an Asian store)
oil for frying

To serve

white rice (optional)
vegetarian krupuk
fried shallot

Soak the tamarind paste in the 1/4 cup boiling water for about 1 hour. If using lime leaves, also add them here. Strain. Add the liquid and the hot water and all the other ingredients to the peanut butter. Mix until emulsified. Add more water or spices as needed. If you’re going to serve the sauce cooler, remember that it will thicken, but you can always add more water later. Once the peanut butter is diluted, even cold water works well.

Prepare the vegetables, e.g. slice and remove the tails from the beans. Blanch or quickly steam the vegetables, except for cucumber. For the beans you might want to use five minutes, but for cabbage and sprouts only 1-2 minutes. Also steam the tempeh for about 10 minutes to reduce the inherent taste.

Cut the tofu and tempeh into fairly thin slices. Fry the tofu and tempeh in plentiful oil until browned and crisp on the sides. Drain on kitchen towels to remove excess fat.

You can serve the whole dish warm or at room temperature or only warm the sauce. Place all the salad ingredients on a plate. Usually it’s done in sections, not mixed. Pour some of the sauce on top and add fried shallot on top. The krupuk can be placed on top or eaten with the dish.

The sauce makes about 4-5 portions.

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