Asian Market: Do-It-Yourself Indonesian Food

By Max van Balgooy, last updated 5/10/10 09:13am

If you enjoy Asian food but haven't gone further than China, Japan, or Thailand, you might find Indonesia the next natural place to explore—and you can do it right here in Rockville! Indonesia is the home of the famous Spice Islands, the crossroads between the cultures of China, India, and Arabia, and was colonized by several European countries, so you'll find that reflected in their spicy diverse foods.

Asian Market in the Twinbrook Shopping Center has the largest selection of Indonesian groceries in the region

The small Asian Market in the Twinbrook Shopping Center has the largest selection of Indonesian groceries in the region, but the shelves are packed with goods from around the Pacific Rim so it can be a bit daunting navigating the narrow aisles. If you haven't explored an Asian grocery store before, there are several in Rockville and all welcome shoppers to explore.

A sampling of the prepared spice packets available at Asian Market

You'll find produce, canned goods, frozen food, cooking utensils, snacks, candies, medicines, tea, noodles, rice, dried vegetables, and sometimes prepared foods and potted plants, often at good prices. You'll have to be a bit brave because you may find things you don't recognize (such as the spiny durian fruit) or are surprising (live fish in a tank).

To get a start with Indonesian food, you can do-it-yourself thanks to prepared spice packets. Look for the rows of glossy full-color packets made by IndoFood, Munik, or Bamboe. The recipe on the back is provided both in drawings and in English (which is sometimes translated amusingly) but typically you boil water, add the spice mixture and meat, and simmer until cooked. And it usually tastes better the next day, so you can look forward to leftovers. You'll have lots of choices for $2-3 a packet but you may want to start with nasi goreng (fried rice), rendang (spicy beef stew), or soto ayam (chicken soup).

If that's too much work, you can add an Indonesian twist to your meals through sambals.Wherever you would use a hot sauce or salsa, you can use a sambal—stir it into soups, add it as a condiment with steaks, or mix it into a spread. But just as there are many different types of salsas, there are lots of sambals. You'll find them in jars near the other hot sauces and spices and I found more than dozen at the Asian Market.

Wherever you would use a hot sauce or salsa, you can use a sambal

The simplest version is sambal oelek (sometimes spelled ulek—words are often spelled phonetically), which is just freshly ground chilis with perhaps a little garlic or tomatoes. It's just plain hot, hot, hot, just like the red pepper sauce from Louisiana.

For a more sophisticated taste, use sambal badjak (sometimes spelled bajak), which is made of ground chilis cooked with a variety of flavorful ingredients, usually onions, garlic, galangal, lemon grass, tamarind, salt, and sugar. It can still be hot, but it's much more interesting. Use it where you would a chutney or relish and plop a teaspoon on your dinner plate. I like it with Chinese food, especially fried rice or noodles. But you'll need to need to read the ingredient list carefully before you buy because some brands have more ingredients than others. For this reason, I recommend Cap Ibu (Mother) Brand.

If you're looking for an alternative to teriyaki, try kecap sambal, a spicy soy sauce sold in bottles, which is wonderful on grilled chicken. If you want to be adventurous for dessert, try dribbling sambal rojak on fresh pineapple, mangoes, strawberries, or peaches. It's made with tamarind and palm sugar, so you taste both sweet and sour, just like balsamic vinegar.

If you're already familiar with Indonesian food, you'll find the Asian Market has lots more, including shrimp crackers (krupuk), sweet soy sauce (kecap manis), peanut sauce (sambal kacang), palm sugar (gula jawa), and fried banana snacks (pisang goreng), but you have to hunt around for it in the store. Have fun exploring in another culture in your home town!

Asian Market
2200 Veirs Mill Road, Rockville
On Veirs Mill Road just north of Twinbrook Parkway, in the Twinbrook Shopping Center, between Safeway and CVS.
(301) 424-1808
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9 am-8:30 pm; Sunday 9 am-8 pm.
Accepts major credit cards, debit cards, and checks.

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