Gado is the Indonesian word for “mix”, so this much-loved salad’s name literally translates as “mix mix”, though, in truth, it’s so hearty, it feels a disservice to label it a mere “salad” – as Surabaya native Pepy Nasution writes: “It is a one-dish meal.”
In a guest post for Bee Yin Low’s site, Rasa Malaysia, Nasution explains the many regional variations, from the gado-gado siram of East Java where, as the word siram (to “pour”) suggests, the peanut sauce is poured on top of the other ingredients, in contrast to the West Javanese version in which they’re tossed together, or the cashew-based gado-gado boplo found in some parts of Jakarta. In the introduction to her recipe in the New York Times, the food writer Hetty McKinnon notes that, in the capital, gado-gado tends to be quite carb-heavy, with both potatoes and lontong (rice cakes), while in West Java, lotek atah or karedok tends to go big on the raw vegetables. Some areas use coconut milk, some people save time with ready-made peanut butter. In fact, there are as many opinions about the best way to make this dish as there are ingredients. Here is my two rupiah’s worth.
As Eleanor Ford admits in her book Fire Islands, “it is the peanut dressing that makes this salad. So compelling is [it] that folk songs have been penned to its name in Jakarta.” The other ingredients can, to some extent, be considered a movable feast, adjusted to suit what you have available locally and enjoy eating; it’s the sambal kacang that pulls them all together into gado-gado.
For this sambal, you need peanuts: if you’re short on time, you can skip the roasting and grinding part by using crunchy peanut butter, but, much as I love that stuff, when I try it in chef Peter Gordon’s recipe, it makes the sauce a bit gloopy. If convenience wins out, look for a dark roasted variety, preferably with no added sugar, but for proper texture and flavour, I’d recommend starting from scratch – it’s the work of minutes, after all.
Garlic is a common seasoning for sambal kacang, and the legendary Indonesian cookery writer Sri Owen also includes shallots, which give a more savoury depth to the sambal from the author of the groundbreaking 1976 Home Book of Indonesian Cookery (reissued more recently as Sri Owen’s Indonesian Food), though I much prefer the fruity heat of fresh red chillies to her chilli powder. The umami element generally comes from terasi (fermented shrimp paste), which is readily available in blocks from south-east Asian food specialists, though vegetarians could, as in Chinese-Indonesian Australian food writer Lara Lee’s version, up the soy sauce content instead. She calls for kecap manis, an Indonesian sweet soy sauce, which negates the need for extra sugar; if you can’t find it, substitute Owen’s dark soy and brown sugar combination (or indeed the coconut or palm sugar used in other recipes, some of which are so sweet, they bring to mind a garlicky dulce de leche). Tamarind water usually supplies the sour note (though I rather like the fresher flavour of Ford’s lime juice), but, as ever, the key is to make it, then adjust the flavours to your own taste – tamarind water, of course, varies in strength, depending on dilution.
Gordon and Nasution both add coconut milk to their sauces; the rich creaminess dilutes the flavour of the peanuts for me, but if the idea tickles your fancy, the latter’s recipe is here.
As suggested above, as long as you get the sauce right, the rest is more or less up to you. For inspiration, I try recipes with Chinese and white cabbage, water spinach (AKA morning glory), Chinese spinach, spinach, beansprouts, Tenderstem broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, long beans, carrots and chayote (a crunchy gourd often sold in south Asian or Caribbean specialists as choko), all briefly cooked before use, as well as lettuce, radish, tomato and cucumber. Gordon, who has fond memories of the gado-gado eaten on his first visit to Bah in the mid-1980s, believes the hard work here is in selecting really fresh vegetables, then deciding whether to serve them raw or blanched, “although a mix of both works best”.
I agree – the important thing seems to be incorporating a variety of textures and flavours, which means choosing something leafy (cabbage, soft lettuce or spinach), something crunchy (beans, cauliflower, chayote, long-stemmed broccoli and cucumber) and perhaps also something sweet (carrots or tomatoes). If visuals are important to you, aim for a mixture of colours, too. Blanch as necessary in salted water, and drain well before putting on the plate, or they’ll dilute that all-important dressing.
Nasution, West Sumatra-born Owen and Lee’s book Coconut & Sambal all call for potatoes, and Naustion lontong (compressed rice cakes) as well. Gordon serves his gado-gado with a saffron-spiked rice, while Jakarta native Mariska Lindungan, who shared her recipe with the Korean cook and social media sensation Maangchi, recommends serving it with steamed rice. For me, fragrant rice pairs better with the sauce than earthy potatoes; I love the bounciness of the lontong, which are new to me (and can be bought ready-made), but ordinary rice would work well, too.
Crunchy prawn crackers, or krupuk, are also a popular accompaniment (so popular, in fact, that one disgruntled commenter underneath McKinnon’s cracker-free recipe calls them “one of the most essential parts of much Indonesian cooking”), but the side that really blows me away are Lee’s rempeyek crackers flavoured with peanut, makrut lime leaf and candlenuts. They’re almost too good to crumble on top of this salad, though – I ate most of them on their own.
Vegans will be delighted to learn that, optional hard-boiled egg apart, fried tofu and tempeh (fermented soya bean cakes) are also common in gado-gado – tempeh, in particular, makes the dish feel more substantial – though, depending on how hungry you are, you may wish to choose just one or two, rather than including all three.
Nasution also serves her gado-gado with a chilli sambal made from pounded boiled chillies, sugar and salt, to be served on the side, “as people have different tastebuds to handle the spiciness”, though, she concedes, “you can omit the sambal if you don’t like the spicy sauce”. I’ve made the sambal kacang itself moderately spicy, but if you crave yet more chilli, her recipe is simplicity itself.
A garnish of fried shallots add sweetness; you can make them yourself, but I find peeling large quantities of the things puts me in a very bad temper, so I’d recommend letting someone else do the hard work for you and buying them in. This is a dish that should be pure pleasure.
Prep 20 min
Cook 30 min
Serves 2, and easily scaled up or down
For the sambal kacang
50ml oil, for frying
100g raw peanuts, preferably skin on
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
2-4 red bird’s eye chillies, roughly chopped (or to taste; pith and seeds removed if you prefer less heat)
1 tsp terasi (fermented shrimp paste, optional)
1 tbsp kecap manis
1 tbsp tamarind water, or the juice of ½ lime
For the blanched and raw vegetables (or to taste)
¼ white cabbage, shredded
100g long-stemmed broccoli
100g green beans, topped
1 carrot, trimmed and julienned
½ cucumber, cut into chunky slices
6 pink radish
1 handful lontong rice cakes (optional)
1 slice tempeh
4 cubes ready-fried tofu (or fry your own)
1 egg, hard-boiled (optional)
Prawn crackers, to serve
Fried shallots (shop-bought or homemade), to serve
First make the sambal. Put the oil in a wok or small frying pan over a medium-high heat, then fry the peanuts, stirring regularly, until golden brown. Scoop out with a slotted spoon on to a plate lined with kitchen towel to drain, leaving the oil in the pan.
Turn down the heat, add the garlic, shallots, chillies and terasi to the pan and fry, stirring continuously, until softened but not browned. Scoop out on to a second paper-lined plate, turn off the heat, and leave the oil in the pan.
Put the fried shallot mix and peanuts in a mini food processor or mortar and whiz or pound to a nubbly paste. Add the kecap manis and tamarind, whizz again, then add salt to taste and just enough warm water to bring it to a pouring consistency. Taste, adjust the seasoning as necessary, then set aside.
Blanch any vegetables that need it for a minute or so in salted water (beans and broccoli may need a little longer), then scoop out and leave to cool. Cook the lontong, if using, in the same water, until soft, then drain.
Turn on the heat under the wok or frying pan to medium-high, then fry the tempeh in the oil until golden (if using raw tofu, fry it in the same pan). Meanwhile, peel the egg, if using, and cut it in half.
Divide the vegetables and lontong between two plates and add half the egg to each. Drizzle with sauce, accessorise with prawn crackers and sprinkle with fried shallots to serve.