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Indonesian Peanut Sauce Recipe

Why It Works

  • Fragrant makrut lime leaves, tangy tamarind, and smoky terasi (shrimp paste) give the peanut sauce a distinct flavor.
  • Steeping the makrut lime leaves in the tamarind paste and water infuses the peanut sauce with a bright citrus note. 

Oh, peanut sauce, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

In Indonesia, peanut sauce is a staple served alongside many dishes, including satay, gado-gado, and meat- or fish-stuffed vegetables called siomay. Traditionally, cooks prepare peanut sauce by pounding roasted or fried peanuts to a paste using a mortar and pestle. The condiment has a rich nuttiness and gets its bold flavor from a mix of shallots, garlic, red chiles, and palm sugar, while a touch of vinegar, lime juice, or tamarind paste lends it an acidic kick. The sauce is ubiquitous throughout the country, where it goes by sambal kacang, saus kacang, or bumbu kacang, depending on the region. 

Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Though these all refer to peanut sauce, they can vary in their preparations. Some may call for fried garlic and chiles, while others may incorporate fragrant makrut lime leaves or lemongrass, savory shrimp paste, and kecap manis (a sweet soy sauce), among many other ingredients. Across Indonesia, you’ll find sauces that are as thick as gravy and others as thin as heavy cream. Despite their differences, each is as essential to Indonesian cuisine as the others. Satay would be incomplete without the thick version sauce it’s served with for dipping, and kroket (meat-filled potato croquettes) would be much less enjoyable without the fiery heat of the variation called sambal kacang. Karedok, a salad from West Java similar to gado-gado, gets its additional brightness from a peanut sauce infused with peppery, herbaceous sand ginger. 

It’s unclear when Indonesians first began preparing peanut sauce, but the arrival of the peanut in Indonesia can be traced back to 1690, when Spanish and Portuguese colonists brought the legume to Asia. According to culinary historian Andrew F. Smith and author of Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, peanuts had made their way across India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China by the 18th century. This may explain why peanuts and peanut sauce are also present in other Southeast Asian cuisines.

Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

In Thailand, for example, peanut sauce is frequently eaten with its version of satay. Thai peanut sauce almost always contains red curry paste, which tints it red and infuses it with aromatic galangal, lemongrass, cilantro roots, and makrut lime leaves. And that peanut sauce you dip your Vietnamese rice paper rolls in? Its salty-sweet flavor comes from a blend of fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and granulated sugar. In Singapore, hawkers pour chile-infused peanut sauce over satay bee hoon, rice vermicelli noodles with bean sprouts, water spinach, and cuttlefish. 

The peanut sauce recipe below is a simpler take on my Indonesian Chinese mother’s, who likes to toast raw, skin-on peanuts in a large wok until golden, then grind them—either by hand with a mortar and pestle or in the bowl of a food processor—until the nuts have the consistency of wet sand. It’s a slightly thicker version that’s best eaten with gado gado, satay, and ketropak, a rice noodle dish with vegetables and tofu.

Though I occasionally go to similar lengths, I typically choose the easier, more convenient route by using store-bought crunchy peanut butter, albeit the natural kind that contains only peanuts. Still, I recommend trying this with whole peanuts: Not only are whole peanuts more economical to purchase, they’re also more flavorful when freshly ground. As I once wrote for Epicurious, peanuts, like spices, tend to stale and go rancid quickly once ground, so using whole will generally produce a more fragrant peanut sauce. But there’s no right or wrong, and if you need peanut sauce in a hurry, do as I do and go for the peanut butter. It’s better than the alternative—which is no peanut sauce at all.

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