Experience the greatest Indonesian soup! The broth is light and infused with tamarind, lemongrass, and shrimp paste. You won't stop until you lick the bowl clean.
Sayur asem or vegetables in tamarind soup is arguably Indonesia’s most popular vegetable soup.
This Sundanese soup is packed with plenty of fresh vegetables. The broth is extremely flavorful, with spiciness from chilies, sourness from tamarind and tomatoes, freshness from lemongrass, earthiness from ginger and galangal, and bold umami from terasi/belacan/shrimp paste.
This recipe has a very long list of ingredients, but I promise it will be your new favorite soup and it is going to be love at first sip!
What are the common vegetables in sayur asem
There is no set rule to what should and should not be included in a proper sayur asem, but the more popular vegetables you will find include cabbage, chayote, young jackfruit, snake beans, corn, tomatoes, melinjo seeds, and melinjo leaves.
If you live outside of Indonesia, finding all the above vegetables can be very daunting, if not impossible. You can use a mix of more commonly available vegetables in your country.
Since I live in the US, these are the vegetables I use whenever I cook a pot of sayur asem:
- zucchini, to substitute chayote
- green beans, to substitute snake beans
- kale, to substitute melinjo leaves
- dry red skin peanuts, to substitute melinjo nuts
Before using the peanuts for sayur asem, I boil them first in a pot cover with two inches of water for one hour to soften the peanuts.
Spices, herbs, and seasoning for sayur asem
There are a lot of spices, herbs, and seasonings that go into this soup. The list is long, but you will love the result. There is a reason why this is one of Indonesia’s most beloved vegetable soup.
1. Spice paste
Candlenuts can be substituted with an equal amount of macadamia nuts. And terasi/belacan can be substituted with 2-3 tablespoons of fish sauce.
Use a food processor or a blender with a spice attachment to puree together all the listed ingredients into a smooth paste.
2. Other spices, herbs, and seasonings
Then we will also need lemongrass, daun salam (Indonesian bay leaves), tamarind, salt, white pepper, coconut palm sugar, and turmeric.
Daun salam (Indonesian bay leaves) are very different from regular bay leaves. It is best to omit if you don’t have these. Using regular bay leaves will give a very different flavor profile to the soup.
I use wet tamarind sold in plastic packaging. To use this, please mix the stated amount with half a cup of hot water. Stir to mix and when cool enough to handle, use fingers to massage the tamarind in the hot water to make tamarind paste/juice. Strain to remove pulps and seeds.
How to cook sayur asem
First, boil water in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add spice paste, lemongrass, daun salam, tamarind juice, coconut palm sugar, turmeric, salt, and white pepper. Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until fragrant.
Add boiled peanuts. Reduce heat to a medium, cover the pot, and cook for 10 minutes.
Add cabbage, corn, zucchini, and green beans. Cook, covered, for another 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
Finally, add kale and tomatoes. Cook until kale is wilted and the tomatoes are just starting to become soft, about 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat, taste test, and add more salt if needed. Serve the soup immediately with steamed white rice.
What to serve with sayur asem?
Most Indonesian restaurants offer rice meal sets on their menu. These set meals are perfect for students and working people who don’t always have the luxury to eat at home, especially during lunch hours.
If you visit Indonesia and have no idea which dishes go well together, choosing one of the many offered rice meal sets is often a great idea. Also, if you are traveling alone, set meals let you sample many different dishes in one sitting. :)
An Indonesian rice meal with sayur asem typically looks like this:
- coconut rice, such as nasi liwet or nasi uduk
- fried chicken, such as ayam ungkep or ayam goreng kremes
- tofu and/or tempeh, such as tahu tempeh bacem or kering tempeh
- spicy sides, such as telur bumbu bali or sambal goreng kentang
- simple vegetable salad, such as lalap sambal terasi
- sayur asem (vegetable soup)
- crackers, such as kerupuk udang (prawn crackers) or emping (melinjo crackers)
Other Sundanese dishes to try
Sayur asem is one of the signature dishes of the Sundanese people. Many popular Indonesian dishes come from this cuisine.
Other than sayur asem, you may have heard of dishes such as lalap, karedok (similar to gado-gado, but with the emphasis of using raw vegetables), ayam bekakak/grilled chicken, soto bandung/beef and daikon soup, and ikan bakar/grilled fish.
These are far from exhaustive, and it may take me many years to cover even just a portion of Sundanese recipes.
Sayur Asem - Vegetables in Tamarind Soup
- 1/2 cup dry red skin peanuts, or 1 cup fresh melinjo nuts (Indonesian: buah melinjo)
- 20 gram tamarind (Indonesian: asam Jawa)
- 6 cup (1½ liter) water
- 2 lemongrass (Indonesian: sereh), bruised
- 8 daun salam (Indonesian bay leaves)
- 60 gram coconut palm sugar (Indonesian: gula Jawa)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 500 gram cabbage, cored and cut into bite sizes
- 500 gram zucchini, or chayote (Indonesian: labu siam), 1-inch pieces
- 100 gram green beans, or snake bean (Indonesian: kacang panjang), cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 corn (Indonesian: jagung), cut into 1 inch sections
- 100 gram kale, or melinjo leaves (Indonesian: daun melinjo)
- 2 tomatoes, quartered
- Grind the following into spice paste
- 10 red chilies
- 75 gram shallots
- 3 cloves garlic
- 5 candlenuts (Indonesian: kemiri), or macadamia nuts
- 1 inch (25 gram) ginger
- 1 inch (25 gram) galangal (Indonesian: lengkuas)
- 10 gram (about ½ tablespoon) terasi/belacan/shrimp paste, toasted (Note 1)
- Boil peanuts: Boil dry peanuts topped with 2 inches of water in a pot. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 1 hour, or until peanuts are soft. Drain and set aside.
- Make tamarind juice: Mix tamarind with half a cup of hot water. Stir to mix and when cool enough to handle, use fingers to massage the tamarind in the hot water to make tamarind paste/juice. Strain to remove pulps and seeds.
- Prepare tamarind broth: Boil water in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add spice paste, tamarind juice, lemongrass, daun salam, coconut palm sugar, turmeric, salt, and ground white pepper. Cook until fragrant, about 5 minutes.
- Add boiled peanuts. Reduce heat to a medium, cover the pot, and cook for 10 minutes.
- Add cabbage, corn, zucchini, and green beans. Cook, covered, for another 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
- Add kale and tomatoes. Cook until kale is wilted and the tomatoes are just starting to become soft, about 5 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, taste test, and add more salt if needed. Serve the soup immediately with steamed white rice.
- (1) Place shrimp paste in a microwave-proof bowl, covered with a microwave-proof plate. Cook in the microwave for 30 seconds to toast. Toasted shrimp paste should have pale color, crumbly, and very fragrant.