Sayur Asem. Indonesian Tamarind and Chayote Soup

This is it. Sayur Asem marks the start of the final week of our Asian trip. Country #38 of our 52 countries goal. Can’t believe we are already here. Only 14 more countries to eat, ahem, explore. It’s been lots of fun, it’s taken me a lot longer than planned, got really sick right in the middle of the planned 1 year trip, but that’s just fine. I’ve also had wonderful things happen to me too, lots of unexpected travel and happy moments. They say it’s not how fast you can travel, is how much you enjoy the trip. That is certainly what I intend to do, I’ll revel in, eat up and bask in the joys of cooking, traveling and photographing this wonderful journey til the last bite of it. 

To start this leg of the Foodie’s Wanderlust Trip we’ll be trying a tasty vegetarian dish, Sayur Asem. Yes, there are times when even I feel like having something light for my stomach, but intense on my palate. And Sayur Asem is perfect for that. 

Although some veggies might change from one Sayur Asem to the next, some are more typical than others. Chayote for example is one of the most common ones and can almost always be found in it, as well as Cabbage, Corn and Green Beans. But I gotta say that it was Chayote that immediately picked my interest for this soup, I LOVE IT!

Most Sayur Asem also include Melinjo fruits, but as much as I’d like to try them, it proved impossible to find online, so I regretfully had to skip it. What IS a constant on all Sayur Asem is the Tamarind based broth, that gives the soup a deliciously sour taste. 

Sayur Asem, Tamarind, Soup, Chayote, Indonesia, Vegetarian, Recipe

Making the soup it’s pretty much straight forward and not very time consuming. One thing I found really interesting about Indonesian cuisine is their treatment of spices and seasonings. Almost every food preparation starts with grinding ingredients in a mortar & pestle until to a paste. Some say it has to be done by hand in order to release most of flavors from the vegetables used. 

Sayur Asem, Tamarind, Soup, Chayote, Indonesia, Vegetarian, Recipe

I’d say, it’s ok to use a food processor. Everybody knows I’m very pro-technology. However, I’m also a romantic and pro-basics. I also don’t have the time (or the muscle power) to make a paste all by hand. So, I use both. First, a quick grind with the food processor until everything is super finely minced, then transfer it to an old fashioned mortar with a nice coarse surface. A good ol Molcajete would do just fine. 

Sayur Asem, Tamarind, Soup, Chayote, Indonesia, Vegetarian, Recipe

When you do it, do yourself a favor. Stop for a moment to take in the glorious aroma from the paste you just made. When this is the first part of a recipe, you know you are on the right track for a wonderful meal. Adding this small but beautiful effort of making the paste the traditional way, using your hands and body weight to release those gorgeous scents and flavours, also adds a part of yourself to the Sayur Asem. It makes the cooking process a love act, a magical act. 


Sayur Asem
Serves 4
Chop. Grind. Boil and Eat. Super simple and popular Sayur Asem. A Chayote & Veggies soup in a sweet and sour Tamarind Broth.
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Prep Time
25 min
Cook Time
45 min
Total Time
1 hr 10 min
Prep Time
25 min
Cook Time
45 min
Total Time
1 hr 10 min
For the paste
  1. 3 red chillies
  2. 5 shallots, peeled
  3. 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  4. 5 candlenuts (can be substituted with 5 hazelnuts, 6 almonds or 8 peanuts)
  5. 2 inches fresh ginger, peeled
  6. 1 inch fresh galangal, peeled
  7. 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  8. 1 oz palm sugar (can be substituted with 1 tbsp brown sugar)
For the soup
  1. 6 1/2 cups water
  2. 1 tbsp salt
  3. 1 oz tamarind paste
  4. 2 stalks lemongrass, white part only, slightly crushed
  5. 1 lb cabbage, cut in squares
  6. 1 large corn ear, cut into 2 inch slices
  7. 4 oz green beans
  8. 1 lb. chayote, peeled and squared
  9. 1 large tomato, wedged
  1. Place the paste ingredients in a food processor and process for about 3 minutes until very finely minced.
  2. Transfer the minced spices to a coarse mortar and pestle, and grind into a paste. About 8 minutes.
  3. Set the water to a boil.
  4. Add the paste and soup ingredients to the boiling water. Once it boils again, lower to a simmer and cook for 40 minutes.
  5. Serve warm topped with sambal for a spicy accent and steamed white rice.
Boil and Trouble

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