Nessiana Pamudji and Ferry Tshai are the husband-and-wife owners of Kent Street's newest Indonesian outfit — The Sambal. It's named after the famous Indonesian chilli sauce (in its home country, there are over 300 varieties of the concoction).
Pamudji developed her skills at some of Sydney's most recognisable pan-Asian restaurants, including China Doll and Surry Hills’ Bar H. But long before that, she grew up in Java, Indonesia. “I was the youngest of four girls,” she says. “When the 1998 riots broke out in Jakarta, there were many deaths and widespread assault, particularly toward those of Chinese descent. My father decided that it wasn’t a good place to raise his family.” She moved to Australia at the age of 14 and after finishing school, Pamudji began her hospitality training.
Tshai captains the kitchen — he’s originally from West Borneo but came to Australia before also working at China Doll, a head chef stint at Fei Jai and most recently, Billy Kwong. "I worked with Kylie Kwong for nearly two years. When we decided to open this place, she gave us a lot of guidance," he says.
The menu covers a lot of ground but at first glance it’s a bit of an enigma — but it’s absolutely fine to ask for help here. The influences are mainly Javanese but Borneo’s Chinese traditions and a few Balinese dishes make a cameo.
"We're doing Indonesian, tapas-style. And we might be the only place in Sydney doing this," says Pamudji.
It’s best to share the food. Start with a plate of the fried rice and a few small dishes such as the Padang-style beef tendon curry, the stinky bean sambal – a punchy dish that lives up to its name. There’s the beef rendang, dry-style curry with chilli and turmeric leaf (harvested in Pamudji's mother's garden). A staff favourite is the vegetarian lontong sayun, a coconut curry with tempeh, a fried, fermented soybean cake. And a plate of chicken satay skewers won't disappoint, either.
The soto ayam is a chicken noodle dish from Pamudji's hometown of Sumarang, and one of her favourites. "When I grew up, I didn't eat much else — my mother learned the recipe so we wouldn't always have to eat it out," she says.
Fresh Indonesian ingredients like snake bean, turmeric leaf, stinky beans, morning glory and candlenut aren’t always readily available at the local grocer. So The Sambal sources it creatively — either growing it at home, importing it, and finding it in powdered form.
For drinks, there’s the iconic Indonesian cold Jasmine tea, Teh Botol; and the homemade Es Cendol, a South-East Asian drink with rice flower jelly (cendol), coconut and jackfruit. There’s also the Es Cincau, a similar dairy-free sweet herbal drink with natural jelly bits, coconut and pandan. The jelly is not the traditional sugary gelatine, it’s natural. “We boil the leaves and when the water cools, it sets into jelly,” says Pamudji.
The interior is designed to express two common eating environments in Indonesia: there’s the brushed, grey wall on one side symbolising the concrete jungle of Jakarta juxtaposed against the traditional look, represented by a faux-Pondok gazebo over the bar. It’s reminiscent of the importance of food in the archipelago’s traditional culture.
Lead image: The Sambal - Facebook.
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The Sambal is open Sunday & Monday 12pm-4pm, Tuesday - Saturday 12pm to 3pm and then 5pm to 9pm.
432 Kent Street, Sydney.