Sayur asem, also known as sayur asam, is a dish based on tamarind from the Southeast-Asian nation of Indonesia. Of the genus Tamarindus indica and belonging to the Fabaceae family of flowering plants, tamarind is commonly grown in South Asia, although it is native to tropical Africa. Known for its sweet, sour and spicy taste, and sometimes referred to simply as Indonesian soup, sayur asem is one of the several tamarind-based meals popular in Southeast Asia.
The Sundanese people, one of Indonesia’s largest ethnic groups and inhabiting the western part of the country, are credited with the origin of sayur asem. Specifically, the dish is attributed to the Sundanese of the provinces of Bantan, West Java, and Jakarta, which is the country’s capital and largest city. It is also a staple food of another ethnic group, the Betawi, who are based in Jakarta and are the neighbors of the Sundanese.
The traditional ingredients used for preparing sayur asem in addition to the souring agent of tamarind include long beans, young jackfruit, cucumber from the bilimbi tree, and pear squash from the chayote. Most recipes add corn and zucchini.
There are several types of sayur asem. These include sayur asem kangkung, which incorporates water spinach; sayur asem ikan asin, which uses salted fish, or snakehead murrel; and sayur asem kacang merah, which uses red and green beans as its distinguishing ingredients. Some versions of the soup are distinguished by more than just the ingredients, or are named after the specific region of origin. For instance, the Karo people of the northwestern Indonesian province of North Sumatra use sour seed pods and torch ginger buds from the Etlingera elatior herbaceous plant.
Most of the foods traditionally eaten with sayur asem are fried or grilled. Steamed rice, fried fish and fried chicken recipes such as Ayam Goreng Kalasan are three of the food items typically eaten with the soup. Some people may prefer to eat soy products with it, such as sweet marinated tofu, or tempe bacem, which is the sweet, marinated version of a soy product originally from Indonesia. Other foods that make good accompaniments include empal goring, or sweet fried beef, and lalap, which is a Sundanese raw vegetable salad that is accompanied by a chile-based sauce called sambal as a dressing or condiment.