A glossary of Asian ingredients (with their uses and substitutes) for preparing a rijsttafel:
Coconut milk: If you have the time and inclination, you can go to the trouble of making your own coconut milk by peeling and grating fresh coconut meat and making an infusion with water that produces a delicious coconut milk. For most recipes, however, the canned or frozen product is an adequate substitute. The canned milk usually has thick, almost solid cream on the top and thinner milk on the bottom. Use the top cream where specified, otherwise shake up the whole can before using. The frozen coconut milk, also in cans, is usually much thicker than the regular canned and often has better flavor. Both are available in most Asian markets.
Chilies: Fresh chilies are available in most Asian and specialty markets. Before handling chilies, put on a pair of clean rubber gloves. The seeds are the hottest part of the chili, so if you are the least bit conservative, remove the seeds. Sambal olek makes an excellent substitute for fresh red chilies.
Cilantro: Also known as coriander leaf and Chinese parsley, cilantro has no substitute. It does not freeze well, but is available year-round in Asian markets and has an indescribable, pungent flavor. Dried cilantro is not a substitute.
Indonesian sweet chili sauce: A sweet-hot sauce with the texture of ketchup. Available bottled in Asian markets. Keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Kafir lime skin: Available in packets of dried strips in Asian markets, this skin of the wild lime can be substituted with strips of fresh lime skin. Store unused portion in the freezer.
Ketjap manis: Indonesian sweet dark soy sauce with a slightly molasses taste. Available in many Asian markets. Substitute thick, dark Chinese or Japanese soy sauce.
Krupuk: Prawn chips, purchased in dry, uncooked form and deep-fried quickly until crisp and puffy. Eaten as a snack and with other foods. Available in Asian markets.
Lemon grass: A long, fiberous scallion-like stalk with a lovely citronella aroma and flavor. It is available fresh year-round in most Asian markets. Wrapped tightly, lemon grass freezes well. Dried is a poor substitute. A better substitute is fresh lemon zest.
Laos powder: A ground spice made from a relative of ginger. No substitute.
Makrut leaves: Also labeled bai ma grood and daun limau perut in area Asian markets, this leaf, available dried and sometimes fresh, has a lemon-lime flavor. Fresh leaves freeze well and the dried should be stored as any dried herb. Substitute lime zest or the leaves of a potted lemon or lime tree if you have one.
Palm sugar: Usually sold in jars or flat cakes in Asian markets, this sugar made from coconut palms can be adequately replaced with brown sugar. Keeps indefinitely on the shelf.
Sambal olek: Minced chilies bottled with salt and vinegar, this is a convenient substitute for minced fresh chilies with no loss of flavor. Available in Asian markets. Keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Tamarind liquid: Made from the fruit of the tamarind tree, this brownish, tart-sour liquid can be made from pulp purchased in Asian markets in cellophane packets. To reconstitute, combine 1 tablespoon tamarind pulp with 1/4 cup warm water and mash around with a fork. Wait 5 minutes and strain off the juice, pressing the pulp to extract as much as possible. Tamarind is also available in an instant form packaged in plastic pots. To reconstitute, dissolve 1 teaspoon in 1/4 cup water. Both jar and paste form keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Trassi: Also called blacan and shrimp paste, a concentrate of dried fermented shrimp and fish with a very strong odor rather like fish sauce. To use, flatten a measured amount on a square of foil, close into a packet and toast 3 minutes per side over a gas flame or sit it directly on an electric burner set on medium for the same time. Anchovy paste makes an approximate substitute.