Salam leaf, an essential flavor in Indonesian cooking

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What you are seeing above is NOT a bay leaf. I say this because it seems like a majority of all recipe sites and blogs online, as well as cookbooks translate daun salam as “bay leaf” in English. In fact, it comes from a totally different order and family of trees (Syzygium polyanthum), and it yields a VERY different flavor from that of the Mediterranean variety, which comes from the laurel family (Laurus nobilis).

Recipes from Indonesia that use this ingredient are honestly too abundant to list here. It is one of the most common aromatics from Sumatra, Java, and Bali. One such common, everyday dish is “chicken soup” (soto ayam). That will be a planned post in the coming week. In addition, Indonesian cooking does not typically use the western bay leaf. So, if you have an Indonesian cookbook that calls for bay leaves, daun salam is what you are looking for.

If you are interested in trying your hand at Indonesian cooking, this ingredient is well worth seeking out. It adds an subtle yet unmistakable sweet and savory flavor. I find it has a flavor between cardamom and cinnamon.

In Philadelphia you can find this at nearly any of the several Indonesian corner stores in South Philly, imported under the Wayang brand. I highlighted several shops that would carry this in a previous post, but I got today’s batch of leaves from One Stop Shop, on the corner of S. 16th and Morris streets.


If you open a bag of these leaves, you won’t smell much of a fragrance. You really need to cook with them to release their aroma. Frying 3-4 leaves in some oil or boiling them in some coconut milk turns on their flavor.

In Javanese and Balinese cooking, the fresh version of daun salam is widely used, and you can witness giant piles of the leaves at most fresh markets.

Bay leaf confusion. Just to give you a sense of how these leaves look compared to other “bay leaves”, see the image below for things I’ve acquired recently:


Typically referred to as “bay leaves”: on left, Mediterranean variety from Turkey, in middle daun salam from Indonesia, and finally on the right, UNKNOWN from a recent shopping trip in Thailand. I thought I was maybe buying a Thai variety of daun salam, and it is labeled as “cardomom leaf” (which, just to confuse matters is how “bay leaf” translates into Thai!). I now suspect that it is actually yet another leaf that is typically labeled “bay leaf”: Cinnamomum tamala, a.k.a. Indian bay leaf, or tejpat leaf. There are still other “bay leaves” out there, but these represent the most common in Eurasia.


About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
This entry was posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, Malay/Indonesian food and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Salam leaf, an essential flavor in Indonesian cooking

  1. Pingback: Selamat pagi, Yogyakarta: a surprisingly rich and savory chicken rice porridge for breakfast | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  2. Pingback: Kluwak seeds and a savory black beef stew from East Java | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  3. Pingback: An Ode to Opor | Plus Ultra

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