Food from the heart of Java
Imagine an island seven degrees south of the equator, blessed with rich volcanic soil, where broad coastal plains rise to the hills and a chain of mystical 3,000-metre peaks. An island roughly the size of Greece, of sprawling cities, endless rice fields, and raw, otherworldly landscapes where you might find boiling lakes and plumes of steam billowing from the earth. This island is known as Java, and it is a food-lover’s paradise.
The population of Java, a staggering 145 million at the last count, is largely divided between three ethnic groups: the Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese, each with their own ways of cooking. This post concentrates on the cuisine of Central Java and Yogyakarta, for that is where Bama and I spent three weeks at the start of our recent Spice Odyssey.
What is the character of Javanese food? I would describe it as the buttery taste of candlenut, the earthy notes of turmeric, nutmeg, cumin and coriander seed; the fragrance of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, lemon basil, ginger and galangal, blended with the sharp tang of garlic and shallot; the fiery jolt of bird’s eye chillies; and the creaminess of coconut milk. There is also one particular trait that sets it apart from Indonesia’s other regional cuisines. While the Sundanese like to eat fresh leaves, the Javanese penchant for sweetness is expressed in the liberal use of palm sugar and kecap manis, a syrupy soy sauce reminiscent of treacle.
Apart from the popularity of soy sauce, I spot a few other Chinese influences. In the highlands of Dieng – accompanied by fellow travel bloggers Bart and Badai – we sample mie ongklok, a specialty of nearby Wonosobo. It consists of noodles, cabbage and chopped chives in a thick, starchy sauce, served with beef sate. The noodles are boiled with the help of a woven bamboo basket called ongklok, hence the name. For dinner near the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur, we try kupat tahu – a bowl of rice dumplings, fried tofu and bean sprouts in peanut sauce.
In Yogyakarta, or Jogja for short, the four of us visit the restaurant of Bale Raos for a taste of royal cuisine. The two standouts are favourites of the current dynasty’s seventh sultan: urip-urip gulung, grilled catfish rolls in turmeric gravy; and sanggar, thick slices of spiced beef slathered in coconut milk before grilling.
After dinner, we wait an hour in line for bungkus (takeout) at Gudeg Pawon, a warung converted from a typical Javanese house. Jogja’s signature dish of gudeg – stewed young jackfruit – will be tomorrow’s pre-dawn breakfast. The heat of the kitchen fills the air, and I can feel the beads of sweat forming on my face and arms. The line moves at a snail’s pace, past a vat of jackfruit stew simmering away on a simple firewood stove. When it is finally our turn to be served, the attendants heap stewed jackfruit, chicken and boiled egg on a portion of rice, deftly wrapping the whole ensemble in banana leaf and brown paper.
In Solo – formally known as Surakarta – Bama and I return each night to the street stalls at Galabo to sample the local delicacies. We bite into a succulent sate buntel, mutton satay covered in fat and drizzled in kecap manis, and admire the resourcefulness of the “poor man’s dish” called tengkleng, a delicious heap of goat ribs and offal in soup. I find a worthy addition to my list of favourite Indonesian dishes in tongseng, a curry-like mutton stew with vegetables and the distinctive touch of kecap manis.
We also try nasi liwet tempong, rice cooked in coconut milk and chicken broth, topped with egg, sliced vegetables and chicken thigh; and order a side of cabuk rambak – rice dumplings (ketupat), peanut sauce and a spicy-sweet mystery paste.
In Semarang, Bama’s mother is a chef extraordinaire, cooking us a sumptuous array of Javanese delights including nasi gandul, rice and aromatic beef stew from the nearby town of Pati. She even prepares me a birthday dinner of nasi kuning (yellow turmeric rice) with seven sides, five of them created in her own kitchen. I have already raved about her unbeatable opor ayam in a previous post, and I must also mention the Semarang specialty of mangut iwak pe. A medley of smoked stingray cooked in coconut milk, with palm sugar, ground spices, and three varieties of chilli, Bama tells me mangut is rarely served in restaurants, and it tastes as wonderful as it sounds. ◊