Eating Indonesia: not just ‘nasi goreng’
In a small restaurant down a nondescript Hong Kong street, I found myself with a group of friends discussing the merits of Indonesian cuisine. Three of us were quick to agree, but there was one dissenting voice. I looked on in horror as a friend wrinkled her nose and gave us a disapproving frown. “I think it all tastes the same.”
I felt like she had just insulted my mother’s cooking. I could think of multiple ways to skewer her erroneous verdict, but I couldn’t blame my friend for adopting that point of view. Her experience of Indonesia so far was limited to Bali, with one three-day stretch on another island. From what I knew she had subsisted on resort food, and her tight schedules gave her little chance to peruse street stalls or grab a spot at the modest eateries known as warung.
Broadly speaking, Indonesia is only famous for a handful of dishes: nasi goreng (fried rice), succulent sate (satay) in peanut sauce, mie goreng (fried noodles) and rendang – slow-cooked caramelised beef curry from West Sumatra. In 2011, CNNGo compiled a list of the world’s 50 best foods, which generated a storm of attention. Spurred on by the overwhelming response, CNNGo threw it open to readers with an online poll, and after collecting more than 35,000 votes it released a second list. The result? Rendang claimed the top spot, with nasi goreng as the runner-up.
Nasi goreng may be emblematic of Indonesian cuisine, but to reduce all its regional varieties to fried rice topped with an egg and two skewers of sate is a little deceptive. For Indonesia is a vast island chain that stretches 5,200 kilometres (3,200 miles) from end to end – more than the distance between London and Tehran.
In the far west, at the northern tip of Sumatra, Aceh melds Indian and Arab influences with its indigenous cooking. The Acehnese eat roti canai, a kind of flatbread introduced from the Indian subcontinent, and drink strong coffee served in small glasses with a thick layer of sugar. Aceh makes some of the best fried noodles in the country, while its historic role as a centre of maritime trade is evident in the elaborate recipe for kari kambing (goat curry), with no less than 27 ingredients in the spice paste.
Southeast of Aceh, in the Batak highlands around Lake Toba, Bama and I sample arsik and tombur, two ways to dress freshwater fish. Tombur is almost creamy while arsik is tart and refreshing – cooked with slices of asam gelugur, the fruit of a towering rainforest tree, and the lemony flavour of andaliman, which brings on a tongue-numbing sensation much like its close relative, the Sichuan pepper.
The homeland of rendang is further south, over a mountain range that forms the backbone of Sumatra. Minang food is universally adored in Indonesia, and it’s the cuisine of choice to placate irate passengers facing airport delays. A hallmark is the prevalent use of gulai, a thick curry-like sauce of coconut milk and spices, to stew meat, fish, seafood or vegetables. It is in a gulai that I try jengkol for the first time. These beans are potentially dangerous: eat too much and you could get kidney poisoning. We also sip tea brewed from coffee leaves and foamy teh talua, ‘egg tea’ in the Minang language.
I have already written about Javanese food – my favourite regional Indonesian cuisine – and a selection of culinary delights from Bali and Lombok. But what about the other islands? Hailing from North Sulawesi, Minahasan cuisine is known for its exotic meats, although you can eat just as well without resorting to fruit bat or dog. Ikan bakar rica-rica (grilled fish in spicy rica-rica sauce) is one of my favourite Indonesian dishes, while banana fritters make a delicious counterpart to sambal roa, a hot chilli relish mixed with ground, dried fish (usually red-tipped halfbeak). At a Minahasa restaurant in Ambon, Bama and I come across the best mie goreng we’ve ever tasted: fragrant, savoury-sweet and yielding shreds of cakalang, skipjack tuna.
In Indonesia’s far east, where sago palms grow in abundance, rice was never a traditional staple. Maluku and Papua are known for papeda, a sago congee with the consistency of glue. On its own, papeda is almost tasteless, but it makes for a perfect pairing when mixed into fish stew infused with turmeric and lime.
Ternate, one of Maluku’s fabled ‘clove islands’, is the birthplace of gohu ikan: chunks of skipjack tuna tossed with lemon basil, chopped bird’s eye chillies and slices of shallot. Although the original dish is served completely raw, many patrons prefer it with hot oil poured over the tuna. Another Ternate delicacy is ikan masak kering kayu, tuna fillets in a richly spiced sauce that proves even tastier than rendang. Ingredients include cloves, ground nutmeg, cardamom and star anise, not to mention lemongrass, Indonesian bay leaf (daun salam) and cinnamon.
The diversity of Indonesia’s cooking is not just a product of its geographical spread; it also stems from differences in religious belief. Muslim communities shy away from eating pork, whereas Hindu Bali prides itself on babi guling, spit-roasted suckling pig whose skin crackles with every bite. In the highlands of South Sulawesi, the largely Christian Torajans cook pamarrasan babi, pork in a thick black gravy, flavoured with the depth and earthiness of fermented keluak nut. The seeds contain hydrogen cyanide and are deadly poisonous in their raw form. But that hasn’t stopped cooks all over Indonesia from stocking up on keluak in their kitchens; the seed is a key ingredient of rawon, an East Javanese beef stew.
From spices to sago congee, bush meat to toxic seeds, Indonesian food is never boring. My friend can eat her words. ◊