An Ode to Opor
Food has enormous potential to connect and unite people, to cross the barriers of language, race, and creed. There is power in the simple act of sharing a meal with people whose backgrounds are different from your own. For what better way is there to understand a place than to meet the local people and eat their traditional cuisine? A shared interest in cooking is the basis of a special bond I have with Bama’s mother, who I call Auntie Dhani. “She loves seeing people enjoying her food,” Bama told me recently. “And no one appreciates it like you do.” Of all Auntie Dhani’s exquisite kitchen creations, my favorite is opor, a curry-like stew of poultry, usually chicken, braised in a medley of spices and coconut milk.
The first time I ever tried opor ayam (chicken opor) was in late 2014, during a dinner with high-school friends at a now-shuttered Indonesian restaurant in Hong Kong. I had read about the Javanese specialty in one of Bama’s earliest blog posts, which featured a mouthwatering photo showing his mother’s home-cooked opor: pieces of lean chicken half-submerged in a vivid yellow sauce adorned with slivers of fried shallot. So, you can imagine my sheer delight at finding it on the menu. But when the plate of opor ayam arrived at the table, I was sorely disappointed. This restaurant’s version was pallid, extremely watery, and lackluster in flavor. Surely this couldn’t possibly be the same dish Bama had described with such fondness?
That said, practically every Javanese family has its own recipe for opor. Some insist on using turmeric to give it a telltale golden hue; others prefer to keep theirs a whitish-brown color, closer to the one I’d sampled back in Hong Kong. What that restaurant menu did not mention was its cultural significance as a festive dish. Opor is eaten all across the island of Java – home to more than 140 million people, or more than half of Indonesia’s total population – during Idul Fitri (a.k.a. Eid al-Fitr), which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. And one particular element of opor is imbued with meaning. The Javanese word for coconut milk, “santen”, rhymes with “pengapunten”, the formal term for “forgiveness”. Idul Fitri is traditionally a time when many Indonesians patch up broken relationships; not for nothing is the prevalent greeting “maaf lahir batin”, or “forgive me for what I have said and done”.
Naturally, it was during Idul Fitri five years ago that I first tasted Auntie Dhani’s opor at her home in Semarang, the sleepy provincial capital of Central Java. Lifting a spoon to my lips, I closed my eyes and took a deep whiff of the pastel-yellow sauce. An intoxicating fragrance immediately washed over my olfactory receptors. What was this wondrous perfume? I don’t know how else to describe my memory of that particular aroma, except to illustrate it in this bucolic tableau: a grove of fruit-laden coconut palms, coriander and cumin drying on mats in the equatorial sun, free-range chickens roaming the fields below a Javanese volcano, clumps of lemongrass beside a bubbling brook. It was a revelation. On the tongue, the opor felt smooth and perfectly balanced in more ways than one. Auntie Dhani’s expert blend of spices, herbs, and seasonings did not overwhelm the palate; the soupy sauce was neither too thick nor runny like water.
Dig deep enough and you’ll find that just about every celebrated Indonesian dish has a fascinating backstory. Rendang, the dry meat curry created by West Sumatra’s matrilineal Minangkabau people, is said to last up to a month without refrigeration, providing fuel for the long journeys undertaken by young Minang men as they sought wealth and knowledge abroad. The origins of opor are no less intriguing. Some scholars posit that it began as an offering from the Javanese elite to their kings in pre-Islamic times, especially when the monarchs toured distant corners of their realms. Other historians say the festive Javanese dish bears culinary influences from India (through the use of turmeric) and the Arab world. Perhaps the latter was deduced from the presence of spices like cumin and coriander seed: cumin’s native range corresponds to modern-day Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, while coriander traditionally grew in a vast arc from the Eastern Mediterranean through what is now Pakistan. But did Persian and Arab traders introduce these two spices to the Javanese pantry? Or were they actually brought over from India? No one can answer this question with absolute certainty.
Auntie Dhani told me she learned to make opor from her late stepmother and sister-in-law, whose repertoire spanned a host of traditional Javanese dishes, many of which Bama’s notoriously picky father had grown up eating. “She was an even better cook than I am!” Auntie Dhani exclaimed. As her kitchen skills improved with time and practice, she began analyzing the flavors of different kinds of opor and perfecting her own recipe through trial and error. I’d brought along a notepad to jot down Auntie Dhani’s version so I could try replicating it at home. But she had to think carefully when I asked her about the precise amounts of each ingredient. For her, weights and measures were not necessary no matter how elaborate the dish. “I use my feeling,” she’d say.
There are several reasons why Indonesian food doesn’t travel well beyond the country’s borders. One is the difficulty of finding certain Southeast Asian ingredients abroad. Another is the labor-intensive approach to cooking that requires patience and a commodity so many of us lack in our increasingly busy lives: time. Opor is not something that can be whipped up in 15 minutes or half an hour; nothing about the process should be rushed. Auntie Dhani showed me how the spice paste is sautéed in hot oil over low heat, constantly stirring so it doesn’t burn. “The candlenut takes the longest to ripen,” she explained. “If you cook it too fast, the smell is still raw, and that breaks the flavor of the dish.”
In a way, Cantonese and Indonesian cuisine could not be more different. The former is far more produce-driven, emphasizing both the freshness and quality of its main ingredients, and the seasoning deliberately restrained to bring out their natural flavors. Growing up in Hong Kong, I often ate steamed fish marinated in soy sauce, strips of ginger, and perhaps some chopped scallion. To this day I harbor a latent dislike for bok choy, because the only way my family ate the leafy Chinese vegetables was to have them boiled with no added salt or other flavorings. In contrast, Indonesian food relies heavily on the use of bumbu (pronounced boom-boo), a foundational spice paste that gives each dish their complexity. The simple explanation for why Indonesian nasi goreng tastes completely different from Cantonese fried rice is that one has bumbu while the other doesn’t.
Auntie Dhani’s opor ayam became my window to a whole new world of cooking. She taught me what it was to harness spices and play them off each other, to use their contrasting flavor profiles in complementary ways. And there’s no better way to prepare the bumbu than with a mortar and pestle. Some professional chefs swear by this method (as opposed to using a blender or food processor) because it releases more natural oils. Though the process takes much longer, there is a certain joy and satisfaction to be found in pummeling spices and aromatics by hand, mixing their aromas and turning humble ingredients into a satisfying blend that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts.
Armed with Auntie Dhani’s recipe and a few of her expert tips, I began to make opor at home in Hong Kong. The first iteration wasn’t an abject failure, though I made a mistake that was unthinkable for any Indonesian chef. This involved the use of daun salam, or Indonesian bay leaves, known to release a distinctive herbal, woody aroma. One Philadelphia-based blogger, a talented home cook in his own right, says that salam leaves add “a subtle yet unmistakable sweet and savory flavor … between cardamom and cinnamon.” But because it was conspicuously absent in supermarkets, I substituted the daun salam with kaffir lime leaves, which had the effect of completely changing the opor’s overall flavor profile. Bama was both shocked and amused when I told him what I did: “If you can’t find daun salam, it’s better not to use anything at all.”
I had better luck the second time, thanks to a bag of dried, almost blackened, salam leaves I had picked out from the freezer of a small Indonesian corner store. My brother said it was more flavorful than the first try, but when I brought it to my grandparents’ apartment for Christmas dinner, the extended family disagreed. Mo mei geh? My food-loving granddad asked. “Why doesn’t it taste of anything?” The reason, I found out much later, was that I simply hadn’t added enough salt.
“When you’re cooking soupy dishes,” Auntie Dhani told me roughly six months later, “you must be brave [to use more salt].” However, it was also about knowing when to stop and finding the right balance between sweetness, saltiness, and fat. I watched intently as she crumbled round discs of unrefined palm sugar, made from the sap of the Arenga pinnata tree, bit by bit into her bubbling opor. In between each addition, Auntie Dhani tasted the sauce until it had reached its desired flavor.
After I moved to Jakarta four years ago, my trips to Semarang with Bama became an annual pilgrimage during the week-long Idul Fitri holiday. Each year I tried to add one or two more recipes to my notebook. Eventually, Auntie Dhani gifted us an ulekan, a mortar and pestle made of heavy volcanic stone – specifically black andesite, the same material used to build ancient Javanese temples like Borobudur and Prambanan. Pockmarked and worn from years of repetitive grinding, the spice-grinding implements occupy a special place in our kitchen.
It wasn’t until January this year that I worked up the courage to cook opor for the ultimate judge: someone who had eaten it from a very young age. Was I going to ruin Bama’s beloved childhood dish? And could I meet the exceptionally high standards set by Auntie Dhani? Perhaps I was only setting myself up for disappointment. Any similarity with the original recipe, I reasoned, would count as a bonus. But I was surprised by the final verdict. “I would say it’s more than 90 percent there. It just needs a bit more salt,” Bama said. He took a snapshot with his phone and sent it to Auntie Dhani, who complimented my creation on its beautiful golden color.
The next morning, when I served the dish after adding several sprinkles of table salt as it warmed up on the stove, Bama stopped abruptly after taking a sip of the bright yellow sauce. “This tastes exactly like my mom’s cooking,” he marveled. Unbelievably, Bama was right. Once the creamy opor hit my taste buds, I was transported back to Auntie Dhani’s home in Semarang and that clear, sunny morning of Idul Fitri. ◊