Indonesian Food!

Now is not the very best time to try new restaurants, but it is a very good time to try new cookbooks, and perhaps, new cuisines as well.

Let’s begin with Eleanor Ford’s Fire Islands: Recipes from Indonesia. Like many of today’s cookbooks, this one is visually beautiful, with photographs for each of the dishes and locales. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest nations–it’s just behind the U.S. with 270 million people, making it the world’s fourth-largest country. We don’t see a lot of Indonesian restaurants, but the numbers seem to be growing: according to Yelp, there are 4 in the Boston area, 10 in the Philadelphia region, a half dozen in and near Seattle (some are food trucks, others are mixed with Malaysian). Indonesia is an archipelago, and it emerged as a unified nation coming out of World War II, but the islands were previously unified as the Dutch East Indies, a colony in 1800. Indonesia is a very large country–with more than 17,000 islands.

Start in the west (above left) with Sumatra. Aceh, on its northern tip, was “capitol of a spice empire”–if you remember your world history, Columbus and others were in search of spice islands, and Sumatra was one of the largest, a source for cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, fennel, star anise. “The Minangkabau people…have developed a sophisticated cuisine that has traveled to become Indonesia’s most popular. No town in the archipelago is without a Padang restaurant, named for the region’s largest city. They serve delectable dishes, rich with coconut and scented with kaffir lime. The crowning glory is rending, beef or buffalo that is slow-cooked until caramelized and infused with chili, lemongrass, turmeric, and ginger.”

Next, on to Java, “the center of Indonesian politics, economy and culture.” Here, you’ll find the mega-city of Jakarta. Try “asinan, a…pickled vegetable salad swathed in peanut sauce.” Or, fish in a banana leaf with the scent of basil and lemongrass.

The island of Bali is a tourist center, where you might try Babi Guling, which is a suckling pig steam with hot stones in an earthen oven. Order it with lawar, a green bean dish with coconut dressing.

And we’ve begun. Let’s cook something.

“It starts with bumbu — “the bass note to almost every Indonesian recipe is a spice paste called bumbu. This gives depth and resonance with a combination of heat, sharpness, and space. Candlenuts are often added, which give body.”

Easy enough to begin by cooking up some street food. Begin with Peanut & Lime Leaf Crackers. These are super-crispy, and it takes some practice to ladle the batter so it slides into the hot oil and finds its way to the hot center of the pan for “final crisping.” What’s inside? Skin-on peanuts, garlic, candlenut (or almonds), coriander seeds, salt, rice flour, some black peppercorns, and two lime leaves. Nothing that’s difficult to find.

Still on the streets, IFC (Indonesian Fried Chicken) is very popular, and there are lots of different recipes, but the author strongly favors a Yogyakarta version (see map) with spice-scented coconut water. Other ingredients: Asian shallots, garlic, coriander, salt, flour. We’re seeing a pattern here. You know Chicken Sate from other Asian restaurants–this is a good introduction for the reluctant-to-try, and always a favorite with children because it’s fun to eat off a skewer.

Indonesia is influenced by many different cultures, including India, which is not very far away. No surprise to find a Lamb Korma recipe here–and a suggested recipe for golden lace pancakes as a suitable side dish.

Indonesia is an island nation–lots of fresh fish. Scallops gulai introduces gulai sauce, which is “spicy, sunny colored, and coconutty.” It’s quick to prepare (it uses bumbu spice paste, prepared in advance), and ridiculously tasty.

Clearly, one of the author’s favorites in Ayam tailiwang, which she describes as “truly everything you could hope for in a grilled chicken. The skin is burnished and glazed, contrasting with the succulent meat inside. There is a fiery smack of charred chili and deeply smoky savoriness from the garlic.” Her recipe comes from a local chef in Lombok, who got it from his mother.

Vegetable urap

Vegetable urap with fresh spiced coconut has its roots in Bali. It’s a salad with green beans, beansprouts, coconut oil, shallots, garlic, chili, black-eyed peas, and lime. She recommends pakis, which are fern fronds, but if you catch the time of year just right, you could probably pop a few fiddlehead ferns into the salad in addition or instead. For a variation, try Sweet Coconut & Basil Salad, which features kencur (it’s fun to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients; it’s are aromatic gingers).

“There’s not a tourist restaurant in Indonesia that doesn’t serve Nasi goreng, which is a “Unami-packed fried rice.” You’ll want to get to know your rices, too: there’s red rice, which is nutty and a bit chewy; black rice, also sometimes purple rice, high in antioxidants (the color comes from the same pigment as blueberries), often served in a pudding with salted coconut cream; white rice, which is brown when the bran layer is intact), best if you buy the long-grained Jasmine which carries a delicate perfume.

You’ll want to know about sambal, too: it’s a “spicy crescendo” and often a complement to bumbu. Sambal is a relish, not cooked into the dish but dropped onto the top. There are lots of variations from Padang Red Chili Sambal to Sweet Tomato Sambal to Strawberry Sambal.

For dessert, you could go for the Coconut Custard Pie, leftover from the colonial era, but ambitious bakers will give Terang bulan a try. It’s a street food sandwich “rather like a giant crumpet” and you choose your own filling. “A rubble of roasted peanuts and sesame seeds, frosted with lots of sugar and a little salt is good.” She also recommends a surprising combination of chocolate and cheese as a homemade filling. If you’re a fan of peanut brittle, give coconut brittle a try.

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