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.

Secrets of the Rijsttafel

The rijstaffel at Ramayani. For link, see below.

Three things you need to know: (a) translated from the Dutch, the word means “rice table;” (b) in order to taste this Indonesian speciality at its best, you should consider traveling to Amsterdam, where rijsttaffel has been popular for several hundred years; (c) the dish, or, more accurately, the presentation of dishes is a blend of Dutch and Indonesian, and not quite native to either place; and (d) for reasons I don’t understand, this appealing combination of Asian food has never found its place in America.

A typical Dutch rijsttaffel usually consists of several dozen small dishes (often, forty dishes is the count), so this is the kind of meal that you’ll want to enjoy with several friends. Beer is your most likely accompaniment: the most popular Indonesian beer is a lager called Bintang, but if you’re dining in Amsterdam, you’ll find a wide range of superior Dutch and German beers just about everywhere.

A good rijsttaffel will feature dishes that highlight specific colors, spices, flavors, and textures. At first, the textures may be off-putting as they may run from crunchy to soggy to runny to gelatinous. And the array of colors may overwhelm. Relax–there’s just a bit of everything, and there’s no law that requires that everything be tasted by every person at the table.

From Wikipedia, banana leaves, rice, and a meat filling. It’s called lemper.

The grilled banana leaves–green in color–are likely to be lemper. Inside, there’s a bit of sticky rice and a meat or fish filling (think in terms of an Asian tamale) with rice in place of cornmeal.  Also wrapped: lumpia, which will be familiar as a deep-fried, crispy spring roll.

Golden in color, perkedel are a mix of ground meat and mashed potato, fried up so that it looks like a flat meatball. If you are familiar with frikadeller (flat Danish or German meatballs).

From Wikipedia, an Indonesian fried rice platter with shredded egg omelette, meat floss, and a pair of spiced meat dishes. And more.

Nasi kuning will be familiar as fried rice, often served on a larger platter surrounded by serundeng (a relish of coconut and spices), urap (cooked vegetable salad, often shredded, also with coconut), balado udang (shrimp in a chili sauce). Sometimes, the rice is served in its own bowl, and these side dishes are served among the many small bowls that fill the rijstaffel.

You’re likely to find some flavorful soups and stews, too. Sayur Iodeh is a coconut soup with vegetables (jackfruit, various types of Asian squash, melinjo, and more. Semur is a beef stew in a sweet soy gravy with ginger, onions, garlic and other (generally) familiar spices.

Pisang goreng is more of street food, and perhaps, more of a breakfast or lunch snack than a dinner staple, but you’ll often find this sweet dish on the rijstaffel as well.

Ayam gurang is fried chicken with special spices. Satay will also be familiar–it’s marinated meat on a thin skewer. There are various curries, some similar to those you would find in an Indian restaurant, some with different spices (a curry is a blend of spices, not a particular spice, so variety should come as no surprise).

From Wikipedia – Traditional sambal terasi served on stone mortar with garlic and lime.

Keep your eyes open for the sambal dishes–the dishes made from peppers of every variety and every degree on the Scoville Scale. Indonesians love their peppers, and it’s not unusual to find several sambals on the buffet, including dishes made with lemon, mango and other fruits, including the (very smelly) durian. Not all sambals contain pepper.

Of course, specialties abound. For example, Indonesia Restaurant (see below) features Kepiting mask telor, which is crab served on egg with sweet and sour sauce. And you may find something different, just for the sake of giving a new food a try, as with the same restaurant’s mutton satay.

I know it’s difficult to imagine all of this in a single meal (and I’ve named less than half of what you’re likely to find in a rijsttaffel), but as I say, the dishes are small, and all of this is intended to be shared by several people. But do you really need to travel to Amsterdam to enjoy this dining experience?If all of this is sounding a bit like a cross between Indian food and Chinese dim sum, you’re getting the right idea. I wish I could communicate more about the delicate, powerful, varied spicing and “mouth feel” of these dishes–it’s great fun to jump from one dish to a very different one–but you’ll need to fly to Amsterdam or try one of the restaurants below for that experience. A rijsttaffel is not the sort of dish that any reasonable person would prepare for casual dining at home.

Well, no… you could poke around Yelp and find some viable options closer to home. I did, and here’s what I found:

Indonesia Restaurant – Philadelphia. Choose from one of four different rijsttaffel menus, priced at $15, $17.50 or $20, $25.

Hardena/Waroeng Surabaya Restaurant, also in Philly. Very popular.

Mie Jakarta – No surprise that some of the best Indonesian food in New York City can be found in the international borough of Queens.

Java Indonesian Rijsttafel – This one’s in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Satay Sarinah – A more upscale place in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington, DC. Very instructive website.

Borobudur – Great place in San Francisco. Very instructive menu online, too.

Jayakarta – Berkeley, California

Ramayani Westwood – Los Angeles, California. Unassuming, but a great neighborhood place.

Bandung – Madison, Wisconsin

Indomania – Miami Beach, Florida

For updated information, visit Dutch in America from time to time.

And how about the best rijsttafel restaurants in Amsterdam and Europe?

Tempo Doeloe Indonesia – Amsterdam. Good detailed menu info here. Check online for latest reviews.

Sampurna – Amsterdam. Probably the best choice; consistently great reviews.

Kantjil & de Tijger – Amsterdam. Upscale with a varied menu. Temptations abound, but talk the group into joining together for the rijsttafel–you’ll be glad you did!

Bali Bali – London, in the West End.

Here’s a look at just a few of the rijsttafel dishes served in Amsterdam’s Kantjil & de Tijger restaurant.

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