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Volume 47, Number 1January/February 1996

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Culinary Reconnaissance


Written by Ada Henne Koene
Photographed by Brynn Bruijn

Indonesia must be the most diverse country in the world. Its 190 million people comprise some 50 large ethnic groups and 250 smaller ones. Its approximately 18,000 islands range from tiny atolls to the second- and third-largest islands in the world, some covered with humid rain forests and dense tropical growth, parts of others parched and barren. Topographically, Indonesia is the most volatile segment of the Pacific "ring of fire," with hundreds of high volcanoes that slope down to broad, cool highland plateaus and low-lying wetlands or plains.

The Dutch—Indonesia's colonial occupiers for more than 300 years—affectionately call these islands scattered across the equatorial seas de gordel van smaragden, "the belt of emeralds"; the Indonesians call their country tanah air kitah, "our land and water," and both land and water are richly productive. The deep layers of nutrient-rich volcanic ash that have accumulated on some islands over millennia have made them so bountiful that even picket fences and rattan lawn chairs have been known to sprout and grow.

Indonesia's people have also accumulated their rich genetic heritage over millennia. Seafaring Australomelanesians were probably the first modern humans to arrive; Indian, Chinese, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch travelers and traders followed, mixing their genes with those of their predecessors. Some left behind profound cultural, religious and culinary influences that mark Indonesia's population today: Arab traders, for example, are responsible for the rooting of Islam in the islands, and Indonesia is today the world's most populous Muslim country (See Aramco World, November-December 1991).

In spite of its great diversity, there are common patterns in Indonesia's foods and food-ways. Rice is the basic staple for most of the population. On Ambon, however, the starch is sago, the coarse flour made from the pith of the sago palm; on Irian Jaya, Indonesia's half of New Guinea, it is the sweet potato. Lacking those, Indonesians may eat corn, which was brought to the islands by 16th-century Spanish traders. But rice accompanied by one or two savory side dishes of fish, vegetables or meat, one or two condiments such as chile paste and toasted grated coconut, and krupuk, or prawn crackers, constitute a typical Indonesian meal. Elaborations may include fried bananas or fruit salad with a spicy sauce. Meals are washed down with hot coffee or tea or water.

With the help of advanced technology, some Indonesian soils can produce two or three rice crops a year. Rains caused by temperature changes on the mountain peaks flow through the padi terraces, built along the volcanoes' valleys and contours, through well-placed breaches in the small dikes, then down to irrigation canals and the plains. Through an elaborate water-sharing system dictated by customary adat law (See Aramco World, July-August 1991) and managed by independent guild-like cooperatives of wet- and dry-rice farmers, crops can be staggered. Thus, in a radius of a few kilometers, it is possible to see all the stages of the rice cycle: plowing, transplanting, reaping and winnowing. Between plantings the padi fields are flooded and either turned over to the ducks, which feed on insects, tadpoles and small fish, or stocked with baby eels, freshwater carp and gurami, a type of perch.

Some of Indonesia's seas teem with life, while others are being fished out. Coast-dwellers can choose from fresh red snapper, milkfish, Spanish mackerel, pomfret, sardine, anchovy, tuna, prawns, shrimp and even lobster. People in the interior eat freshwater fish raised in the padi fields or in tanks or family backyard ponds, or they fish in rivers, lakes and streams. Some fish and seafood is salted or smoked, and much of the shrimp catch is dried and processed into terasi, a semi-dry, cake-like paste that is an important protein source in parts of the country.

Chicken is included in most daily meals. Indonesians favor the lean, long-legged village chickens that hunt-and-peck freely in yards, roads and country lanes. They are often boiled first to tenderize them and make a rich stock, then barbecued over charcoal, oven-grilled or fried. Ducks are raised mostly for their eggs on many islands; they provide both eggs and meat on others.

Indonesian Muslims don't eat pork, of course, but they consume almost every part of the water buffalo and the cow: The tongue, heart, brains, lungs, tripe, large and small intestines—even the buffalo skin—all go into the pot. A fondness for goat and lamb may be due to Arab influences. The Hindus of Bali eat pork and rarely eat beef; Indonesian Christians eat a little of both. The foods of the tribes in the interior read like the menu for a survival course.

Indonesians look to their trees, bushes and streams for their greens. They eat papaya and cassava leaves, fern tops, round-leaved spinach, swamp cabbage and some unusual water plants that have no Western names. Root vegetables like taro, cassava and sweet potatoes provide starch. They also eat several gourd-like fruits such as bitter melon and chayote, and the egg-shaped white, yellow, purple and green-and-white eggplant varieties, plus the larger European version.

The Dutch planted tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, red globe radishes, green beans and lettuce in the highlands, where they flourish in near-Dutch weather conditions; the Indians brought cucumbers, eggplants and onions; and the Chinese the oriental radish, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, soy beans, horse tamarind, mung-bean sprouts and broad-leaved mustard. Indonesians also learned the secrets of making tauco (fermented black or yellow soybean paste) and tahu (soybean cake) from the Chinese—but tempe (soybean cake with whole beans) is a purely Indonesian invention.

Few regions on this globe can compete with Indonesia when it comes to indigenous fruits. Not only do Indonesians grow all the tropical fruits familiar to Westerners, such as bananas, pineapples, mangoes and papayas, but they produce some unusual ones as well. There is the durian, lauded by some as the "king of all fruits." It looks like an oversized hand grenade and functions like a stink-bomb: It has such a penetratingly foul odor that no hotel and no airline will serve it or even let it be brought indoors—yet people go wild over its taste. Less controversial are the hairy rambutan, the fragrant mangosteen, the salak, or snake fruit, with its peel like snakeskin, the star-shaped carambola and the lovely jambu air, or rose apple.

Each of Indonesia's ethnic groups uses some or all of the country's rich array of spices, but each has its own combinations, intensities and tastes: spicy, hot, pungent, sweet and sour. Indonesians use dried coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon or cassia, cumin and fennel—but nutmeg, cloves and mace appear only sparingly or not at all, although those are the spices that gave Indonesia a role on the world's stage. Heat is created by fiery chiles, a new-world food that was brought here by the Spanish and promptly and passionately adopted. But the real magic in Indonesian cuisine is in the use of aromatic seasonings: fresh red shallots; fresh garlic; fresh green onions; fresh rhizomes such as ginger, turmeric, greater galangal (known as lengkuas or laos) and the other galan-gals, known as kencur and temu kunci, or Chinese keys. There are also the fresh leaf seasonings that include lemon grass, lemon basil, kaffir lime, daun salam (a type of laurel), turmeric, Chinese celery and pandan leaf. On Bali they even use the chile pepper leaves. To these seasonings they add the sweetness of coconut milk, palm sugar and sweetened soy sauce, and the sourness of tamarind water, lime juice and vinegar. Ground candlenuts, rather than flour, are used as thickeners. The fresh spices are mostly ground into a paste, then mixed with the dry seasonings, before the leaf flavorings are added to the cooking liquid.

Probably the best-loved food of the islands is the spicy, fiery-hot Padang cuisine of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra. As the western anchor of the archipelago, Sumatra was the first port of call for Indian and Arab traders, and the coastal Sumatrans gladly adopted their spices, as well as their stews, curries and kebabs. In Padang, however, only dried ground coriander and cumin, of the Arab-Indian spices, are used, with the addition of fresh aromatics such as galangal, turmeric, ginger, garlic, shallots, lemon grass, kaffir-lime leaf and turmeric leaf. And Padang cooks add hot chiles with complete abandon: A ratio of 300 grams of chile to 800 grams of meat is not unusual.

Padang restaurants, recognizable by the neatly stacked food basins in their windows, have mushroomed in almost every Indonesian city and town. They have an intriguing way of serving the food: As you sit down, a waiter approaches with an array of dishes all deftly balanced on his left arm and places the food on the table in a kind of Asian buffet. An ordinary meal may comprise curried or stewed meats, fish, eggs, vegetables and innards. You pay either for the meats you eat or by the number of dishes; sauces don't count.

The fish for Padang's tables are caught in the Indian Ocean, but most of the meats, vegetables and fruits come from the Minang cultural capital, Bukittinggi, in the highlands above Padang. It is an extremely productive area, with astounding vistas of rice terraces and cinnamon and clove plantations. Walk through Bukittinggi's hillside central market and you will see a refreshing variety of fruits, vegetables, butchered meats (except pork), live chickens and ducks, fresh and dried fish, dried or squirming baby eels and dried and freshly ground spice pastes, all of a quality as fine as anywhere in the world.

This is a very devoutly Muslim area, and the people know how to share their food at the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, here called Lebaran. To give us an idea of what they eat, Executive Chef Muchril Muchtar of the Pusako Hotel cooked us a typical Padang buka puasa, or fast-breaking meal. There was rendang sapi, a spice-encrusted dry beef dish cooked for a long time in coconut milk, now a national classic; dendeng belado, beef served with a hot chile sauce; singgang ayam, grilled "wedding" chicken; spiced lamb; and fern-top and red-snapper curries cooked in coconut milk. Other dishes included three different kinds of rice.

The food of Jakarta takes another interesting twist. Located in the Betawi heartland, Jakarta is the nation's capital, the republic's nerve center and the melting pot of the people, as well as the hub of the island of Java. Western-style supermarkets and restaurants mirror the international nature of the city, and the numerous markets and Indonesian restaurants reflect Jakarta's ethnic diversity, which seems to be evolving into a new urban culture with a cuisine of its own.

So what do Jakartans eat? Everyone will tell you that the Javanese, who make up the larger part of the city's population, like their food sweet, and indeed every dish seems to include palm sugar and a tablespoon or more of sweet soy sauce. Javanese prefer red shallots to garlic, and eat some of the ethnic Betawi specialties that include semur, the Dutch-inspired smothered beef with a Chinese-Indonesian sweet-soy taste. It is one of the few non-curry dishes that is seasoned with nutmeg and cloves.

Jakartan food owes much to the ethnic Chinese: Both nasi goreng and batni goreng—fried rice or egg noodles, respectively, with egg, julienned carrots, red shallots, light soy sauce and chile peppers—originated in China and were adapted to the Indonesian tastes until they are now island favorites. They are garnished with crispy fried shallots, sliced cucumbers, tomato wedges and fried omelet strips, and served with fried chicken, fried shrimp or a few sate sticks on the side. As in many Javanese dishes, chile peppers are not included in the cooking but are ground into hot sambals —chile-pepper sauces—that are used as condiments or dips.

Soto ayam Madura, chicken soup from Madura island, is also a Jakartan favorite. It can be an elaborate dish, consisting of chicken stock seasoned with lemon grass, shallots and garlic and served with shredded chicken, fried potatoes, bean sprouts and rice vermicelli. It is garnished with crispy fried shallots and celery leaves. The rice vermicelli is a Chinese contribution.

We compared the buka puasa meal at the Hilton Hotel in Jakarta with the one we ate in Bukittinggi and found they had many dishes in common. In Jakarta, they broke the fast with a sweet drink of cooked coconut milk, vanilla, sugar and bananas. They also served a discreetly spiced Javanese chicken stew and an Indian-inspired rice dish cooked with lamb or chicken.

While Jakarta is the seat of government, the Sultanate of Yogyakarta in Central Java is Indonesia's cultural throne. Its refinement is mirrored in the region's food, which is spiced in moderation and is more often than not a little sweet. The main Yogya flavorings are shallots, garlic, laos, ginger, turmeric, ground coriander, salam leaf, kaffir-lime leaf, palm sugar and sweet soy sauce. The rice consumed in Yogyakarta comes from the large crescent plain that surrounds the city, one of Java's most productive areas for rice and sugarcane. Typical Yogya dishes are nasi gudek, made of young jack-fruit and boiled eggs stewed in coconut milk with a mixture of the standard Yogya seasonings, and ayam mbok berek, a chicken dish typical of the Kalasan area. The chicken is boiled until tender in coconut water that has been flavored with the standard Yogya seasonings, then dipped in a mixture of rice and tapioca flour and deep-fried. It is served with sambal and greens.

The Central Javanese are very fond of communal feasts, or selamatan, and hold them to celebrate rites of passage and promote a sense of community. Nasi tumpeng is often prepared for such occasions: Plain and sticky rice are cooked together in coconut milk tinted yellow with freshly-grated turmeric, then steamed in a kukusan, a woven cone-shaped bamboo container. The container is inverted onto a pannier lined with banana leaf, and the sticky rice holds the whole mound together. Depending on the scale of the selamatan, the rice may then be colorfully adorned with a number of dishes like chicken cooked in coconut milk, omelet strips, fried dried anchovies, whole boiled eggs fried in a sauce, sweet and sour pickled vegetables, cucumber slices and red chiles cut into flower shapes.

Yogya gets its fresh vegetables from the 2000-meter-high (6500-foot) Dieng Plateau. To get there, we took a road that snakes skyward up what must be some of the most densely cultivated mountain slopes in the world, with some of the terraces so narrow that they had room for only two rows of cabbage. On the plateau, the Dieng people grow excellent crisp green cabbages, string beans, long beans, mushrooms and even potatoes.

Still on Java, the Sundanese people are centered around Bandung, their capital and Indonesia's third-largest city. It is a highland town where many of Jakarta's vegetables are grown, as well as Indonesia's finest teas, in the surrounding hills, and Cianjur rice, arguably Indonesia's best, in the nearby Priangan plains.

The Javanese good-naturedly poke fun at the vegetable-loving Sundanese. "They are cheap to entertain," they say. At our request, however, the sous-chef at the Chedi Hotel, Dwito Satmoko, cooked us a more elaborate and more truly Sundanese meal. He laid out a mouthwatering banquet of grilled chicken with sweet-soy sambal, hot and sour fish soup, white rice steamed with chicken and spices, soybean-cake fritters, krupuk and lalap—the raw vegetables Sundanese are fond of—which turned out to consist of watercress, eggplant, turnip leaves, lemon basil and other leaves, served with a hot dipping sauce made with shrimp paste and tomato. The food was moderately seasoned with garlic, shallots, ginger, chile peppers, turmeric, daun salam, lemon grass, sweet soy sauce, a little kencur and lemon-basil leaves.

Manado, in northern Sulawesi—the four-fingered island northeast of Java—is a largely agricultural Minahasan community where coffee, coconuts, nutmeg and cloves are big money-earners. The cloves are shipped to Java to be made into Indonesia's trademark kretek cigarettes, half tobacco and half cloves. The nutmeg fruit is candied and eaten as a sweet; it tastes surprisingly like ginger. The Minahasans also grow other wonderful fruits: passion fruit; jeruk limau, a small, aromatic greenish orange with a yellow-orange flesh; the diminutive limes known as jeruk nipis, which make a wonderfully cooling drink; and the cashew apple, with its strange appendage that is actually the cashew nut itself.

Other Indonesians seem to think that Minahasan food has to be plastered with chile paste to taste good, and we set out to see if this was so. We took a walk through the market in the highland town of Tomohon and saw smoked tuna strung on bamboo racks, as well as blackened fruit bats and white-tailed field rats—the latter sold with the tails on so buyers can be assured they are not ordinary wharf rats. And during a cooking session at her Gardenia Chalets, Bernadette Ratulangi cooked us a grilled chicken dish, ayam bakar rica, that called for a paste made of 40 red chiles, a third of a cup of shallots, 1½ centimeters (½ inch) of fresh ginger and a tablespoon of oil. But she also demonstrated other dishes, not quite so hot and more refined, flavored with red shallots, red peppers, turmeric leaves, kaffir-lime leaves, lemon basil and an unusual aromatic not used on most islands: torch ginger.

We tasted a superb grouper soup reminiscent of the Thai prawn soup, seasoned with shallots, ginger, green onions, lemon grass, kaffir-lime leaves, lemon-basil leaves, turmeric leaf and five large green and red chiles; fried tuna in chile paste; banana-heart salad; carp grilled in a palm leaf; and herbed chicken baked in stalks of bamboo. For breakfast we had burbur Manado, or rice porridge, with about 14 different condiments and side dishes such as shredded chicken, sweet soy sauce and fried shallots. Of course, there was also a dish of chopped chiles.

Traveling around Indonesia like Napoleon's army—on our stomachs—we knew we were only scratching the surface of the country's culinary riches. Bali, for example, anomalous in every way, has quite different foodways from any other place in Indonesia, though there was as wide a range of local variations everywhere as one would expect in a country that reaches one eighth of the way around the earth. But we learned some useful basic facts.

Indonesians grow four main types of rice: the polished long-grain rice, a highly nutritious red rice that is only considered suitable for children, and two types of sticky rice, white and black, which are used for desserts. The white sticky rice is often ground into flour, while the black rice is mainly used to make tapé, a fermented dish especially popular as a treat to break the Lebaran fast. The long-grain Cianjur rice, preferred by most Javanese, is boiled in 1 to 1¼ cups of water until the water is absorbed, then steamed in a conical woven bamboo basket, a kukusan, set over a large water-filled urn with a conical lip. Indonesians eat with their fingers or with spoon and fork, and they prefer the rice grains to be separate, light and fluffy.

Rice is called by different names according to the circumstances. Young rice growing in the fields is padi; after it is harvested and bagged it is called beras, and when it is cooked it becomes nasi. It is a fickle plant, and in ancient times was considered the embodiment of the mythological rice goddess Dewi Sri. Then, it was harvested with a small blade kept hidden in the palm of the hand, so the goddess could not see when the harvesters gave the plant the coup de grace.

We can credit the Spanish and Portuguese with bringing chile peppers to Indonesia from the Americas. Although there are hundreds of varieties in all sizes, shapes, colors and flavors, all varying in degrees of heat, the ideal chiles for Indonesian cooking are the 12-centimeter (5-inch) cabé or Lombok, medium hot, and cabé rawit or Lombok rawit, a fiercely hot bird's-eye chile. Indonesian chiles are further distinguished by their colors: red, cabé merah, and green, cabé hijau. Their flavor is more important than their heat, which can be reduced by removing the seeds and membranes before use. In Indonesia, chiles are ground into paste, to release their flavor, and mixed with other seasonings before cooking, or are ground into sambal to be used as condiments.

Ever since the first coconut seeds washed ashore, Indonesians have been devising ways to use this precious palm fruit. They drink the liquid of the young coconuts (coconut water) and spoon out the translucent flesh to mix with their drinks. When the coconuts mature, they grate the white flesh and squeeze it with water to make santen, or coconut milk. Coconut flesh is also processed into cooking oil, the hard brown coconut shell is made into cooking implements and the fibrous husk, as well as the shell, fuel very hot cooking fires.

Indonesians also eat the fruit of the sweet palm and tap its trunk for gulah merah, or palm sugar. The palm leaf is woven into casings for the festive ketupat rice cakes, and the lontar palm leaf is used as a container for grilling foods.

We were warmly received on our culinary reconnaissance across Indonesia, and learned and tasted so much that we would like to go back—and go on. But there are thousands of islands left to explore, and hundreds of cultural variations: So much to sample, so little time!

Ada Koene and Brynn Bruijn are both Americans who live in the Netherlands. Koene learned to cook Asian food during the 18 years she lived in Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. She has contributed frequently to Amian regional magazines, and is the author of The Food Shopper's Guide to Holland. Bruijn's photographs have illustrated Cuba: 500 Years of Images, The Royal Progress of William and Mary and Uzbekistan, as well as magazines and other books; UNESCO selected her photographs of Tibet as a project of the World Cultural Development Decade. Both would like to thank the chefs, cookbook authors, cooking instructors and others who helped them in preparing this article: Sri Owen, author of Indonesian Food & Cookery, The Rice Book and Indonesian Regional Cooking; William and Lucy Wongso of William F&B Management; Daniel Meury, Greg Smith and Dwito Satmoko at the Chedi Hotel in Bandung; Josephine Komarn of Bin House in Jakarta for her beautiful batik fabrics; Rolf jaeggi, Johannes Pratiwanggana, Iwan Setia Wan and John Pelting of the Jakarta Hilton; Dr. and Mrs. Leonard Ratulangi of Gardenia Chalets in Tomohon, Menado; I Gusti Nyoman and Mrs. Darta of Campuhan/Ubud, Bali; Detlef Skrobanek, author of The New Art of Indonesian Cooking; Patu Suwandi and Muchril Muchtar of Pusako Hotel, Bukittinggi; Ibu Hayatinufus A. L. Tobing; Ibu Haryati Desmayeti; and our Jakarta hosts, Suzanne and Garnet Bray.

This article appeared on pages 18-27 of the January/February 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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