This is by no means an exhaustive dispatch on Indonesian cuisine, just food we have encountered on our trip that didn’t make it into other posts. By-the-way, please check out the food blogs of two of my friends; best friend Amy Halloran’s Home Economics http://amyhalloran.com/ and uber good friend Dan Hobbs’ The Hobbs Digest http://www.thehobbsdigest.com/. Both really great.
Indonesia is intensively agricultural. Hand-planted and harvested rice fields abound, but we have also encountered cassava and papaya groves, strawberry, tea and sugar cane plantations. Coconut trees are everywhere and families will often have a jack fruit or other fruit tree planted near the house. The global economy may be having its effect, however. Pak Nur told us of a sugar processing center in Surabaya that can’t beat the low price of imported sugar and will likely shut down.
Pasars (Indonesian for market) are everywhere. A row of batik-clad old women squat in a row, their products in baskets in front of them – stall after stall after stall carrying fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, spices, even batik and cell phones. “How can they all make a living,” Kian wondered. “They are so poor but have so much dignity it makes it even more heartbreaking.”
(Bananas, pineapple, watermelon, salak (snakefruit), papaya)
“Why can’t you just appreciate the new flavor of a fruit instead of trying to compare it to a fruit you already know?” Kian uttered this sage pronouncement after I classified the novel jambu air as a cross of apple and asian pear.
One of the most beautiful fruits I have seen is the mangosteen. It’s woody exterior and dried leaves must be smashed open to get the fruit inside. I have yet to taste one – this had been sitting in the hotel room too long as was rotten inside.
While walking around some rice fields near Ubud, a guy, probably in his late fifties, with a sarong-dressed woman walked past. The woman pointed to a palm tree and the man kicked off his flip-flops and shimmied up the slender, branchless trunk. He got up about thirty feet and started throwing coconuts down into a rice paddy. The woman collected them and asked if we would like to buy one. For about $1 she chopped the top off and gave it to us to drink. When the coconut water was gone she chopped the top open and carved a little spoon from the husk for us to scoop out the tender flesh. The woman said that she used to be a model for painters Affandi and Bonnet, but she had gotten too fat for modeling. Now she worked the rice fields and the owners let her collect and sell coconuts.
(Banana flower; banana babies; banana varieties for sale; longan)
Thailand breeds what is considered a perfect, consistent durian (pic below). Kian’s friend Ianpin is crazy for Medan durian precisely because it is imperfect. “You might get three that are horrible, but when you get an amazing one – wow.” Durian is known for its peculiar smell, something like rotted brussel sprouts. “Smells like hell, tastes like heaven,” Kian likes to say. Traditional wisdom holds that eating durian and drinking alcohol is a surefire mix for a stroke. I scoffed at this until Kian’s friend Nelly said her father-in-law drank a glass of wine after eating the spiny fruit and ended up in coronary care.
From street vendors with push carts to small roadside stands to the fanciest of restaurants, the diversity of prepared foods in Indonesia is dizzying. We tried to steer clear of street vendors and every so often we hit a restaurant with too many flies. But on the whole, the eating experience has been magnificent.
One special dish is lontong balap, available in only one restaurant in Surabaya. Pak Nur introduced us to the hole-in-the-wall where the dish was invented in 1913. To make lontong, you wrap rice in a banana leaf and boil it for three hours. The result is an unsweetened, glutinous rice cake with a consistency of polenta. The cook cuts the lontong and mixes it with broth, fried tofu, falafel and bean sprouts, all to order in front of you. He place a couple strips of clam sate on the side and plops in on the counter. If you order an iced drink, he shaves the ice block by hand.
The restaurant is near the “red bridge” where allied general Mallaby (of England) was killed during Indonesia’s fight for independence. The assassination sparked retribution by the allies who were trying to reoccupy Indonesia for the Dutch. The site saw some of Surabaya’s heaviest fighting.
Kian found a Bakwan restaurant across the street from our hotel in Surabaya. Bakwan, invented in Surabaya by ethnic Chinese, consists of several varieties of meatball, sausage and shrimp soup. The meat comes in various shapes and sizes – using tendon, chicken intestine, meat stuffed tofu, your choice of fried or boiled. It’s all surprisingly tender. There is also a lot of pork, which is not generally eaten by the Muslim population. Along the wall of the restaurant is a big scale so you can see how the food has changed you.
Duto Birdvit brought us to one branch of the Mrs. Suharti’s ayam goreng (fried chicken) chain in Solo. Mrs. Suharti, the story goes, was soaking in a river as part of an ancient Javanese spiritual ritual. After hours in the brisk waters, it came to her. Open a chain of fried chicken restaurants.
I had several amazing hot ginger drinks, called wedang ronde. Surabayan wedang ronde consists of hot ginger broth with mung beans, peanuts, rice, bread and nata de coco, a Filipino invention that uses bacteria to convert coconut water to a jelly.
The version of the drink from Sundanese Bandung in West Java uses peanuts encased in colorful glutinous rice balls. Other drinks that will knock your socks off are avocado with chocolate, sirsak juice, papaya juice and cassava boiled with palm sugar (made for us by Sri at her bamboo house.)
Lesehan dining sits you on the floor of a raised platform, like Japanese tatami style. This kind of dining is very popular and it is fun to sit barefoot around the low table. This restaurant in the mountains near the Mount Merapi volcano sported leopard print bamboo with an easy jazz version of Michael Jackson… “the doggone gir-rl is mine…”
The snails have to be sucked out hard from the shell. If you don’t have a good air lock forget it. We ate them with Pak Nur’s family at a swanky restaurant in the suburbs of Surabaya.
More assorted foods below. Check out the sambal ribs.
Pak Nur and Pak Tarjo enjoy beef ribs in sambal (hot chili paste). The plate is first rubbed with the sambal and the ribs are placed on top. Served with lime and roasted onions.
OK – now that you are hungry, go eat something good! I will write soon about our adventure in the rugged outpost of Madura last Sunday – racing bulls, revolvers and a rowdy gamelan band. Stay tuned.