Hungry for Home
Hana Milller, The Jakarta Post - WEEKENDER | Thu, 04/23/2009 7:38 PM |
Any homesick Indonesian knows the feeling. You’ve let your mind wander to something your taste buds had almost forgotten existed, something as simple as tempeh, which you used to live on and now can find only in small unappetizing packages sold as a meat alternative in health food stores, and quickly one thing leads to another.
You start thinking of the sambal to go with the tempeh, the nasi to go with the sambal, the sayur to go with the nasi, and on and on until all of a sudden you realize that you’re practically drooling and are starting to have delusions of digging in at a table heaped with plate upon plate of your favorite Indonesian dishes. It’s so vivid you can actually taste it.
Before I come home from overseas, my mother always asks me for “the menu”, a wish list of my favorite foods for my first meal back. If my flight arrives late at night or if my visit doesn’t coincide with the season of my favorite fruits, rambutan and duku, then I usually tell myself that I should have planned my travels better. It sounds extreme, I know. Prisoners on death row make requests for their last meal, and I, on the verge of suffering from a lack of spice and variety in my diet, make a request for my first meal.
The truth of the matter is that Indonesian food overseas (and I don’t mean the token nasi goreng or satay dish) is either nonexistent or just not the same. There’s a reason why Indonesians who are living overseas have to get together on a regular basis to drown their homesickness in heavy doses of sambal. Even then, some of the most necessary ingredients for many dishes are completely lost in translation or, if you’re far from the tropics, just not fresh or impossible to find.
There’s far more to Indonesian cuisine than peanut sauce and coconut milk, despite what people who’ve never been to Indonesia may be led to believe. For those of us who’ve grown to love all those bizarre, pungent, spicy and absolutely irreplaceable ingredients that make Indonesian food unique, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Not even other Asian foods.
I recently found a notebook that I had while I was traveling around Southeast Asia. Despite how much I loved the pho noodle soups in Vietnam and the papaya salads in Thailand, I was also keeping a running list in the margins of my notebook of all the food that I planned to eat when I got back to Jakarta.
My husband once caught me adding to the list and he shook his head in disbelief. Then he thought for a second and said “make sure you put down satay Padang.” He had first come to Indonesia only three years earlier and my family celebrated his birthday by giving him a big bowl of durian, served with grated coconut and sticky black rice. I can only imagine what it would have been like to him, a buttery fruit that looks like ice cream and smells so strong it’s prohibited on airplanes and in hotel rooms. But some time after this initiation rite, he acquired a taste for raw petai, those stinky crunchy beans that are used to supplement sambal. He also started eating noodles instead of cereal for breakfast and he even went so far as to try sheep brain curry at a local restaurant – and liked it.
Soon enough we had both added so much to the list that we realized we would have to spend most of our time in Indonesia eating. Not that that was a problem.
Indonesian food is as diverse as its cultures. If you ask someone from Bali what their favorite dish is, they might say babi guling, that laborious regional specialty that involves spit-roasting a whole suckling pig that has been stuffed with a blend of bumbu, spices including turmeric, galangal, lemongrass and more. Ask someone from West Sumatra what their favorite dish is and they’re sure to choose something from the notoriously spicy repertoire of Padang food.
But ask someone from Jakarta and they could say anything. Chances are they know of a good little warung here and a great little kaki lima there and if they offer to take you to any of these places, then go! The odds of finding them yourself, amid the sheer number of places to eat in the capital city, are mind-bogglingly against you. You never know what you might be missing out on.
For those of you who like to plan ahead, however, here are a few appetite teasers from my wish list. Do yourself a favor and seek these out if you haven’t tried them already.
Having grown up on Padang food, my personal favorites include anything balado, which just means lathered in a tangy, salty sambal made of chili, garlic, shallots, tomatoes and, most importantly, terasi, a fermented dried shrimp paste that is used to salt many Indonesian dishes. You can have balado anything, but the most popular contestants are deep-fried hardboiled eggs, fish, prawns, tofu, tempeh, eggplant, green beans and – my all time favorite – dendeng, thin slices of marinated meat that are dried during several hours in an oven. The ideal result is just how my grandmother makes it: irresistibly crunchy.
Every time I come home, I always insist on going the extra few kilometers from Jakarta to make the pilgrimage to a tiny nondescript place near Bogor where they make the most delicious nasi bakar. Imagine rice cooked in lemongrass-infused coconut milk, then mixed with salty fish, coriander and chili, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled to steamy perfection over hot coals. It’s well worth the voyage.
When I’m feeling like I need to repent for all the rich, fried and heavy foods I’ve been eating I always crave homemade sayur asem, a tart tamarind- and galangal-flavored vegetable soup with corn, long beans, young jackfruit, melinjo nuts and tender chunks of white gourd. First timers should be warned that the hard nuts aren’t to be eaten whole; use your teeth to crack the shells.
On the other hand, when I’m feeling totally indulgent I treat myself to martabak manis, a totally sinful mix of melted chocolate, cheese and condensed milk sandwiched between two thick buttery crumpets. Forget about crème brûlée or chocolate truffles: this is the single most decadent thing ever. They’re always cooked on the spot and you’ve got to eat them while they’re hot, preferably with lots of friends to share the load. I only allow myself one of these per visit.
And now, as I sit thousands of kilometers away from Indonesia, I’ve successfully made myself insatiably hungry to taste food that is way out of reach. Well, I guess there’s only one thing I can do. It’s time to start looking for plane tickets again.
+ Hana Miller