Maggie Tiojakin, The Jakarta Post - WEEKENDER | Thu, 04/23/2009 6:25 PM |
Back in the 17th century, explorers from distant lands came to these shores for the wealth of exotic spices that were sent back to satisfy European palates. Those same homegrown herbs and spices are what distinguish the savory and sweet dishes to be found throughout the archipelago. Nevertheless, as Maggie Tiojakin reports, the quest to define Indonesian cuisine and take it to an international audience continues.
Culinary expert William Wongso has a ready answer when asked to define Indonesian cuisine.
“First of all, there is no such thing as Indonesian food,” says William. “Whenever someone asks me to explain what Indonesian food entails, I always tell them: ‘We are too many, therefore we are no-many’.”
Using his recent travels to East Nusa Tenggara to try local dishes as an example, William points out the diversity of Indonesian cuisine in taste and cooking methods. He believes good, authentic cuisines are “un-boxable”, because their elements constantly adapt to the progression of time and development of culture. To attempt to define – and thereby limit – one’s national dishes to a short list of generic items will eventually render them commonplace, stripped of the things that make them unique.
“Indonesia is comprised of literally thousands of regions,” says William. “Each region has its own special dish, some of which we already know, and others we don’t. So if you say nasi goreng, satay and gado-gado are the real Indonesian dishes – I beg to differ. I think there’s so much more.”
Indeed there is. With the archipelago a true melting pot, its food has been influenced by the various peoples who have ventured to the islands over the centuries, including the Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch. During this time, recipes were modified according to regional palates and available ingredients.
Java alone is home to hundreds of delicacies, often with distinct variations in a chicken broth or tofu dish to be found within a distance of a few kilometers. Sumatra is most famous for its Padang smorgasbord, its curries and spices telling of Indian and Arab influences – but there are many other tastes of the island, from North Sumatra to Palembang.
Kalimantan and Sulawesi provide their own culinary discoveries in each province, but what the major islands have to offer are only a very small part of Indonesia’s food traditions.
“To appreciate food, any type of food, you have to know its journey,” says William. “Indonesian food, especially, is all about the journey.”
Indonesians hunger after their home cuisine when abroad, and most visiting foreigners can find something to their liking on local menus, whether it is a chili-fired meat dish, a bowl of soothing soto or plate of fried rice. So why aren’t we climbing the international culinary ladder with our expansive food selection?
Other Asian cuisines have managed to win over taste buds abroad, whether the longtime success of Chinese food, the elevation of Indian food to the national cuisine of Britain, or the more recent inroads made by Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Americans, Australians, Europeans and Indonesians are now familiar with pad Thai and pho. If foreigners do know an Indonesian dish, it’s fried rice or satay, although they may assume the latter is Malaysian.
Ariaga Kemal is a 32-year-old entrepreneur who runs a tiny food stall in Boston, Massachusetts, which offers homemade Indonesian dishes such as bubur ayam (chicken porridge), otak-otak (fish cakes) and mie bakso (meatball soup). He calls it “Dapur Emak”, because his mother does all the cooking. Ariaga says 95 percent of his customers are Indonesians who long to taste home-cooked meals, with the others mostly Asian students and professionals living in the area.
“In three years, there’s been fewer than 15 Americans eating at the stall, that I know of, anyway,” says Ariaga, when contacted via instant messenger. “I don’t know, I guess maybe they don’t like Indonesian food. Maybe it’s easier for us to switch our preference from oxtail soup to calzones, rather than the other way around.”
It’s not the case that Indonesian food simply cannot measure up in the culinary stakes. Sri Owen was one of the first to put Indonesian food on the culinary map when, as a young woman married to an Englishman and living in her husband’s homeland, she wrote Indonesian Food and Cookery in 1976.
“Frankly I can’t think of any single dish that I would rate among the world’s finest,” Sri says.
“But I think Indonesian food as a whole deserves to be taken seriously, partly because it contains some very good dishes – rendang [chunks of beef simmered in coconut milk and spices], for example, which has no parallel in any other food culture that I know of – but mainly because in its cooking methods and use of flavors it has a distinct style and accent which I know from experience appeals to people everywhere.”
Some argue the difficulty lies in replicating the home-cooked flavor of Indonesian dishes abroad.
“The biggest problem is the ingredients,” Malaysian food ambassador Chef Wan says of Indonesian food served abroad. “It doesn’t quite work in the same way somewhere else. I believe it has to do with the weather, the soil, how it has been treated by the farmers. So the result is not the same. You can grow lemongrass and kencur in California or Hawaii, but it won’t be the same as something grown in Java by a farmer in the paddy field.”
With the mushrooming of Asian communities abroad, and an Asian grocery store seemingly on every corner in big cities, finding ingredients may only be part of the issue. Others point to a bigger problem with the lack of trained Indonesian chefs both at home and abroad. Many Indonesian restaurants abroad are mom-and-pop operations.
The main claim to fame of those working in the kitchen is that they are Indonesian, not that they have outstanding culinary skills.
“We are short on chefs, did you know that?” William says. “We have more cooks than chefs now. A cook does what he does because he has to; a chef does it because he needs to. The reason we haven’t been able to turn our menu into an international commodity is because our heart’s not in it.”
If the desire is to go international, or at least bring greater exposure to Indonesian food, then it may work to follow the example of other cuisines that have done it successfully. Of course, a Thai green curry served in New York is not exactly the same as that found in Bangkok, and the Indian curries of London are quite different to those served up in Delhi.
“In my opinion, Indonesians should up their game play to a higher level,” says Gerardo Milan Ramos, an executive chef at Hacienda, a new Mexican restaurant located on the first floor of Plaza Senayan Arcadia. “The key is to modify the food in order to please international taste buds – just like we did with Mexican food.”
It is only in the past 20 years that “Mexican food” has gone international with its cheesy burritos, crispy nachos and quesadillas. Gerardo says not one of these three is authentically Mexican, with the ingredients altered to meet international demands. In Mexico, burritos normally consist of beans and meat, whereas the North American (and international) version requires them to be filled with rice, vegetables and a lot of cheese. He doesn’t mind the changes, “because it helps commercialize Mexican food to the world at large”.
Sri Owen, evaluating her homeland’s cuisine after living abroad for many years, believes that Indonesians need to look at their food through the eyes of foreigners savoring a Padang spread for the first time, their taste buds dancing in anticipation of the feast that awaits. For it’s often the case that Indonesians give short shrift to their own culture, including their food, until others make them aware that, yes, it’s something special.
Gerardo agrees. “You have to care enough to want to make a difference,” he says. “I see a lot of potential for Indonesian food to go international; but it won’t happen until you yourself can see it.”