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By the way ... A tale of
‘nasi goreng’ — leftover
rice and chicken scraps

One state banquet fare served this week at the Presidential Palace in honor of visiting US President Barack Obama was nasi goreng. This, so we are told, came by way of a White House request.

Someone in Washington believed that nasi goreng, which is essentially fried rice, is an Indonesian national dish.

Besides nasi goreng, mie bakso (noodle soup with meatballs) and a few other dishes not  normally found at lavish state banquets were served as a homecoming welcome to Obama, who is making his first return to Indonesia as the American President. We know that Obama specifically ordered mie bakso. But nasi goreng? Since when did nasi goreng come to be regarded as an Indonesian national dish? And what ingredients should go into this so-called “Indonesian nasi goreng”?

In recent years I have come across restaurants in many world capitals offering “Indonesian nasi goreng”. Five-star hotels in Asian capitals, including some in Jakarta,  offer it in their room service menu, calling it nasi goreng and giving the description “Indonesian fried rice”.

Typically, a room service nasi goreng constitutes fried rice cooked with shreds of chicken, egg sunny-side up, grilled or fried, two sticks of chicken satay and cucumber pickles. Some throw in krupuk udang (prawn crackers) for good measure. The rice is usually sprinkled with bawang goreng (fried shredded shallots) to give a kick.

I ordered nasi goreng through room service once during an overseas stay when work prevented me from dining outside. It certainly was tasty, but I still wouldn’t call it a national dish. It is nothing like Mom used to make, or my wife has been making since we got married.

Obama, who spent four years in Indonesia as a child, knows better than White House staffers what nasi goreng really is. Not surprisingly, in none of his remarks here did he specifically refer to nasi goreng, though he did mention mie bakso  and satay because they are sold by hawkers, who shout their fares as they tour neighborhood streets.

One can only assume the nasi goreng idea was an initiative of a White House staffer, or someone at the US Embassy in Jakarta, who must have assumed that you cannot get more Indonesian than serving nasi goreng for President Obama.

Here is lesson one for those who don’t know the history: Nasi goreng is traditionally served at home for breakfast, not for lunch, and certainly not for dinner.

Lesson number two: Nasi goreng is traditionally made out of leftover rice from the night before (hence the breakfast). People don’t go out of their way to boil rice just to make fried rice. In fact, anyone who has made fried rice would testify that the best nasi goreng is made from last night’s rice.

Lesson number three: besides ingredients like shallot, tomato, pepper and chili, you fry the rice with scraps of chicken or beef; again, usually leftover from a chicken or beef dish (yes, some of today’s scraps from KFC).

Lesson number four: Egg is optional. When we put an egg on it, we call it nasi goreng “special”.
Lesson number five: You don’t serve satay with nasi goreng. They just don’t go together.

There is now an entire diverse variety of nasi goreng, some served for lunch or dinner. You find food stalls selling nasi goreng gila (crazy fried rice) or restaurants selling nasi goreng ikan asin (fried rice with salted fish). You can go ethnic and try nasi goreng Aceh or nasi goreng Padang. Each has a distinct taste, but essentially they follow the above five rules.

Some five-star hotel chefs in Jakarta decided some years back to experiment with nasi goreng and made some innovations. The idea quickly caught on and voila, nasi goreng today is an Indonesian national dish — not so much in the way Indonesians make it as the way the chefs decided to prepare it.

But presumably Indonesia will have to fight it out with Malaysia to claim satay, gado-gado, rendang and a few others as their national dishes.

— Eric Musa Piliang

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