Sweet, Strange and Somewhere In Between
Chriswan Sungkono, WEEKENDER | Thu, 06/23/2011 11:38 AM |
Keep an open mind to enjoy a taste of traditional dishes.
Whenever you find good food on the table, there’s plenty of love to be savored. But in this era of fast (read: junk) food empires, a time when urbanites, drowning in work, treat eating as a mechanical chore to silence hunger pangs, the age-old maxim of food being a form of love seems to beg a second look.
It strikes me as ironic that, even as a range of cuisines are accessible in many cities around the world – Jakarta certainly being no exception – some people are becoming more insular in their food choices, limiting their intake only to the meals they’re most familiar with, or to the frozen, canned, packaged, processed “edibles” they can grab from supermarket alleys.
Because on the streets, far from those plastic-wrapped aisles, real food is blossoming. Every day in big cities such as Jakarta a new stall, roadside eatery or food hawker springs into existence, with novel, even peculiar, offerings sure to intrigue adventurous gastronomes. Ranging from the notoriously humdrum to the downright fanciful, these dishes bring to the plate a more unrefined approach to cooking but a lot more love than those haute cuisine hawkers at five-star hotels.
The best way to sample different approaches to making and savoring good food is to go traditional. A society’s traditional dishes say a lot about its general attitude to life. Dishes native to a region allow us to peek into its people’s cultural intricacies and, if we eat at the right places with the right folks, they also teach us their attitude to their own food (which is why most immigrants find that one of the things they miss most from their homeland is the food).
Indonesia’s traditional culinary scene is just too vast, too rich and too vibrant to be overlooked. So get curious, get going and get tasting. There’s plenty of love out there to fill up our bellies. Here is a sampling of traditional fare that I’ve found memorable in the course of my travels around Indonesia. You can find the same dishes in food stalls in Jakarta, but it is far more rewarding to relish their pleasures in situ. Because, time and again, the food makes a place worth going back to.
Ayam Tangkap Daun Temurui (Aceh)
At first sight, this dish resembles nothing more than a jumble of leaves glossy and slick with cooking oil. Buried beneath the leaves, however, are pieces of chicken thoroughly seasoned with fragrant herbs and then fried to perfect crunchiness. Hence the name: ayam tangkap, or “chicken to catch”, as you have to grope through the leaves – an assortment of lemongrass, citrus, pandanus, and most importantly, daun temurui or curry leaves – to find the meat.
For me, the chicken is less important than the delightfully crispy and tasty leaves; they are so good that on one occasion in Banda Aceh I happily wolfed down two platefuls of steamed rice with the leaves and nothing else. The generous smatterings of huge green chilies and thinly sliced, sautéed shallots give the overall flavor a spicy boost, but if you need a stronger jab, toss a little sambal ganja (“marijuana chili sauce”) over the chicken, and let the ecstasy kick in.
Nasi Kuning Saroja (Manado)
When it comes to eating, the Minahasan people of North Sulawesi are in a league of their own. With their fertile soils and seas teeming with fresh fish, they have amazingly gorgeous recipes for every sort of plant and meat they can get their hands on. Starting conversations about Minahasan traditional food is very easy; it’s ending them that proves difficult.
To talk about Minahasan cooking, for me, is to reminisce about the plethora of tastes, smells, textures and freshness that I have been exposed to throughout my eating binges in the province. One of the most exceptional experiences was breakfasting on yellow fragrant rice (nasi kuning) at Saroja, a hole-in-the-wall that has been around since the 1970s and is always abuzz with patrons in the mornings. Sure, you can have nasi kuning in countless places around Indonesia, but, well, there’s only one nasi kuning Saroja.
Perhaps it’s the delicious skipjack tuna flakes (abon cakalang) that distinguishes it from other nasi kuning. Perhaps it’s the unpretentious-looking chili sauce that gives the rice its true Minahasan soul. Or maybe it’s the perfect pairing of both that makes it so dazzling. Whatever the reason, the effect on the palate is nothing short of magical.
Pork Se’i (Timor)
As far as my taste buds go, every meal that is porcine in nature is, as a rule, hard to resist. But I can never turn down an offer of the pork dish se’i even on a full stomach. Originating from the island of Rote and then becoming highly popular in Kupang, the provincial capital of East Nusa Tenggara, this meat, along with its halal counterpart, beef se’i, has the townspeople of Kupang cramming into eateries come lunchtime.
The pork is cut lengthwise into long thick strips, marinated in a concoction of herbs and Timorese honey, and then smoked for six to nine hours using a special type of timber called kusambi, while covered in the plant’s leaves to marshal all its impeccable juiciness and mouthwatering aroma. The meat is then presented on a platter and served in the classic Timorese style of a down-to-earth no-nonsense attitude – no garnish, no enhancement whatsoever to make it look better. Because it doesn’t need it.
If you’re around Kupang and fancy sampling se’i, restaurants Se’i Baun on the outskirts of town and Bambu Kuning downtown are the places to go. But whichever restaurant you pick for lunch, believe me, you don’t want to be late.
Terites (North Sumatra Highlands)
The expressive Batak Karo living in the North Sumatran highlands around famed Lake Toba eat a lot of stuff, including, of course, their truly fabulous roast pork. Some of their ingredients are a tad unconventional, if not downright strange. Consider, for example, grubs from sago trees and bats –and terites.
To the eye, terites appears innocuous: nothing more than a greenish-colored soup with leafy vegetables and slices of bitter melon and big chunks of pork loin. But when you approach it with your open nostrils, its oddity becomes clear. On my first encounter, I was struck by the similarity to, let’s say, unflushed toilets. It’s the smell you’ll get if you open up one of a ruminant’s four stomachs – in this case a cow’s – and draw out the half-liquefied bales of chewed cud, to be used as broth. Of the taste, I shall say nothing but this: Terites is a food that teaches one to be open-minded when it comes to unconventional foodstuffs.
Martabak Manis (Bangka)
Let’s be clear from the start: I am no fan of martabak manis (sweet pancake), although I will down a slice or two very occasionally. If you’ve ever seen the volume of ingredients used in a pan of martabak manis, you’ll understand why. We are talking about several scoops of white sugar, a pernicious dose of sweetened condensed milk and a handful of cheese flakes and chocolate sprinkles here – not to mention the ridiculous amount of butter used both inside and out.
For many of my friends, martabak manis is the comfort food extraordinaire, giving not only a calorie overload with every luscious bite, but also a sugar high that keep the body jumpy for some time – overall, not exactly the kind of food that I’d crave daily. I have found, however, that there is one place where it is most logical to enjoy it: the island of Bangka just off Sumatra. So if you’re going to indulge in this source of excess sugar and fat, make sure you get the best of the best from a stall in Bangka, often hailed as the birthplace of the Indonesian version of martabak.
Two things made me enjoy Bangka’s martabak manis more than that from my hometown of Bandung (also known for its martabak stalls): the exceptional tenderness of the cake and the not-too-intense-but-lingering flavor mostly supplied by the aromatic sesame seeds. One night at a public park in downtown Pangkalpinang, warm liquid butter dripping from our chins and fingers, my companion and I finished our personal record of half a pan. Nothing to boast about, but the (guilty) pleasure that came from it was nonetheless overwhelming.