If Indonesian food and I were in a relationship, I would say that it’s not a particularly passionate one, and it didn’t even start out that way. In fact, one of us (me) is always looking for a way out, and I sample all other kinds of food when I’m in the big city. But for now, I’m stuck with this one, so I’m doing what a good significant other should—I’m focusing on the good qualities.
Indonesians say they have many regional specialties, which is true. But the more I travel, the more I’ve discovered that this inventive dish here is simply called by that name when you eat it there. Know what I mean? There are exceptions, but most Indonesian food boils down to this: rice with a particular meat covered in a particular sauce.
Before I left, Mom bought me a book called Eat Smart in Indonesia, which promised me—on the cover, no less—that I was about to “embark on a tasting adventure.”
“Nothing edible in the whole outdoors escapes the cooking pot,” the book begins. At first, this sounds so of-the-earth, so economical. Then you realize they mean it.
My Lonely Planet was more reserved, warning me “Palembang fare takes some getting used to.”
Still, in the interest of full gastronomical disclosure, I have a confession. But if you want a measure of my emotional growth (or regression) in the past year, then you should know…
I ate a dog.
I know, I know. Just months ago I mourned a bunny being served for dinner. (Although, to be fair, a dog has never been the patron animal of any super fun holiday.) But I ate one. I’m disappointed to admit it doesn’t taste very different from any other meat. It was dark, and I ordered it served in a mixture of chili sauce and its own blood. Perhaps I no longer have a soul.
The worst part of the whole experience is psyching yourself up for the first bite and realizing you have a whole order left to go. “If you don’t eat the rest of it, the dog died in vain,” John said. Crap. I finished maybe a third of it.
Anyway, that will not be appearing on the following list. Neither will those nasty pempek fish-balls. Nearly finished with my grant and with 9 months of Indo-culinary research under my belt (heh heh), I’m ready to unveil Katie’s Indonesian Food Hall of Fame:
Cinnamon [kayu manis, or “sweet wood” in Bahasa]: It literally grows in trees here, and you can buy it in three-feet-long pieces. I think if I made a list of things in the world that are purely delightful, cinnamon would be near the top. Along with people who can juggle.
Pindang Tulang: large pieces of beef still on the bone served “simmering in broth flavored with shallots, garlic, ginger, laos, turmeric, and lemon grass.” It tastes like a spicy vegetable soup, and it’s a Palembang specialty.
Nasi Uduk: “rice cooked in coconut milk… traditionally served with fried foods such as chicken, lamb, offal, and tofu. Individual portions of rice are served in banana leaves, topped with crispy, fried shallots”
Gado-Gado: “a salad of blanched or steamed vegetables topped with a sauce made with spices and ground peanuts”
Tempe Goreng: (I know we have tempeh in the US, but I’d never had it until I came here.) fermented soybeans “fried with palm sugar and chili peppers”
Sate Ayam: “chicken grilled on skewers and served with peanut sauce” (Ok, the quoting does seem like overkill, but I want to get it right.)
Es Puter: “hand-turned coconut milk sorbet” mixed with red beans and sticky black rice. It may sound gross, but I assure you, this is divinity in dairy form.
Manggis: From the moment my lips first touched a manggis (mangosteen in English), I knew I was in love. My whole life, I’ve wanted to eat a passionfruit. And then I did, and it was disappointing. It looks like fish eggs on the inside. But then I tastes manggis, and I realized that’s what I’d been looking for all along.
Rambutan: How can you not love a fruit named for how hairy it is? Even Obama wrote in Dreams of my Father how much he loved it his first night in Jakarta: “The three of us ate quietly under a dim yellow bulb—chicken stew and rice, and then a dessert of red, hairy-skinned fruit so sweet at the center that only a stomachache could make me stop.” I hear ya, Barry.