Tuesday, May 27

A Month in Jakarta: The food

Part of my woefully inadequate preparation for Indonesia included an attempt to familiarize myself with the cuisine. Considering the dearth of Indonesian restaurants in Spokane, I turned to recipes and their accompanying pictures, but there were no determined efforts made in this direction, no searches of online cookbooks or orders from Amazon. At best, whenever I found myself in a bookstore, I would peruse the cooking section. There was always an Asian section and plenty of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai samplings within it but, disappointingly, never any Indonesian.

Shortly after my arrival I thought this was so because a cookbook completely composed of "Make white rice. Make sauce. Put sauce over rice." would not be terribly interesting to most Americans. Since expanding my palate, however, I am convinced it is because America simply lacks the ingredients.

And that is a mighty shame because they have some excellent food here. I do not often see a single ingredient enhanced with spices treated as a centerpiece as the Indonesians are so keen on mixing everything, but that hardly matters as the food they have developed is so delicious. Rice is, without a doubt, the staple and the primary means of preparation is putting a sauce over, but that is hardly the alpha and omega of the Indonesian kitchen. Tofu, tempeh and this wonderful sticky rice which is stored in a pocket of folded leaves introduce some wonderful textures and are freely added to various recipes, and these weeks have proven my first exposure to rice noodles, a tasty exposure to be sure. Of course the tolerance for heat is at an entirely different level than this northern Minnesota kid is used to, but the spice has been kept in check and been down right tasty. All this is not to disparage the rice and sauce style either. The Indonesians do some exceptional work with a mortar and pestle, especially where raw peanuts, chilis and garlic are concerned.

Of course, all that is not to say Indonesians do not have their culinary failings. First of all, to not have anything fried (goreng) with a meal is unusual, and this is not just a minute in hot olive oil. No, this is the submerged-in-vegetable-oil-for-fifteen-minutes-until-the- outside-is-crispy-and-inside-creamy fried. Maybe breakfast is fried bananas. With lunch and dinner you might enjoy some fried tempeh or eggplant as a side to the rice with sauce, a sauce which, more than likely, has at least one fried ingredient itself. For a snack, and even a topping at times, there are beef rinds. The Indonesians prefer to call them 'crackers.' (I'm actually not sure if that is the proper name, but they are basically pork rinds, just made from cow rather than pig. Eighty-eight percent Muslim population and halal and all that, you know.) To be fair, I had pork rinds exactly once before this, and they had the texture and taste of old Styrofoam. These at least are fresh and edible, but the idea of literal slivers of fried fat as a snack is still enough to make me roll my eyes. I guess these is to be expected in a country where I have yet to see an oven, and the tap water is not for drinking, thus making boiling a much less appealing option.

It is fascinating to me that Indonesians lack an American conception of "fast food." Of course KFC and A&W have made headway here (no McDonald's surprisingly enough) and maybe the people there eat in a on-the-move American style (I would not know as I have not been), but I just do not see people walking and eating here. Even the carts and their owners who prowl the streets with their meatball soup, the Indonesian equivalent of hotdog stands, will pull out a few stools if you buy something from them and wait patiently for you to finish and return them. One of the kids here told me that is because eating while standing, even if it is because all the chairs are taken, is rude. It is just amazing how well ingrained this attitude is.

All of this has amounted to a tremendously nice surprise. With zero exposure prior to my arrival, ignoring the surprisingly accurate Indonesian dinner we prepared to publicize my trip, this has all come as something completely new, and the formerly exotic, in this case meaning the exceptionally high-priced fruits at Safeway, are common here. Literally, I have enjoyed starfruit and Indonesian cherries, which probably go by some other name in the States, straight from the tree. I will miss that.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

That sounds fantastic. I'm kind of fascinated in the way culture spreads, and that part of the world is perfect. The food, in its most basic, is pretty much a combination of Chinese and Indian. But with varying degrees. And with local twists. And fantastic ingredients. Now I'm hungry.