Yes, you read it right. Indonesia. A name that sounds familiar but not so. You may, or may not hear about it often, but what do you really know about it?
It is an archipelago of 17,000 that spreads between two continents (Asia and Australia) and two oceans (Pacific and Indian). It is spread through three time zones, which equals the distance from London to Istanbul. With 250 million inhabitants spread in 6,000 islands, it is the 4th most populated country in the world. The capital, Jakarta itself is the home of 10 million people. For something this gigantic, it’s a bit strange that this name is not in the back of your mind when you think of Asia or even South-East Asia. Thus, no wonder, the food itself is the biggest secret of the culinary world as it is a whole encyclopedia of flavor buried in the shadow of very small number of diaspora in comparison to other Asian nations.
In this article, I want to take you on a little journey through Indonesia and give you a little bit of taste of what Indonesian cuisine is like.
THE RICHES, AND THE LAW OF ATTRACTION: A BRIEF HISTORY
The archipelago stands on two different plates, the Eurasian and the Australian. It is the home to seventy-six active volcanoes (most in the world) earning its nickname “The Ring Of Fire.” The territory is also well known for its fertility and the sea is touted as “Kolam Susu” in a famous local song, which directly translate to “pool of milk”, indicating its richness. It sits on the equator meaning that the sun shines all year long, making it possible for exotic plants like coffee and chocolate to grow. Currently, the once European colony islands is the world’s number one producer of palm oil, cloves and cinnamon, the second largest of nutmeg, natural rubber, cassava, vanilla, and coconut, the third largest producer of rice and cocoa, the fourth largest producer of coffee, the fifth largest for tobacco, and the sixth largest for tea.
The riches and the story of attraction began hundreds of years ago, when the Chinese and Arab Traders came to the Island of Sumatra to trade goods like spices such as pepper, sandalwood, nutmeg, frankincense, and galangal, as well as silver, and gold. The map then fell into the Portuguese’s’ hands through the trade activities that the Arab did with them. The Treaty of Zaragoza signed by King John III and Emperor Charles V initiated the Portuguese and the Spanish expedition sailing the world in opposite directions then lead to Alfonso Albuquerque conquering Goa, and finding out about the spice islands of South East Asia and eventually arriving in the Moluccas “spice” Islands. The Dutch then acquired the map from the Portuguese and led by Cornelis de Houtman went to Indonesia, and since then started to conquer Indonesia parts by parts along with the formation of VOC. As a result, the cuisine is an explosion of flavors. It is vivacious, stimulating, and colorful. With over three hundred ethnicities and 707 existing languages, the cuisine is far away from the word dull.
WHAT AND HOW DO WE EAT?
Despite its diversity, it has a similar structure in every corner. Like in almost Asian cuisine, from Sumatera to Sulawesi a meal revolves around (carbohydrate) rice. Only in the most eastern part of Indonesia such as Moluccas and Papua, the cuisine is centered on fish. Unlike in Italian cuisine, where there is antipasto, primo piatto (mainly carbs like pasta), secondo piatto (main course, mainly proteins), in Indonesian cuisine the main course and the protein together at once. Rice is eaten as the carbohydrate with some proteins and vegetables, which are most likely heavily spiced along with some sambal, which is home made hot sauce that has lots of varieties.
In contrary to Italian food, which emphasizes simplicity; made with little, fresh and optimum ingredients, cooked in a simple way, Indonesian food, use lots of fresh spices, and cooked in more complicated ways, which usually takes more time. This style of cooking is mainly due to the abundance of spice and adaptations from Indian cuisine. Simplicity just simply isn’t the word for Indonesian cuisine (In several Sumatran cuisine, cannabis is used an an ingredient!). In every dish, whether it is fried rice, meat or soup, there is a strong flavor of the “bumbu”, and often they are eaten with crackers and sambal (hot Indonesian salsa). Somehow, however, the bumbu, the crackers and the sambal balances and complete each other.
Indonesians typically eat quite heavily at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For breakfast the people may eat porridge, fried rice, or even sandwich. During lunch people typically eat rice or other carbohydrate like noodles, and so is the case with dinner. Because the majority of the people are Muslims, the main meat consumed is chicken because it is the cheapest, followed by fish, beef, and lamb. However, the Batak, and Chinese Indonesian cuisine use a lot of pork. Indonesians sometimes eat by hand, and in communal table. In some traditional cuisine, banana leaf is used as plate, and spoon.
A GLIMPSE OF THE GOODNESS:
In order to give you a preview of what it is like, here are some of the staple dishes.
- Beef Rendang
This dish may be is the most discredited dish of all, it not look very appetizing, but once it enters your mouth, there is no way back. A dish from West Sumatra, the home of probably the most heavily spiced Indonesian food. The beef is heavily marinated with spice and slow cooked with coconut milk, which makes it savory full of umami. This tops the CNN poll for the world’s 50 most delicious foods. Although the credibility of the poll may be questionable, the flavor of this dish is unquestionably good and deserves a bit more fame.
- Gado – Gado
This dish is one for you vegetarians, or even you guys that don’t even really like veggies. This gado-gado means everything mixed. It is a very popular street food, and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It is basically a cooked vegetable salad, topped with a bit of fried or boiled tofu, fried tempeh, and boiled egg, drenched in homemade peanut sauce made for you on the spot just for your batch. These combinations are deadly good, and guaranteed to make the non veggie eaters to eat vegetables. The of this dish is the peanut sauce that consists of toasted peanut, palm sugar, tamarind, water, garlic, chilli, and salt, mushed and mixed using mortar and pestle. The dish is usually eaten with rice cake or rice mixed in together, along with garlic or melinjo (emping) crackers.
- Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice)
Literally translated to fried rice, it may be the most popular Indonesian dish. It is another version of Asian fried rice. There are a lot of different versions of nasi goreng, but the Indonesian fried rice is mainly different because it uses sweet soy sauce and sometimes Indonesian shrimp paste, stink beans, lamb meat, and most of all, the fried egg on top!
- Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay)
In Indonesia, we have different kinds of satay with a great distinction between each kind. But the sate ayam is the most popular one. These chicken satay are basically chicken meat, sometimes mixed with chicken skin, grilled to perfection above burning charcoal and poured with special peanut sauce and a little bit of sweet soy sauce. This will blow off your taste bud as it gives a whole different taste profile from western, Middle Eastern, or even Asian skewers.
- Nasi Bali (Balinese Rice)
This is one of many Indonesian rice dishes, and this one is from the infamous, beautiful island of Bali. The Island is famous for its natural beauty, culture, and party scene. People from all over the world and all age group come to Bali to do their thing, but what they do not expect is the fresh, and vibrant cuisine. Nasi bali is sort of a set menu that consists of white rice, Balinese fish satay, Balinese shredded chicken, fried chicken skin, some sambal, and sometimes Balinese pork.
- Opor Ayam
This is a special Indonesian dish. Usually only served during the Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. This dish is a must have dish in Indonesian family dining table, even for the non-Muslims. It is a thick chicken stew in coconut milk, turmeric, and other spices. It has a very unique taste and it is served with ketupat rice cake, which is a Ramadhan special.
- Nasi Tumpeng
This dish is for special occasions like birthdays or inaugurations. A perfect substitute or complement to a birthday cake! This is basically a mountain of yellow rice (cooked in coconut milk with turmeric for coloring), and assortment of proteins, vegetebles, and sambal. Guaranteed to make your special occasion merry.
Last but not least, one of the most important elements in Indonesian Cuisine, the Sambal. Sambal is basically chili sause or salsa, that is present in almost every dish, even pooridge, or soup. It is always present in Indonesian household, and there are hundreds if not thousands of kinds of it. The ingridients are very versatile, from shrimp paste to starfruit, raw or cooked.
Indonesian food is like a whole new big encyclopedia that the people of the world don’t realize sitting unopened on the bookshelf. It is time for this treasure to be shared and experienced by the world, and the sleeping giant to express itself as a nation.
It is unfortunate that it is quite difficult to be found in Europe, especially in Italy. There is no Indonesian restaurant in Milan; there is only one in Italy, which is in Genova. The nearest places to find proper Indonesian cuisine would be Paris, Zurich, or The Netherlands. Hopefully we will see more Indonesian food establishments in Europe; otherwise the best way to fulfill your curiosity is the best way to enjoy Indonesian food, which is to go Visit Indonesia!