Daniel Pope prods his proletarian fork at a few Indonesian favourites.
“Food, glorious food! Hot sausage and mustard! While we’re in the mood, cold jelly and custard!” So sang Oliver and his hungry chums in the musical version of Oliver Twist. An Indonesian version might go like this: “Food, glorious food! Hot bakso and sambal! While we’re in the mood, cold fried eggs and, er, sambal!” While Indonesian cuisine is diverse, as you’d expect in an archipelago of 13,000 islands (including the Spice Islands), I’m going to limit today’s menu to just a few of my favourites. A word of caution: I’m English. Accordingly, gourmets might say I couldn’t be trusted to choose between a platter of finest Caspian caviar and a second bowl of gruel for Oliver.
Order a lamb curry in Indonesia, and you’ll likely be served daging kambing, which is goat meat. But don’t be disappointed. Goat meat has a rich gamey flavour (a closer equivalent to lamb curry would be kid curry, which incidentally was the name of an outlaw in the 1970s Western TV series Alias Smith and Jones). When this meat is diced and placed on sticks to create sate kambing, it’s even better. This popular street-food is served with a tasty peanut sauce and lontong, cubes of compressed rice. Expect to get one lump of fat and another of gristle among the meat on each stick. This is still a better ratio than the average Indonesian sausage. My friend’s gross party piece was to save his lumps of sate gristle till the end, then to slide them all on to a single empty stick, and shove the lot in his mouth. He was chewing it for the next thirty minutes.
First, I’ll derisively dismiss the sweet form of this pancake-like treat, called martabak manis, which is saturated with margarine and sugar, then fried until it’s like a large greasy crumpet, before being doused with condensed milk and chocolate. It’s grotesquely rich. Imagine an oil-drenched spongy slab of lead. Or a swamp in cake form. Vastly superior is the savoury variety, called martabak telor, where a soft, stretchy dough is folded around a stuffing (mutabbaq is the Arabic word for ‘folded’). This stuffing is typically egg and shallots. It’s then cut into squares, the number of which may neatly match the number of beers in a six-pack. Please, Sir, I want some more.
“Nasi goreng? Fried rice? Seriously, c’mon! What a lazy Indonesian culinary cliché!” I hear the imperious Indonesiaphiles bleat with supercilious disdain. Yes, fried rice is popular; stop being so smug. The quality of this ubiquitous dish varies from place to place. It might be delicious at your local warung (food stall), or unappealingly bland at a railway canteen. It typically contains a small handful of diced vegetables and shrimps or bits of chicken or mystery meat. The grandly named nasi goreng spesial has a fried egg plonked on top. Intrepid eaters might want to opt for the full-on nasi goreng gila (crazy fried rice), which has every ingredient at the caterer’s disposal thrown in, especially chilli peppers. If your plate of nasi goreng isn’t served with at least one prawn cracker, you’ve been ripped off. Send it back. My own introduction to nasi goreng had unpleasant consequences. I had been in Indonesia for just two weeks – my digestive system unaccustomed to the tropics – when I bought some from a passing street cart. I was sick for three days. For months afterwards, the smell of nasi goreng was traumatic. Fortunately, I can eat it again these days. I wouldn’t want to still be turning my nose up at the country’s unofficial national dish.
If there’s an opposite of an aphrodisiac, bakso is it. That’s because it resembles discounted testicles sold at Doctor Frankenstein’s body parts shop. Reputedly made from finely ground beef, few customers know what really goes into these forlorn, grey balls. Most would rather keep it that way. In 2012, some bakso manufacturers were found to be using pork as a cheap substitute for beef, whose price was spiralling. This outraged the country’s Muslim majority. Daging babi (pork) is on the Islamic list of “We Don’t Do That”, along with sipping wine and patting friendly dogs. “Eating forbidden food like this affects your feelings deeply, perhaps it could stay with you for some time, that kind of feeling that you have been guilty in terms of God,” declared one Imam. Indonesia’s halal certification agency protects the nation’s devout from the perils of the spiritually inedible. Minced snouts, ears, lips, guts and other unmentionables are all fine, provided they’re from halal livestock.
Although not a meal by itself, this is a wonderfully versatile food. It can be steamed, marinated, curried or fried. Beloved by vegetarians as a meat substitute, tempeh is made by a natural fermentation process that binds soybeans into cake form. It’s good for you, and doesn’t cost much. Indeed, it’s often labelled a cheap source of protein for the poor. Not unlike gruel, in fact. And what of its provenance? Tempeh is indisputably Indonesian, having originated in Java in the 12th century. It might as well emulate Javanese coffee by calling itself Javanese tempeh. There is no “ring of fire” about its taste unless sambal is added, but it has a unique flavour, like a nutty mushroom. When sliced and fried, its texture brings to mind one-dimensional wayang puppets, but it’s a lot easier to digest half-a-dozen slices of tempeh than any wayang show.
Indonesians don’t traditionally start the day with breakfast cereal, let alone bacon and eggs. Instead, a popular breakfast dish is rice porridge (pronounced bubur and spelled congee) with shredded chicken (ayam suwir). If you’ve spent the night working, praying or engaged in some other pleasant activity, bubur makes for a cheaper and healthier alternative than stumbling into a 24-hour McDonald’s at 4.30am for the final burgers and fries. From pushcarts to five-star hotel breakfast buffets, bubur ayam is a popular favourite among Indonesians from all walks of life. For some foreigners, it’s an acquired taste, but it’s definitely a taste worth acquiring.