Around the corner from my hotel in the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh is a small Indonesian restaurant. Having lived in Indonesia for twenty years, I can claim to know a little about the archipelago’s wide-ranging food. It had been a while since I’d had a nasi goreng (Cambodian fried rice is relatively bland), so I thought I’d give it a go.
Research has shown that setting and atmosphere can influence how food tastes. Therefore, a true Indonesian taste experience will depend to some extent on the décor being right. Warung Bali has a fitting “street-side” character, slightly rickety and grubby and open to the elements. It has plastic chairs and splintered wooden tables. There are even alley cats strolling around under the furniture. But one dubious feature was missing on my visit.
The last time I ate in a street-side restaurant in Jakarta, there had been a rat crouched on a ledge above me, hidden behind a banner advertising the prices. Only its dangling tail was visible. This worm-like appendage remained in the same spot throughout my meal, twitching and wriggling as, presumably, the creature waited for an opportunity to scurry down and make off with my discarded chicken bones. Alas, I could see no rats in Warung Bali. I would be eating without the same sense of repulsion and unease. It wouldn’t be quite the same.
“Dari mana, Mas?” I asked the young man who came to take my order.
“Dari Cambodia,” he replied.
I was disappointed. I don’t know why I had expected genuine Indonesian waiters. It’s just that if you go into a Chinese restaurant in the UK, you’ll be served by Chinese staff. The same goes for the staff in an Indian restaurant, or an Italian one. I’ll admit that if you sat down in Jamie Oliver’s Diner in London you wouldn’t expect to be served by a squad of Jamie Olivers unless you were on acid.
Nevertheless, these boys were engaged in quintessential Indonesian behaviour: nongkrong. This means to hang out while doing nothing much except perhaps chatting with friends, and typically involves squatting at the roadside. Getting service was easy since there were no other customers on this late afternoon.
The halal menu was written in both Indonesian and English (but not Khmer). My experience of Indonesian food has always been limited by a lifelong dislike of cooked vegetables (it didn’t help when a doctor advised my mother to try putting sugar on them). But I like fried stuff, which is a definite advantage. The sizzle of hot cooking fat is a signature sound on Jakarta’s streets. Among the menu’s rice dishes were nasi udang Bali, nasi goreng sayuran and nasi goreng ikan asin. There was also spicy diced potato. But what? No perkedel? I was aghast. Indonesian crispy potato cakes have always been a favourite of mine, along with telor balado and rendang.
The nasi goreng I had ordered for the not unreasonable price of 11,000 riel (Rp39,500) clearly wasn’t right. It was too white for a start. Authentic Indonesian fried rice is pink or light brown (browner once I’ve drowned it in kecap manis). This lack of colour suggested that key ingredients were missing. The rice was spicy – owing to the red flecks of chilli sprinkled over it like Christmas glitter – but it was without a hint of sweetness, along with certain other nuances. It came with a rice cracker. That was good. But overall the dish was unsatisfactory. Perhaps the sight of a rat’s tail dangling above my head would have done its psychological trick and improved the flavour.
Incidentally, my companion had ordered a plate of tempeh. He was not optimistic from the outset, proclaiming with the conviction of a Scotsman advocating home-made haggis that tempeh is never done properly outside of Indonesia. While tempeh might not need the sight of rodent body parts to bring out its faint flavour, it needs to be part of a bigger meal. He didn’t eat it, just took a few nibbles.
It’s time to say something positive about Warung Bali. Before I left, the restaurant’s owner – a genuine Indonesian national – gave me a sample of rendang (spicy beef), tied up in a tiny polythene bag with all the juices. I placed this in my backpack, intending to add it to my dinner later in the evening. I’m fond of rendang. Together with a few perkedel and a helping of mushrooms, it makes an exotic “meat and two-veg” meal. But then I’m British. So, you might expect that from me.
When Brits go abroad, the hunt is on for a café that serves a top-notch full English breakfast complete with baked beans, HP Sauce and lager. There had never been any hope of my liking baked beans. When I was eight years old, my school dinner lady used to force-feed me with them. No matter how I retched and gagged, she would continue to gouge spoonfuls of this disgusting lumpy slop into my mouth, crying, “Don’t be silly and get your beans down you!” It had seemed to me to be a more effective method of inflicting torture than waterboarding. Perhaps the CIA should have looked into it during the Iraq war.
Owing to an unexpected increase in my social activity that afternoon, which went on into the next day and beyond, I forgot all about the rendang languishing in my backpack. I discovered it three days later while rummaging through my belongings for a pen. I held the clear plastic bag up to the light and inspected the squishy brown lump that had been stewing in its murky juices for so long. I opened it up and sniffed it.
My eyes didn’t sting, and I didn’t pass out. Indeed, the rendang hadn’t yet begun to transform into some Sumatran swamp monster chewing menacingly on its polythene womb. It was still an inanimate piece of cooked flesh. In fact, it looked exactly the same as when I had placed it in the backpack three days before. Fancying a snack, I removed it with my fingers and placed it in my mouth. It was delicious. Even so, it was a shame there was no visible rat’s tail around to render the flavour supreme.