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Three Dishes That Shaped My Indonesian Journey
Notes from a recent visit
As a food and travel journalist, I get to see a lot of the world. The flowing Spanish moss in the Carolinas, the red dirt roads of West Africa, and the colorful homes that line Bahian streets are all memories I cherish — memories that remind me of how lucky I am to do the work that I do.
Traveling to Indonesia recently has allowed me to create some of my most wonderful and cherished memories, particularly when it comes to the country’s culinary offerings. After completing a Fulbright grant on Central Java five years ago, I returned to Java this summer. Upon stepping off the plane in Jakarta, strong smells of lemongrass, clove, and fried vegetables overtook me in the best way. Through the people, culture, and especially the food, I’ve grown to love one of the most complicated countries in the world.
During my most recent trip, I spent time in upscale, contemporary restaurants, and sat on plastic chairs at warungs — small, often family-run food stalls — to indulge in a cuisine I personally believe is criminally underrepresented and undervalued. My lunches and dinners spanned the archipelago; I ate dishes inspired by Indonesian regions and cities like the seaside town of Gorontalo on Sulawesi, and the Siak Regency of Riau Province. I ordered plates of nasi goreng – Indonesian fried rice – and branched out to try new Indonesian dishes such as tongseng buntut, a dish of braised oxtails smothered in an array of Javanese spices, coconut milk, white cabbage, and green tomatoes.
Each and every bite was remarkable, and a testament to the centuries-old traditions and people that have preserved Indonesian foodways. Though I could probably list at least 25 different meals from my week in Indonesia, these three dishes particularly stood out.
Sate Kambing and Lontong
I knew when I came back to Indonesia, I had to get sate (also spelled “satay”) and lontong. Sate Ayam dan Kambing RSPP H. Romli in South Jakarta appeased my culinary desires. Sate, an iconic Indonesian dish of skewered chicken (ayam) or lamb (kambing), often cooked in kecap manis (Indonesia’s sweetened, thickened soy sauce) can be found at just about any warung, with meat cooking over an open fire. Lontong is a rice cake that’s been compressed into a cylinder and wrapped inside a banana leaf. Warung owners slice the lontong into thick discs and serve it with sate, making them the perfect carb-y base to soak up the kecap manis and spices drenched over sate.
When I lived in Indonesia, Pak Aziz (“Pak” is a formal term that can translate to “Mr.” “Sir,” “Dad,” etc…) my co-teacher during my year as an English teacher, took me to a warung near our school my first night in Indonesia to try sate and lontong. I’ll never forget being wholly fascinated by the chewy rice cakes, and the perfectly sweet, fragrant meat. It was the first day Pak Aziz and I really got to know each other — discussing topics such as family, politics, race, and educational opportunities for low-income students I had the pleasure of working with during my grant year in Indonesia. Like many discussions over food, it’s a conversation I’ll cherish, and I’ll always search for sate and lontong whenever I get the chance to be on the archipelago.
Gohu Ikan Gendar / Indonesia Ceviche
Many people assume that Indonesian food solely consists of variations of fried rice, spicy fried noodles, and meaty soups. These dishes, indeed, are integral to the country’s foodways. But at Mil’s Restaurant, chef Mili Hendratno is trying to expand the range of Indonesian cooking.
Cue his restaurant’s calling card, Gohu Ikan Gendar, or what Mil explained to me was an Indonesian ceviche inspired by similar dishes on Seram Island, one of Indonesia’s most valuable spice islands during the Spice Trade. This was a truly new dish for me, as I haven’t visited the Maluku province region where it’s located. As I fawned over every bite of ceviche topped with a chip made from nori rice, I was in awe at his ability to pair raw tuna and salmon (which is imported from outside of Indonesia), with spices and aromatics like kemangi – or lemon basil – shallots, and chile. The dish made me excited about where Indonesia’s gastronomic world is headed, and how the country’s culinary identity will continue to evolve within this generation.
There’s something Indonesian cooks get about fish. Gurame bakar (baked carp fish) — best prepared over coals outdoors (like most things in Indonesia) — has long been one of my favorite dishes from the country. Gurame bakar can look slightly different from place to place, depending on regional seasonings and sauce, and even the heat level of the sambal that usually accompanies the dish.
My favorite preparation of gurame bakar is the version glazed with kecap manis, and served with a side of crisp cucumber slices and cabbage, sambal, and a bed of rice. I found an excellent version at a warung in Yogyakarta, Central Java called Grilled Fish “Sakera.” Here, the fish was grilled to order, and plated with nasi putih (white rice), slices of fresh vegetables, and a sambal heavy on the chiles. The unassuming warung prepared one of my favorite meals of the week, with sweet, spicy, and aromatic flavors so strong, there was plenty to satisfy by longing for the dish. But the regional, cultural touch of eating the meal with my hands was the icing on the cake.