Rat's Tail Soup

Indonesia Expat - - CONTENTS - BY DANIEL POPE

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.

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