The inheritance of flavour
Globally underrated, Indonesian regional cuisine is a vast repository of history, traditions and biodiversity. Eve Tedja lists seven hidden treasures from the archipelago and how chefs are working to preserve them.
Red hot chilli pepper
Green when it is young and red when it ripens, andaliman pepper (Zanthoxylum acanthopodium) is a singularly unique ingredient from Batak cuisine. Closely related to Sichuan pepper, it is loved for its dazzlingly spicy, sharp lemon-y and tonguenumbing notes. It grows on the north Sumatran highlands and it is said that the best quality andaliman pepper comes from Samosir, an island in the middle of Toba Lake. The warmly numbing yet oddly pleasant sensation is addictive, and pose a challenge for a few brave chefs who tinker with it in their contemporary approach to Indonesian cuisine.
From the aromatic arsik carp to the savoury pork and blood saksang stew, the pepper is one ingredient that makes a Bataknese dish complete, says Nusantara by Locavore’s sous chef Liswani Sibagariang. “I haven’t found any other ingredient that come close to offering the same aromatic complexity of andaliman pepper. At the moment, it is mainly consumed by the Bataknese ethnic group. Supply is limited and the price exorbitant,” explains the Medan native.
Yellow spice of life
Be it ayam betutu, babi guling or sate lilit, all of them are created from the same spice paste that forms the cornerstone of Balinese cuisine. Meet basa gede, the fragrant yellow paste made from a long list of herbs and spices. It is used both for seasoning and marinade, and true to the essence of the Balinese life, it is all about balance. As food aficionado, Ketut Gogonk Pramana explains in a documentary about Balinese cuisine, Nusa Rasa: Indonesian Food Stories, cooking is a process of making the offering for the gods and basa gede is the complete manifestation.
Imagine chopping and putting ginger, candlenut, turmeric, galangal, kaempferia galanga, chilli, shallot, garlic, coriander, peppercorn, and lemongrass in a stone mortar and pummel the ingredients together. Now, imagine the aroma when they are
simmered in hot coconut oil. These ingredients are the produce of the earth. According to Hindu belief, they represent the four wind directions and its residing Gods. The red galangal for Brahma in the south, the yellow turmeric for the Mahadewa in the west, the dark ginger for Vishnu in the north, and the white for Isvara in the east. In the olden days, measurement for each ingredient was not counted using scales but the cook’s own fingers. The amount of turmeric has to be as long as the index finger, while the amount of ginger has to be in the size of the ring finger. A basa gede is deemed perfect if each and every ingredient is blended seamlessly. Medicinally, turmeric and ginger are also known for their antibacterial and antifungal properties.
It sounds very much like an urban legend: a mushroom that can only grow in the island of Bangka, on a stump or fallen pelawan tree, during a specific weather combination of rain, thunder and sun. Only then, can the kulat grow, abundantly pink. It is curiously inedible. Yet, there is a long tradition in Bangka Island of cooking the ‘thunder mushroom’ with chicken, shrimp paste, and dried shrimp stew. This tradition, along with the increasingly rare mushroom, has become the main concern of chef Ragil Imam Wibowo.
At his restaurant in South Jakarta, Wibowo and his team at NUSA Indonesian Gastronomy work tirelessly to preserve indigenous ingredients and recipes. Ayam Lempah Kulat Pelawan is a traditional dish of Bangka. It is savoury and thick with a hint of umami from the mushroom; sadly, it is now increasingly unaffordable and hard to find. “Most of the produce are now exported overseas, even before the Indonesians are familiar with it. We have lost many ingredients and recipes because the lack of documentation and generational gap,” says Wibowo who adds that the dried premium quality kulat pelawan is light in colour and has a slight pink tone.
As one friend from Palembang, South Sulawesti puts it, pempek has the tendency to trigger debate. Arguments over which restaurant has the best kuah cuko or spicy palm sugar tamarind sauce are a common occurence in this city located on the Musi River. Pempek is more than just a fishcake. Legend has it that pempek was invented when Chinese immigrants settled in the bustling city and saw an abundance of caught fish from the river that went to waste. This observation gave birth to an experimentation of mixing boneless ground fish meat, salt, water and sago flour. Afterward, the dough is boiled in hot water until it hardens and is stored to be fried. “The Palembangers will inform anyone that the best way to eat crispy savoury deep-fried pempek is to first dip it into a bowl of spicy, sweet and sour cuko while continuously sipping it in between bites,” states Andre Dananjaya, a filmmaker with a mission to document the disappearing tradition of Indonesian regional cuisine through his film, Nusa Rasa: Indonesian Food Stories.
The key ingredient of a scrumptious pempek is the fish. While snakehead or mackerel is commonly used, the long heralded tradition requires a native Musi River fish, the belida or chitala. However, due to overfishing, pempek belida is in decline. Only a handful of traditionalists persevere in their dying endeavour of handcrafting pempek belida, which is deemed vastly superior for its texture, lighter colour and intense fish flavour.
The rice table
If there is ever a solid proof on how the
Dutch and the Indies, as Indonesia was previously known during the colonial time, influenced each other, it is rijstaffel. The rice table, a term coined by the Dutch on 1870s, is an elaborate meal consisting of a succession of dishes. Indonesian food historian, Fadly Rahman in his book Rijstaffel, stated that this marriage of Dutch and Indonesian food culture happens after the opening of the Suez Canal. The passage allowed Dutch wives and children to travel with ease to the far Indies, often to find that their husbands were far too accustomed with the food cooked by their local wives.
Rijstaffel quickly became de rigeur among the Dutch society. From a leisurely house dining party to show off one’s social standing, rijstaffel found its way into the passenger ships and Bandung’s prestigious Hotel Homann where rice was accompanied by up to 60 different dishes, carried by a long line of 20 to 30 waiters who stood during the three- to four-hour dining affair. From beef rendang to potato
frikadel, the marriage of ingredients, spices and flavours are still evident in homes and fine dining establishments. One venue where guests can experience the nostalgia of this bygone era is the Grand Rijstaffel at Hotel Tugu Bali.
Yes, tempe is Indonesian by origin. “It is perhaps Indonesia’s most important contribution to the world of cuisine,” says chef Ray Adriansyah of Locavore, recently ranked at number 22 in the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. The fermented soy product has been known as a food staple for centuries. It is believed to be accidentally invented in Java, as a by-product of tofu production. It is easy to make, cheap and very versatile to cook, making it a favourite ingredient among Indonesian households. Be it deepfried, grilled, boiled, stir-fried, steamed in banana leaves, or braised, tempe is also known for its high protein content, which is on par with meats. It deemed highly suitable for vegetarians.
Tempe is now gaining world-wide recognition as the search for superfoods and plantbased food sources grows exponentially every year. “We have experimented making tempe from different legumes, such as edamame, red beans, mung beans, and other beans. We also have incorporated tempe into our menu at Locavore,” adds Adriansyah, who expects the popularity of tempe to soar in the coming years.
“My biggest discovery of making Senirasa is that many of the spices we use for our everyday dishes are not native. The shallots that we use in our cooking are brought from the Mediterranean coast. The same goes for garlic, ginger and chillies. On the other hand, spices that are native, such as nutmeg, cloves and pepper, are ones we do not use frequently in our cooking,” says Rima Sjoekri, the author of Senirasa: A Companion to Indonesian Cooking.
An indispensable compendium of spices and herbs and the first of three volumes, Senirasa managed to cover 105 spices. It’s just a small amount, as Sjoekri admits, because there is an infinite number of edible flowers and plants out there in the rich biodiversity and indigenous culture of Indonesia that is yet to be found. Sadly, some of them have ceased to exist in recipes and are extremely hard to find, such as the case with long pepper. Despite being known as the Spice Island, Indonesia admittedly has lost plenty of its biodiversity due to the supply and demand pressure over the centuries. One of the most interesting spice stories revolves around the nutmeg. Bloody wars between the Dutch and the English were waged for the monopoly of nutmeg in the 17th century’s Banda Island and its tiny island of Run. A treaty was finally made between the feuding colonial superpowers. The Dutch exchanged a swampy island of Manhattan in its colony New Amsterdam for the tiny island of Run that belonged to the English. That swampy island is now New York City and the rest is history.
A still from Nusa Rasa: Indonesian Food Stories showing the complete list of ingredients used to make basa gede.
Basa gede in Mr. Wayan’s Crispy Duck Rima Sjoekri’s rendition of semur or beef stew Ayam Lempah Kulat Pelawan Coriander
Nusantara by Locavore’s Saksang and Sambal Andaliman Hotel Tugu Bali’s Grand Rijstaffel