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.

Fab­u­lous fungi

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.

De­li­cious fish­cake

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.

Fer­mented su­per­food

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.

Spice Is­land

“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

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