BEST OF INDONESIA Some like it hot
A key building block of Indonesian cuisine, sambal is the unifying condiment found in the country’s cuisine. Eve Tedja delves further into the history of sambal and tastes its varieties at Jakarta’s best Indonesian restaurants.
With more than 300 ethnic groups, Indonesia is blessed with an abundance of regional cuisines that makes defining the country’s cuisine an insurmountable task. From the Arab-influenced cuisine of Aceh in Sumatra’s northernmost province, a vast repertoire of spices in Javanese and Balinese cooking, to the seafood laden fare of Minahasa in North Sulawesi, it’s no surprise that Indonesia owns more than 5,000 traditional food recipes. Sambal, however, is the common component of every meal in Indonesia. A recent study conducted by Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta found that there are 322 varieties of sambal: each sambal enhances the flavour of the main ingredients. For example, a typical Manadonese meal consists of a freshly grilled seabass served with a diced tomato, raw shallots and fiery bird’s eye chilli known as sambal dabu-dabu. This specialty sambal is from North Sulawesi and demonstrates the function of sambal as a relish, a sauce and a salsa.
To say that Indonesians love their sambal is an understatement. There’s not a day that goes by without them eating at least one kind of sambal. Even if there is no sambal in a dish they will require some heat in their pizza or ciabatta sandwich. Chefs probably would cringe at the constant requests from their guests to include hot sauce, chopped chillies, chilli oils, chilli flakes on to every imaginable dish. The oft saying is that spiciness is one of the preferred tastes in Indonesian palate, right after umami, saltiness and sweetness.
Restaurants reap profits from creating over-the-top, Scoville scale record-breaking fried noodles or the nation’s latest street food craze, ayam geprek. It is a pummelled crispy fried chicken tossed with one of the most basic sambals: bird’s eye chillies, garlic, shallot, salt, and pepper. Often, a decision to visit a restaurant is made because it does a particularly good sambal. During the lean months, Indonesians are known to colloquially say, ‘just give me rice and sambal and I’ll make do’. Failure in chilli crop harvests or a hike in chilli prices tend to make headlines and vex Indonesians because
this means their favourite sambal terasi or belacan becomes less spicy. If ever there’s a revolution in this country due to a shortage of a certain food ingredient, it will probably be attributed to chilli.
Different spices for different folks
Growing up in Bali, there has to be at least one kind of sambal to accompany my family meal. A Balinese meal is not complete without sambal embe, a mixture of fried shallots, fried bird’s eye chilli, terasi,
salt, and lime. We would mix a pinch of the entire mixture together with a handful of cooked rice, adding fried brined fish or whatever meat or vegetable dishes my mother would cook that day.
A Medanese friend from North Sumatra admits that home makes her long for sambal andaliman, while another friend from Bandung, West Java dreams of her mother’s sambal petai (stink beans) that seems to go well with any dish. This is the best part about travelling around Indonesia. There is a serious sambal adventure and culinary discoveries to be had in each city.
Interestingly, up until the 16th century, there was no inkling that chilli even existed. According to food historian, Fadly Rahman, prior to discovering chilli, heat was added to the dishes by using long pepper (Piper retrofractum vahl) or locally known as cabya.
Chilli came to Indonesia through the Columbian Exchange. It was named after Christopher Columbus. Due to his clandestine voyage in 1493, a widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, technology and ideas altered what Indonesians consume even until today. The warmth of long pepper was replaced by fiery chilli, a variety of genus Capsicum. “Despite the diminishing popularity of cabya, our people still collectively guard its ancient food culture through names. We refer to chilli as cabai in Indonesian language,” explains Rahman.
A sambal affair in Jakarta
A trip to Indonesia isn’t complete without trying at least a few types of sambals. Indonesian fine dining institutions in Jakarta,
such as Lara Djonggrang, Plataran Dharmawangsa and 1945 at Fairmont Jakarta, offers diners the chance to taste different types of sambal in one seating.
Named after a mythic Javanese princess who requested a suitor to build her 1,000 temples in one day, Lara Djonggrang is a doyenne of imperial Indonesian cuisine. Housed in a Dutch mansion and furnished with museum-worthy artworks and artefacts, the menu is inspired by the journeys taken by King Hayam Wuruk of Majapahit Kingdom in the 14th century. The great king was known to be fond of expeditions to the coastal ports of Java, centres of the archipelago’s trading posts during the ancient time.
Dining on the long wooden table and sitting on a carved red chair, a waiter in Javanese traditional attire serves me a selection of sambals for tasting. With a bowl of crackers and a tall glass of water, I start my chilli eating challenge from the mild one (Sundanese’s Sambal Kemangi is more aromatic than spicy with its use of lemon basil with chilli) to spicy (Sambal Petis, East Java’s favourite dipping sauce, is pungent with a hint of shrimp paste). Semarang’s Sambal Belimbing Wuluh is sour as it uses carambola (starfruit) in its mixture and together with Manadonese’s beloved smoked garfish Sambal Roa, makes for two of the spiciest sambals on the menu. Those are just four out of a mind-boggling selection of 21 sambals available at Lara Djonggrang.
A trip to Plataran Dharmawangsa is akin to visiting a refined royal Javanese family compound with its 150-year-old wooden joglo house, charming glass-roofed conservatory and immaculate garden complete with tall trees. I opt to sit in the
comfort of the air-conditioned conservatory, anticipating a formal meal. Instead, the menu offers delicious comforting fare crafted for the Indonesian palate. Needless to say, the sambals are delightfully pungent. Dipping the signature Brinjal Chips made of crispy aubergine and chicken floss into the Sambal Terasi tasted like the perfect summary of flavours Indonesians love in their food: salty, crunchy, spicy and just a little sweet (from the floss). “Sambal is a defining characteristic of our culinary
heritage. Each sambal creation is as unique as our diverse terroir and culture,” says Mualimin, Plataran Dharmawangsa’s head chef.
“I’d like to keep the authentic taste of sambal so that the guest can explore the richness of our cuisine,” says Adhitia Julisiandi who is known to deconstruct Indonesian dishes with his molecular gastronomy approach. Named after Indonesia’s year of independence, 1945 is a dark-toned space. Muted gray upholstery and a contrasting play of light and shadows create a thoroughly different idea of what an Indonesian restaurant should look like. The same can be said about the food, reinterpreted familiar dishes like Naniura 1945, Kelinci Masak Rica and Short Ribs Marranggi. Julisiandi’s genius is in his ability to take familiar ingredients, feature them in different form to produce edgy flavours without sacrificing on comfort.
With 10 sambals, from the aromatic ginger torch Sambal Kecombrang to Sambal Mangga made of unripe mango, Julisiandi aims to transport one’s palate to different regions in Indonesia. Here, he shares one of his favourite sambal recipe, Lado Hijau Padang from West Sumatra.
Lara Djonggrang’s signature Sambal Festival
Sambal Telur Asin
1945 at Fairmont Jakarta
The sambal treats at 1945