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.

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

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

Lara Djong­grang’s sig­na­ture Sam­bal Fes­ti­val

Plataran Dhar­mawangsa

Sam­bal Bawang

Sam­bal Telur Asin

Sam­bal Ke­com­brang

1945 at Fair­mont Jakarta

The sam­bal treats at 1945

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