It is easy to find Japanese, Italian, French, Middle Eastern, and even Thai restaurants in Jakarta, the capital and economic powerhouse of Indonesia and also home to 10 million people. However sometimes I wonder why it is not the case for Indonesian restaurants elsewhere in the world as its culinary selection is relatively less-known to most people outside the country. Its widely varying cultures might be one of the reasons as it is almost impossible to point out a handful of dishes to best represent the country.
Earlier this year on several trips I managed to make time to sample some more local dishes from the places I went in Indonesia – mostly from Bali and the neighboring province of East Java. Like many other Indonesian dishes, some of the best-kept secrets that I tried looked rather unappealing to most eyes for their dark colors and uninspiring plating. But on the other hand a few others did look astoundingly beautiful, and most importantly tasted really good.
Nasi Campur is a hearty concoction of rice surrounded by various side dishes depending on the region. The one that I tried in Bali came with stir-fried tempe and peanuts, telur balado (boiled egg with chili sauce), sate lilit (grilled minced chicken on lemongrass), shredded chicken, fried tofu, and green vegetables. In other regions it is also called Nasi Rames which is widely available from fancy restaurants to streetside vendors.
Ayam Betutu is one of my favorite Balinese dishes. As a matter of fact, each region in Bali has its own distinct way of preparing the dish, from steaming to roasting. The one that I tried in Ubud was the steamed version where a whole chicken was stuffed with spices and vegetables to make it taste rich and flavorful. Pak Sanur, the restaurant owner told us that he only provides chicken due to its cheaper price compared to duck so that regular Balinese can afford it.
For a more adventurous taste and look, East Java’s Rawon is the one to look for. The blackish soup is usually served with bean sprouts, salted preserved duck egg, shrimp crackers and sambal. While many Indonesians love its rich and earthy flavor, some might not know that keluak – the seeds from which Rawon gets its dark color – is highly poisonous if not processed properly as it contains the deadly hydrogen cyanide. But fear not as all keluaks sold at markets are ready to use in cooking. In addition to that, shallot, garlic, ginger, candlenut, turmeric, red chili, beef stock and beef slices, lemongrass, galangal, bay leaves and kaffir lime leaves are also added during preparation.
No gastro-adventure in Indonesia would be complete without a dose of sambal – ground chili with various spices used as condiment – which varies from one place to another. One of the latest sambals that I tried for the first time was Sambal Matah, literally raw sambal. Chopped shallot, garlic, red chili, shrimp paste, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass proved to be the ideal companion for the grilled fish that I had in Nusa Lembongan. Unlike most other sambals which emphasize on their strong flavor and unsparing kick of the chili, Sambal Matah is more on the light and fresh note.
Bizarre, intriguing, spicy, rich, strong, bold, and fresh. No matter how one describes Indonesian food, most find it very addictive. With more than 17,000 islands, the country sure has so many hidden culinary secrets to explore.