Chapter 5, Part 1
Long before the modern state of Indonesia was conceived, before the arrival of Europeans to Asia, even long before the magnificent Borobudur and Prambanan temples were constructed, merchants in this sprawling archipelago had already established a thriving spice trade among neighboring islands, as well as faraway lands to the north and west.
For centuries, spices like nutmeg and clove, originating in the Banda Islands and the islands around Ternate, respectively, were traded merely as medicine. Cooking was not exactly what people had thought about in regards to how to consume the spices. Even in the 10th century, when powerful Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms based out of Java and Sumatra had exerted their dominance in the region, the local people’s taste buds only slightly changed.
Contemporary inscriptions suggest that ginger, turmeric, galangal and pepper were the preferred ingredients to give flavors to food in the archipelago, with fish being the most widely consumed source of protein. The latter is largely attributed to the lack of pastures since many local communities considered forests very sacred, hence their reluctance to clear lands for grazing. Marco Polo in his 13th-century travel accounts described that in Samara (the island of Sumatra) “there is abundance of fish to be had, the best in the world.” Meanwhile, the 15th-century Ming dynasty admiral, Zheng He, also attested to the profusion of fish in Chao-wa (Java).
Rice, on the other hand, has always been the main source of carbohydrate, notably in the western part of the archipelago, for thousands of years. In the east, however, sago is the main staple as sago palm trees (Metroxylon sagu) are available in abundance. It takes a long process before sago can be consumed, starting from cutting down a sago palm, splitting the stem, and removing the pith. The starch is then extracted by kneading the pith, washing it, and straining it to separate the fibers. The raw suspension is then further processed to make ready-to-eat food like papeda – a sago congee as viscous as glue and rather tasteless which makes it a perfect pairing for fish soup. Typically, extracting starch from two sago palms requires four people and six days of labor.
In spite of the plethora of fiery dishes in modern-day Indonesia, chili was in fact introduced only a few centuries ago. Before that, spiciness was defined by the punch Piper retrofractum (also known as Javanese pepper) gave to some dishes. Another popular ingredient was keluak (also called picung and pamarrasan in other parts of the archipelago) which is highly poisonous when it’s raw, but adds a nutty, earthy flavor and dark color to a dish after proper preparation which includes boiling the seeds and burying them in ash and earth to release hydrogen cyanide which can be deadly to humans.
As Chinese traders and Indian merchants began arriving in droves in the archipelago, benefiting from the lucrative trade of various commodities, they also introduced new ingredients as well as cooking techniques to the locals. While garlic and soybean were introduced by the Chinese, coriander and cumin were brought in by the Indians. Together with many other new ingredients from the north and west, they would forever change the palates of the people in Southeast Asia.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.