Sweet Food from the Heart of Java

65 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Bistik Lidah – An Dutch-Inspired Dish from Central Java

Chapter 5, Part 5

Indonesia, a vast country which looks rather small on Mercator maps, is a nation comprising somewhere between 13,000 to 17,000 islands, where hundreds of ethnic groups speak different languages and practice their own customs. When it comes to food, each region has its own preference. In West Sumatra where the Minangkabau people live, rich curry-like dishes made with dozens of spices are the locals’ favorite. Meanwhile, in North Sulawesi – land of the Minahasans – burning sensation of chili is present in many dishes. On the other hand, in West Java – home to the Sundanese – fresh vegetables are rarely absent from every meal. Their Javanese counterparts, however, prefer sweet dishes. A high school friend in West Java once told me that the food he tried in Yogyakarta – one of two provinces in the central part of Java – tasted rather like dessert to him.

As a Javanese, naturally I grew up eating those “desserts”. However, only when I started traveling farther and more often in recent years did I begin to truly appreciate the unique flavors of Javanese cuisine. In Central Java, whenever you have tea at street stalls, restaurants, or people’s houses, it’s always sweet. When I first moved to Banten (then still part of West Java), I was surprised to have my tea plain, with no added sugar at all. But having been calling the western part of Java home for more than 25 years, now I enjoy sugarless tea as much as I do sweetened tea.

James, my perennial travel buddy, fell in love with Javanese dishes since the first time he had them more than four years ago. The combination of sweet and savory flavors in Javanese cuisine probably reminds him of the dishes back home in Hong Kong. Kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and palm sugar are two key ingredients the Javanese love to add to their dishes, and of all the sweet food, gudeg is probably the most emblematic. Made from unripe jackfruit boiled with palm sugar, coconut milk, spices and herbs, the dish is usually served with other sides, including telur pindang (eggs boiled slowly with shallot skins, teak leaves and spices) and sambel goreng krecek (spicy beef skin stew). One morning during our six-month trip, as James unwrapped the gudeg we bought the previous night in a modest Javanese house in Yogyakarta and began to savor the dish, his face couldn’t hide his admiration. “Am I dreaming?” he asked himself.

Another popular Central Javanese dish is opor ayam, a rich chicken stew spiced with turmeric, cumin, galangal, candlenut, coriander, lemongrass, coconut milk, palm sugar and a wealth of other ingredients. When he tried it at my parents’ house, James quickly claimed that it was his all-time favorite Indonesian dish, and it still is. The yellow curry is typically served on special occasions, like Idul Fitri (the Islamic festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan). But due to its popularity, now it can be found quite easily in many restaurants and office canteens.

Spices, Herbs and Other Ingredients Typically Used in Javanese Kitchen

Nasi Kuning – Turmeric Rice Cooked with Coconut Milk and Served with A Variety of Side Dishes

Cooking Gudeg at A Modest Javanese Kitchen

Nasi Gudeg – It Tastes Much Better than It Looks

Opor Ayam (Rear Left), Sambel Goreng Ati (Front Right), and Spicy Duck Eggs

The central part of Java is home to two of the island’s historically most influential royal courts: Yogyakarta and Surakarta. Thanks to its role as a temporary capital of Indonesia during the country’s war with the Netherlands during the first few years of independence, the former was granted a special status as a province with the sultan as its governor, as opposed to other provinces in Indonesia where governors are elected by the people. On the other hand, Surakarta remains part of Central Java province with the city of Solo housing the sultanate’s palaces.

During the Dutch colonial time, the keratons (royal palaces) were the entry points for the introduction of Dutch dishes to the locals. Whenever the palaces received Dutch guests, they would serve Dutch dishes. This was particularly evident under Mangkunegara IV who ruled Surakarta from 1853 to 1881. In nearby Yogyakarta, Dutch cuisines began to be widely consumed within the royal palace under the rule of Hamengkubuwono VIII from 1921 to 1939. Today, obviously those dishes have been modified to suit Javanese taste, i.e. more sweet in flavor.

The Dutch-inspired dishes eventually made their way out of the palaces. But the common people had developed their own humble yet equally mouth-watering dishes too. Tengkleng, often dubbed the “poor man’s dish”, is a soup made with goat ribs and offal – since the meat is less affordable to many people. Meanwhile, nasi liwet tempong is made from rice cooked with coconut milk, served with egg and chicken – a much cheaper source of protein compared to goat – as well as sliced boiled chayote – another crop introduced by the Iberians which in Indonesian is curiously called labu Siam, ‘Siamese gourd’.

Javanese dishes are now spread to other islands in Indonesia, as well as abroad where a lot of Javanese people have migrated, including Malaysia, the Netherlands and Suriname. As for the latter, roughly 14% of the South American country’s population is in fact ethnic Javanese, a vestige of Dutch colonialism in both the East and West Indies. Many Javanese were brought to Suriname in the late 19th century to work in Dutch plantations, along with Indian and Chinese laborers. However, when colonialism came to an end, resulting in modern borders as we know them today, food nationalism gradually became an increasingly contentious issue as countries around the world began to forge their own national identity, as distinct from others’ as possible, theoretically. This is when understanding the history becomes handy.

Yellow Rice Shaped into A Small Tumpeng – Cone-Shaped Rice Dish Resembling A Volcano

Bebek Suwar-Suwir – Duck Breast Cooked with Ambarella Puree Among Other Ingredients

Sanggar – Grilled Beef Slathered in Coconut Milk

Urip-Urip Gulung – Grilled Catfish Rolls

Nasi Liwet Tempong from Solo, Central Java

Tongseng – Sweet Curry-Like Mutton Stew

Tengkleng, Often Dubbed the “Poor Man’s Dish”

Sate Ayam – Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce, Pickled Vegetables, and Chilies

A Variety of Satays – Quail Eggs, Chicken Intestine, Tapioca Balls, and Chicken – Served with Rice and Sweet Tofu

Sate Buntel – Mutton Satay Covered in Fat and Served with Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

A Fried Chicken Dish in Solo

Left: Javanese Non-Alcoholic Beer; Right: Kolak (A Dessert Made from Coconut Milk, Palm Sugar, Pandan Leaves, and Fruits)

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

65 thoughts on “Sweet Food from the Heart of Java”

  1. Pingback: copied: | My little simple thought

  2. Mas Bamaaaaaaaaa…..
    Aku ketinggalan banyak banget postingan mas Bama dan sekarang udah masuk makanan melulu dan kenapa ya saya baca ini pas jelang makan siang dan membuatku makin kelaparan… lagian itu lho semua makanannya bikin ngiler banget. Makanannya kan aku banget nget nget itu. Apa mas Bama gak kasian sama aku yang bingung pengen semua makanan itu tapi jauh semua????
    *akumasihmeletmeletlidahnya

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    • Minggu depan postingan makanan terakhir mbak, sekaligus udahan the Spice Odyssey-nya. Cerita lain udah ngantri soalnya, hehe. Duh mbak, ampuuuuunn… Jadinya makan siang pake apa? 😀 Postingan saya gini, padahal pagi ini saya cuma makan bubur ayam, dan siang makan mie instan. Hmmm, nanti malam harus makan beneran nih (yang tadi bo’ongan).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Coba deh makan bihun goreng di hadapan tampilan postingan mas Bama itu… ga berasa apa-apa deh… 😂😂😂
        Ntar malem makan angin aja mas Bama yaaa… ditanggung seru dan murmer😂😂😂 *dendamkesumatgaragaratadisiang

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      • Bihun goreng kalo pake ayam, telur, bakso, kol, sawi, terus dikasih potongan cabe rawit sih enak banget mbak. 😀 Ini lagi cari inspirasi nanti malem makan apa (pengen yang banyak dan kenyang!).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. For me Javanese food is waaaay too sweet, I’m having hard times eating anything local here 😛 Ok, gudeg is an exception, really like it when served without krecek.

    P.S. Where to find sanggar or urip2 gulung? Both look delicious, but I asked my Jogja friends and they never heard of them 😦

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    • Have you tried the Solo version of gudeg? It’s less sweet and a little more watery. I wonder if you like it better. I had sanggar and urip-urip gulung at this restaurant called Bale Raos. They specialize in dishes served at the keraton.

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      • Never been to Solo yet, but looks like I should finally go there for a culinary tour one day! Thanks for the tipp, Bale Raos is super close to my home so will check it soon, can’t wait 🙂

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      • Solo has a slightly different ambiance than Jogja, and I found the food less sweet in general. You’re welcome and happy exploring!

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  4. ah ini aku banget lah, sebagai orang jawa yang sangat doyan dengan masakan yang cenderung manis, cocok lah. eh ini malam-malam begini baca postingan ini sumpah bikin laper lagi heheeh

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  5. Ngecessss…. what a mouth-watering post, Bama! It’s so funny to read about myself here, but yes, Javanese food is clearly numero uno when it comes to my choice of Indonesia’s regional cuisines. Having a sweet tooth – and a love of kecap manis in particular – certainly helps. You already know how I have Javanese for lunch most days of the week and I’m still not bored. Even after almost a year in Jakarta I have not been able to find an opor ayam quite as good as your mom’s recipe!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nek ngeces yo sedia tisu to James. 😀 I remember when I was little my mom used to make gudeg. One day we had to go out of town to find teak leaves to make telur pindang! Maybe you can challenge yourself to make opor ayam by following the recipe you learned from her. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Loved the food when I travelled the length of Java and was devastated by my daughter’s request (then nine) that she wanted KFC when we reached Bali

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    • Well, when I was a kid I think I preferred KFC and McDonald’s to Javanese traditional dishes too. Take your daughter back to Java and see what she’ll think of the food this time. 🙂

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      • South Sumatran dishes are among my favorites from the island. Unlike West Sumatran or Acehnese food which is always very rich, in South Sumatra people love to use fish, tamarind and chili.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Michelle Francisca Lee says:

    I love Indonesian food so much!!!! It’s so hard to get a decent one in Switzerland and ingredients are not always available (or it’s very expensive).

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    • That’s what I heard from my friends and relatives who live in Europe. But I think in the Netherlands there should be quite a few decent Indonesian restaurants due to the large number of Indonesian diaspora in the country. Whether you can go there, or fly all the way to Indonesia every now and then. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I actually think I need to stop looking at your blog 😀 😉 I think am going to cry so much i miss Indo food!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aww, sorry for the visual torture! There will only be one more food post, then you don’t have to worry about your craving stomach anymore. 😀

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  9. History and preparation of food is endlessly fascinating – how people all over the world can take many of the same ingredients and invent something quite different! Learning how to use the great array of herbs and spices is quite interesting to me, as this kind of knowledge is not widespread in the US. I’m just beginning to gain some understanding of how to cook with the many chiles used in Mexico! And now you tantalize us with foods from Indonesia…there’s just not enough time…
    Your photos always make us want to try new flavors, or for some they bring memories favorites from their childhoods. I love the photo of the woman in her kitchen. Thanks!

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    • It is indeed very fascinating to learn about how the same ingredients are used in different places to make a multitude of mouth-watering dishes. In my previous post I mentioned about how each region in Indonesia has its own way to make sambal – chili-based condiment. Some like it sweet, some prefer tangy flavor, others love to mix shrimp paste in their sambal, to name a few. I’m equally intrigued by how chilies are used in Mexico, where it originated from, since I have yet to travel to the western hemisphere.

      Thanks for reading, Marilyn. Hopefully one day you’ll get the chance to taste some of the dishes in this post yourself, in Indonesia!

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  10. Each dish presented by your fabulous photography looks like a piece of art. Such an interesting post on Indonesia with so many islands and so many cultures and distinct languages!

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    • Thanks Peter! The ones we had at restaurants were generally well-presented, making photography a lot easier. On the other hand, those from street vendors looked somewhat more messy, but the flavors were very authentic.

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  11. Bama I think a Food Blog may be in order. Delicious, mouth watering photos. Definitely tantalizing the wanderlust tastebuds for those considering a trip to Asia! I could hardly believe the 17,000 islands! Wow.

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    • Lol.. You’re too kind, Sue. Thanks! But I only have one more food post. After that posts from Japan, Vietnam, and other places I went to after the big trip are coming soon. I honestly believe I will never be able to visit even half of all the islands in the Indonesian archipelago. To give you and idea, the distance between the east and west ends of the country is farther than Vancouver and St John’s.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Your blog is getting more tasty week by week! The dishes you present look so delicious with vibrant colour. I can eat by my eyes 🙂 I also love the way you shoot the spices, herbs and ingredients. Very beautiful! I would like to ask what is the white round thing in the middle of that photo (above the star anise and below the green chilli)?

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    • Thanks! Don’t we all eat with our eyes first, before we devour whatever served before us? 🙂 In Indonesia, we have this term “lapar mata”, eye hunger, to describe a situation when we eat not because we’re hungry, but because of the dish’s appealing presentation. That white ingredient is candlenut, which is widely used in Indonesia (and also Malaysia, I think). It gives a dish a rich, nutty flavor. I guess it’s not really used in Vietnamese cooking?

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      • Nope, I have never seen it before. I think we use more herbs and vegetables for cooking rather than spices. Unlike British or Dutch people, the French did not bring many spices to their colony. That’s why we didn’t have many spices to start with.I assume that their fleets were not as powerful as other empires, and thus they lost the domination in spice-trading. Or they could have no interest in spice-trading at all (highly unlikely) 🙂

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      • That’s what I also think. Vietnamese food is more known for its emphasize on freshness, not richness. I know what the French were enthusiastic about: building opera houses! 🙂 I guess it would be interesting for you to visit Pondicherry in India since it was also a French colony. The difference is in Indochina traces of French cuisine (for instance, baguette) can still be found in the local delicacies. But in Pondicherry, there were almost no traces of the former colonial power in the local food.

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      • Interesting! I did not know that a part of India was French colony. I thought the British controlled the whole region (plus Myanmar and Malaysia). Thanks for the tips 🙂

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      • Me neither until I read Life of Pi. Apart from the British and the French, the Portuguese and the Danish (!) also colonized parts of India. You’re welcome!

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  13. Godaan tulisan ini langsung dibuka dengan gambar pembukanya. Bistik lidah! Duh ini agak langka dapatinnya. Jarang banget aku nemunya.

    Btw, walaupun masakan Jawa pada umumnya dikenal dengan tingkat kemanisannya yang agak tinggi. Di beberapa tempat aku menemukan variasi yang agak berbeda, seperti rasa asam, gurih, atau pedas yang lebih dominan. Seperti misalnya masakan garang asam dengan penggunaan belimbing wuluhnya, soto kudus yang memanfaatkan merica, ataupun opor dan beberapa masakan di Cepu yang sepertinya apapun masakannya selalu ‘dicemplungin’ cabe rawit sebagai penyedap rasa.

    Dan dari semua yang pernah aku coba, mungkin yang aku cicipi di Bale Raos Keraton Jogja lah yang lebih unik. Soalnya masakan dan minumannya seolah berusaha dipadukan dengan unsur eropa yang saat itu sedang menguasai Jawa. Ekletik khan baik penyajian maupun unsur pengisinya? Ah, jadi pengen nyobain lagi hahahaha

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    • Ibuku sering masak bistik lidah lho. Tapi emang jarang sih di restoran-restoran gitu. Setauku di Oen Malang ada, dan enak juga.

      Yak betul, rasa manis gak melulu ada di tiap masakan Jawa, termasuk soto kemiri dari Pati. Cuma ya kayaknya secara persentase memang dibandingkan masakan di daerah lain, persentase masakan manis di Jawa lebih tinggi. Btw aku sampe sekarang masih penasaran garang asem itu asalnya dari daerah mana. Dulunya aku pikir dari Semarang, tapi kok kayaknya di kota lain di Jawa Tengah juga populer ya masakan ini.

      Nah, di Bale Raos ini menang unik sih. Banyak masakan yang bahkan orang Jawa yang tinggal di Jawa pun belum pernah coba. Masih inget dessert di sana yang pake kuping kayak Mickey Mouse gak? Tapi kupingnya dari emping. 😀

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      • Jadi kapan mama mu mau open house dan masak bistik lidah? 😀

        Ooo dessert yang satu itu. Iya ingat. Namanya Manuk Nom. Awalnya aku kira itu sejenis masakan yang dibuat dari burung dara muda 😀

        Nah, iya sama, soal Garang Asem aku juga bingung. Soalnya kalau main ke Grobogan dan Purwodadi banyak banget warung garang asem di sepanjang jalan. Dan kesannya itu seperti signature dish nya mereka. Tapi di Kudus juga ada, dan beberapa di antaranya direkomendasikan.

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      • Hahaha, rumah ortuku itu udah jadi langganan temen-temen mamaku dan sodara-sodaraku buat makan — tercermin dari anaknya yang BAnyak MAkan. 😀

        Iya, kenapa dikasih nama manuk nom ya? Padahal lebih pas disebut kuping cindil. Soal garang asem, berarti memang ini udah jadi masakan bersama kayaknya sih, hehe. Btw Purwodadi ini dari dulu pengen aku kunjungi deh, terutama karena Bledug Kuwu-nya. Penasaran.

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      • Oo jadi Bama itu singkatan dari BAnyak MAkan ya? Hahaha.

        Nah itu, aku juga bingung. Mungkin karena bentuknya aja. Aduh ojo cindil no, malah nggilani. Bisa males mesannya juga 😀

        O iya, Bledug Kuwu itu di daerah Purwodadi ya? Aku sampai lupa kalau ada itu. Selama ini aku mikir, apa yang kira-kira bisa dilihat di Purwodadi.

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      • Hehe, iya. Kok ya ada ya orang yang bisa nguntal cindil. Bayanginnya aja udah bikin mual.

        Iya, setauku Bledug Kuwu itu agak di luar dari pusat kota Purwodadi. Bapakku gak lama ini baru aja ke sana sih. Coba nanti tak tanya bagus atau enggak.

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  14. Most of the time when I visited Jogja, I always tried their gudeg, even though we can also easily found the dish elsewhere. And my favourite side for the dish is sambel goreng krecek. I always ask for an extra of that krecek haha.

    Btw, I’ve never tried that Urip-Urip Gulung, is it nice? :9

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    • So far my favorite gudeg is gudeg pawon. But it took a great amount of patience as the line moved in a snail’s pace. I think my favorite part of gudeg is the egg.

      I quite liked the flavor of urip-urip gulung. It was tender, and obviously there was no bone. You should give it a try next time you’re in Jogja!

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    • It’s hard for me to pick a favorite as I love almost all Javanese cuisines. But gudeg is surely high on the list of the dishes I’ll never get bored of.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. It all seems impossibly exotic to me! I know so few of the ingredients, spices or otherwise, and I feel like I’d just have to start eating these things and then read about them in order to totally get the picture!

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    • I just did a little research, so apparently there are a few Indonesian restaurants in Houston. I know the dishes won’t be as authentic as the original ones in Indonesia, but I guess they can provide you with a glimpse of the different flavors of the country.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Kak Bamaa, aku jadi pengen bistik lidahnyaa..
    Eh, kalau ke Solo aku pengen makan Selad Solo, yang enak di mana ya??

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    • Bistik lidah memang kayaknya jadi favorit banyak orang ya. 😀
      Hmmm, seingetku waktu di Solo aku gak makan selat Solo deh. Jadi maaf gak bisa kasih rekomendasi dimana yang enak.

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  17. I also find the food from Yogyakarta is too sweet. I can’t eat gudeg just because it’s too sweet 😀 but certainly love opor ayam, tumpeng and sate ayam! I think sate ayam is sort of internationally known nowadays. Every “bule” who have been to Indonesia told me that they adore Indonesian chicken satay. Great post, Bama. It makes me hungry too!

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    • Have you tried the Solo version of gudeg? I wonder if you’ll like it better, because my mother does as she’s not a big fan of sweet dishes — although she does cook such dishes! Sate ayam has indeed become one of the most famous Indonesian dishes, although other countries have their versions of skewered meat/chicken as well. Maybe what makes Indonesian sate different is the rich peanut sauce. Thanks Indah!

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    • With a population of less than a million, Suriname itself is not a big country. Still, it’s fascinating to me that there is a big Javanese community thousands of kilometers away from home. Thanks for reading, Param & Shikha.

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