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