Indonesia and Timor-Leste are varied in almost every aspect. Collectively, they are varied in terms of land masses (containing over 6000 populated islands), in terms of ethnic group inhabitants (over 300 groups), and therefore also in diverse regional cuisines. Indonesia has been a stopping-point on many trade routes throughout the centuries, and this means that there is a great diversity of influences on its food, including from indigenous groups, India, the Middle East, China, Japan, Polynesia, Melanesia, and Europe. My parents both backpacked through Indonesia before they met each other, during their wild, misspent youths, and have always shared their fond memories of the exoticism, vibrant colours and tastes of its cuisine. My dad also acted briefly in a 1980s Indonesian action film while he was there, and we’re still not clear on how that happened… An exciting and mysterious region indeed!
Astute readers may have garnered by now that, although I adore all world cuisines, I am particularly thrilled by any dish that offers variety, interesting aesthetics and symbolism. I was therefore very excited to cook tumpeng, which is surely the supreme ruler of all of these concepts. “Tumpeng” generically describes the preparation of a conical rice tower, surrounded by assorted side dishes, and the specifics of its preparation vary hugely by occasions, region, season and personal taste. Never before have I dived so deep into the symbolism behind a dish, unearthing a great diversity of meanings and opinions, many of which are in disagreement with one another. However, let me try to summarise the most salient rules of a tumpeng, with advanced apologies to any Indonesian readers for what will certainly be many misunderstandings. First, the rice tower, which imitates the mountainous terrains of Indonesia, long regarded by indigenous people as the homes of the hyangs (ancestral and godly spirits). During a traditional tumpeng ceremony (a tumpengan), the top of the tumpeng is removed first and served to the most important and/or celebrated guest. The colour of the rice is to some extent determined by the occasion, with yellow rice marking celebratory events, while white rice is more appropriate for somber or sacred gatherings. One of my favourite parts of the tumpeng concept is the care and attention dedicated to its adornment, with incredible sculptures of carved vegetables depicting flowers, as well as intricately woven and folded snake beans and banana leaves. There are some truly spectacular examples of beautifully decorated tumpengs online – from kitsch gnome gardens to regal fortresses. The number seven is important in a tumpeng, and it is therefore recommended to serve seven accompaniments to your rice tower (although I am still unsure what does and does not count towards this number, e.g. is sambal a side?). As if this dish was not already drenched with enough meaning, each side has a potential symbolism, for instance vegetables indicate good friendships, string beans represent longevity, shoaling anchovies represent togetherness and bottom-dwelling catfish represent humility. I have to admit, I was initially paralysed with indecision about exactly how to assemble my tumpeng. What if I unwittingly sent my whole future out of balance by not including string beans!? However, eventually my scientific disposition won over and led me to follow a seemingly safe course of action by choosing seven typical dishes, balanced by their inclusion into different categories: vegetables (urap urap; mixed blanched vegetables with a coconut sambal dressing), chicken (ayam bakar; marinated, broiled and grilled chicken), beef (rendang), fish (dried anchovies), legumes (fried tempeh), starchy carbohydrates (bergedel kentang; mashed potato fritters), and eggs (telur gambuang; omlette). I won’t bore you with all of the details of these and other possible tumpeng accompaniments that I unearthed on my many 3am google dives, but I do need to give special mention to beef rendang. The dish is significant to me because I first tried it in my twenties, and I’m certain my shock and delight at its delicious ingenuity was one of the main factors that propelled me into this cooking adventure. I made it by first blending and frying a spice paste (pemasak) of shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind, cumin, star anise, coriander seeds, cardamom, ginger, candlenuts and chilli. I then added chunks of beef and lots of coconut milk, and cooked it on a very low heat for a few hours. What results is known as a “dry curry”, where all the liquid ultimately evaporates leaving only deliciously caramelised solids. In the case of beef rendang, these caramelised solids contain an explosion of complex flavours, the like of which I’ve never before tried. However, you don’t have to take my word for it, beef rendang was voted as the number 1 best international food in a 2011 CNN poll, which is as good a reason as any to try it yourself. The recipe takes a very long time, true, but most of that is just waiting on a slowly simmering saucepan where you can do other things. My biggest piece of advice should you want to cook it is to make A LOT, because I promise that you will finish your portion and mourn its loss!
Nasi goreng literally means “fried rice”, and, helpfully, describes exactly how to make this dish, which is commonly eaten for breakfast in Indonesia. I spiced mine with garlic, shrimp paste, sweet chilli sauce, shallot, chilli and kecap manis, which is a sweet soy sauce. I also stir fried prawns , as well as carrot, onion, and shallots. Traditionally included are chopped rolls of scrambled-egg omelette, which are slightly sweetened with kecap manis. Pre-cooked long-grain rice is incorporated after all the other elements are cooked, to make sure the rice is not under- or over-cooked. I topped mine with beansprouts, cucumber, tomatoes, a fried egg and lime, because those elements can only improve a dish, no? This dish has achieved international popularity, being voted into second place on a 2011 CNN poll of world’s most delicious foods. Funnily enough, the origins of the dish are relatively humble, as with all dishes of fried rice, arising from the necessity of using up old rice in palatable ways, with the high heat helping to make it safe to eat in households without refrigeration capacity. It just goes to show that the greatest feats of humanity are often born from necessity and practicality.
I think that this is my favourite-looking dish so far. Just look at all the colours! I grow a lot of edible flowers, but they flower a bit unpredictably, so I actually got the ones in this picture from a nice gentleman at the farmers’ markets, who gave me the last of his edible flowers for free, as he was packing up to go home and they were starting to wilt. It pays to sleep in sometimes, folks! These sorts of dishes make me realise that vegetables are amazing. Sure, meat is tasty, but is it beautiful? Rarely. Vegetables have such incredible forms and colours and textures. Gado gado apparently means “mix mix”, and traditionally includes a wide variety of raw, steamed or blanched vegetables, like potato, carrot, cabbage, green beans, tomato, cucumber, sugar snaps, radishes, beansprouts etc., as well as protein-sources like tofu, chicken or egg with a peanut sauce to make everything extra-delicious. Being a generous sort of person, I elected to include all of the above in my gado gado, and made my peanut sauce with peanuts, peanut paste, coconut milk, onions, tamarind, lime and sambal oelek, which is a chilli and tomato paste used commonly in Indonesia. My organs were chortling with vim and vigour after all of these vitamins, and it even tasted good!
Chicken bakso ball noodle soup
Bakso are Indonesian meatballs, similar to a Chinese meatball. It’s commonly found sold by street vendors in Indonesia. I approve of the recent idolisation of street food in foodie and hipster communities. I think it has previously been under-appreciated as “just junk food”, but it actually has enormous diversity and flavour between countries. Also, it is the very definition of democratic food selection, because street foods that have survived and become popular are, quite literally, what the people want. Bakso balls are usually boiled and then served in a light, spiced broth, with yellow egg noodles, vermicelli noodles, Chinese vegetables, fresh and deep fried spring onions, fried wonton wrappers, as well as other potential accompaniments that I didn’t include in mine like tofu and hardboiled eggs. It was very delicious, but why just rely on my endorsement? Barack Obama has said that this was his favourite dish in Indonesia during his childhood, so you can feel safe in choosing to cook this dish yourself (or perhaps not, depending on your geopolitical persuasions…). Well, whatever you think of Obama, you can’t deny, the dude has taste.