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!
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!
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.
Beef rendang, Balinese green salad and roti
I think beef rendang has been successfully exported to Australia, because it sounds very familiar from menus. However, I don’t think I had ever tried it before this. I now regret this, just as I regret the small quantity that I made of this dish. It’s a dry curry, which essentially means that it is cooked for a very long time until all the liquid has evaporated, and nothing is left but deliciously caramelised solids. This takes a long time of waiting and watching, with certainty in your heart that everything will burn in flames of failure if you attend to other preoccupations for even a second, but it’s well worth it in the end. But please, if you do make this, quadruple the recipe at least, because it will be amazing and you will want more. Trust me. It’s spiced with galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind, cumin, stair anise, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, candlenuts and chilli. I served mine with a Balinese green bean salad, which is flavoured with sesame seeds and peanut sauce, and I also made roti. Roti is a type of oily, flaky flat-bread that I had heard a lot about but never tried before. I prepared the dough the night before with flour, water and salt, then rolled it into balls and let it sit in oil overnight. This creates an amazing silky dough that’s fantastic to work with. The next day, I diligently found youtube tutorials on how to stretch out the roti dough by flipping it through the air, with the goal of creating an incredibly thin and even stretchy dough (it’s the same as some traditional pizza flipping techniques purportedly). I sort of got the hang of the flipping technique, although I slapped myself in the face with oily dough more frequently than I care to admit. Once you’ve made metres of paper-thin dough out of a small ball, you fold it all loosely upon itself a few times to create thin flaky layers, then fry it in a pan until it’s golden brown and lightly puffed. I can see why people go mad for this stuff – it’s super delicious and devilishly tricky to make.
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, tofu, hardboiled egg, and Chinese vegetables. 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.