From the rich peanut sauce of gado-gado to the spicy tang of nasi goreng – or fried rice – Indonesian cuisine is known for its intense flavours, and lavish use of spices.
A new book, Senirasa, is a companion to Indonesian cooking that captures the distinctive flavours of Indonesian food, and breaks them down, one ingredient at a time.
Nicole Curby caught up with author Rima Sjoekri at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival to hear more.
The streets of any Indonesian town or city are full of the sounds and smells of food, often cooked on the spot, and sold for less than one dollar a plate.
But the convenience and cheap prices is also one reason Indonesian home cooking is becoming harder to find these days.
Rima Sjoekri says she isn’t a great cook, not even a good cook. She never learnt when she was young. And she says she’s not the only one.
“Basically I feel like my generation is the missing link in Indonesian cooking because we were raised to have a career outside of the home. We were raised to go beyond our kitchen,” said Rima.
But it as work that took Rima back to the kitchen. Other people’s kitchens, and a lot of them.
Rima has dedicated herself to recording recipes and secrets from inside kitchens from all over Indonesia.
And she has put them together in a book launched earlier this month, which shares the principles of Indonesian cooking.
She told me what inspired the book.
“Do you remember, in our past we have probably all heard about grandma cooking with our mother in the kitchen, and she would be telling our mother about how things work in the kitchen, and how things work in the recipes.”
“Well nowadays we probably don’t have so much advantage of that. So this book basically plays that role in today’s world, where we live separately from our families earlier than our mothers did.”
Indonesia is a vast and diverse country with more than 300 languages and 900 inhabited islands.
From place to place, food varies wildly.
Each area has its own set of specialties; from gudeg or jackfruit curry in the central Javan town of Jogjakarta, to beef rendang in West Sumatra. Food is a crucial part of local culture and identity.
But Rima says it is geography that determines different flavours and methods of cooking.
“When I was researching this book I collected about 1,000 recipes from around Indonesia. And what I found was that on the western side of Indonesia -like Sumatra, Java- we do a lot more boiling, and on the eastern side of Indonesia we do a lot more grilling, and that has to do with the geography of where we are.”
“Because on the western side the fresh water reservoir is a lot more available, and on the eastern side given the islands are thin, we have more sea water than fresh water, and they have no choice but to grill.”
But it is the use of spices - or bumbu - that is common across the archipelago, and that defines Indonesian cooking.
“The artful part of our cooking is in the grinding of many spices together to make various varieties of bumbu. Because I think that this bumbu part is the most authentic part that we can claim to be ours, Indonesian cooking.”
“Otherwise we all borrow techniques from elsewhere. Like stir-fry comes from China. Fermentation comes from China also. The curry -the pastes- come from India or Persia. But the blending of spices -or the bumbu- is ours.”
Its no coincidence that spices are so fundamental to Indonesian cooking.
Spices like cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg are endemic to Indonesia, and they have shaped the history of the place, which once known as the ‘Spice Islands’.
Dutch and Portuguese colonisers fought for domination of Indonesia’s islands, exploiting the area and people, so that they could sell the lucrative spices to build their empires.
The flavor of Indonesian food these days owes a lot to colonial-era trade.
“You know there is something funny about the spices. Because the spices that are home grown - that are native to here, like cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, especially, those are the three key spices that people were looking for here - but they are the ones least used in our recipes.”
Instead, chilies are widely used in Indonesian food, especially sambals.
But Rima explained, “chilies are not from here. Chilies came in the 16th century when the Portuguese came. And yet we have adopted it so well.”
In this steamy, tropical climate, specific combinations of spices are used to preserve food, and to kill bacteria.
Take beef rendang for example. When family members leave their villages in West Sumatra to find work in the cities, they would be sent off with beef rendang in a lunch box. And even in the heat, the meaty dish would last them the several daylong journey to the city.
These days it’s not unknown to send beef rending to family by post.
Photos courtesy of Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Photography by Ziadah Ziad.