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Ethnic Cuisine: Indonesia

by Nancy Freeman

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Chart a country's cuisine and you can chart its history.

Nowhere is this more true than in Indonesia, the fifth largest country in the world, an archipelago consisting of 18,000 islands, spanning one-eighth of the globe and occupied by 250 ethnic groups. Here tremendous ethnic diversity coupled with wave upon wave of cultural influence adds up to a world of pleasure for the culinary adventurer.

Indonesia's indigenous techniques and ingredients merge with influences from India, the Middle East, China and Europe. And then there are the New World products brought by Spanish and Portuguese traders long before the Dutch colonized the islands.

Aficionados can only skim the surface unless we travel Indonesia itself. Most restaurants abroad and English-language cookbooks focus on the foods of Java and Sumatra with tastes of tourist-haven Bali. But the cuisines on these islands alone provide us with plenty of opportunity to keep our taste buds happy and our tongues tingling.

Rice is Indonesia's main staple except in Maluku (the Moluccas) and Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea) where sago palm flour, sweet potatoes and cassava reign supreme. As in the rest of Southeast Asia, other dishes are eaten in extremely small quantities. Meat, fish and vegetables are condiments designed to flavor the staple. Sauces such as fiery sambals lend added character. Westerners, accustomed to eating much larger portions of meat and fish, find much of Indonesian food scorchingly hot.

Natural resources include rich volcanic soils and endless coastlines as the islands arc through both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Although some coastal areas are fished out, fresh water possibilities include lakes, rivers, ponds and flooded rice paddies. Not surprisingly, fish and crustaceans, fresh and dried, play a major role in the Indonesian diet.

Flavorings indigenous to the islands establish strong family ties between Indonesian food and that of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Coconut milk, or santen, plays a critical role here as well as in Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines. Indonesia shares the flavors of galangal, kaffir lime leaf and pandan with Thailand. Lemon grass and dried shrimp appear in the Philippines and Thailand both. Shrimp paste permeates the flavors of all three and Vietnam as well. Meanwhile delicious fruits and vegetables are common to the entire region.

But Indonesia's culinary ties are closest to those Southeast Asian countries strongly influenced by India. In fact, if there are ancient Buddhist or Hindu sites to be found on a country's soil, you can almost bet its cuisine will include ingredients such as cumin, coriander, ginger, and/or caraway. And you will find curries -- highly spiced sauces often diluted with coconut milk and served with bite-sized bits of meat, fish and vegetables to enliven the blandness of rice.

Arab traders ultimately converted Java from Hinduism to Islam and exercised their culinary influence as well. Kebabs, marinated meat cubes threaded on skewers, were reinterpreted to become satay. Dill and fennel entered the repertoire of spices. Today Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Not surprisingly, goat and lamb are important meats, while pork is forbidden. It is eaten only in Hindu Bali and within the Chinese community.

Chinese merchants and traders meanwhile added their own indispensable contributions to the cookpot. Indonesian food would be unrecognizable without the wok, stir-frying, the soybean and noodles which thread their way throughout the cuisine in countless ways. Among their many vegetables, the Chinese brought mustard greens, mung beans, daikon radish and Chinese cabbage.

The Dutch, attracted by the nutmeg and cloves of Maluku, waged wars over the Spice Islands and ultimately colonized the entire archipelago. Colonization caused much suffering, but added the finishing touch when it came to flavors. Chili peppers from Mexico added their unmistakable sting. Peanuts from the Americas provided sauces for satay and gado-gado. Cassava from the Caribbean and sweet potatoes from South America furnished Maluku and Irian Jaya with their staples.

In this exotic world, Dutch colonizers sought the flavors of home. They imported cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, string beans, potatoes and corn, adding to the already vast array of vegetables. They also created an entertainment institution designed to present scores of different dishes at a single sitting. Rijsttafels might contain up to a hundred different dishes. Servants stood behind the chair of each guest ready to provide soothing morsels when necessary to cool a burning palate.

But a cuisine is more than the sum of its parts. Indonesian cooks adopted new tools, techniques and ingredients and indigenized them -- some of the nearly beyond recognition. Ingenious home cooks used new techniques and forged ingredients unique to Indonesia.

Today soybeans provide not just nutritious beans for cooking on their own, soy sauce, tofu and sprouts, but tempeh, toasted soybean cakes fashionable in Western health food circles. Chinese soy sauce plays a role similar to fish sauce in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. But Indonesians enrich it by the addition of sugar, star anise, salam leaf and galangal to become kecap manis or sweet soy sauce, a key ingredient and a dynamite addition to any cook's pantry. (Pronounce that "ketchup." It's the Indonesian origin of the English word.)

Not surprisingly, Indonesia has created a mix of flavors which exerts its own influence abroad. Satay has crept up the Malay Peninsula to become one of Bangkok's favorite street foods. Indonesian food plays a major role in the melange of cuisines found in Singapore. After years of colonial intimacy, the Dutch are avid fans and some of the best Indonesian restaurants abroad can be found in the Netherlands.

History can be dry as dust or it can be fresh and tasty. Eating our way through Indonesia allows us to appreciate the significance of this country as a cultural crossroads where the great art, religions, political powers and economic forces meet and interact -- and lets us ache for just another bite.

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introduction  |  recipes  |  cookbooks  |  glossary  |  restaurants

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