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Dear Mom, Part 6

All this talk of onions has me thinking of food now. I haven’t really talked extensively about Indonesian food in past missives, but now would be as good a time as any, I suppose. There is a wide variety of cuisine here, with each region having some specialty that is generally popular. Balikpapan is known for its crab, which are quite large and meaty with a very delicate flavor. It is usually served with saus tiram,which is a sour red sauce and often spicy. In fact, a lot of Indonesian food is spicy, using what we generally call Thai peppers or here known as cabe rawit. Some regional foods are particularly known for being spicy, such as Batak and Manado, with Manado being far and away the hottest I have eaten. Padang, an area in west central Sumatra, is very popular. There are padang houses all over the place. The restaurants usually employ some motif that approximates a padang-style house, which kind of looks like a giant saddle with horns and both ends. The food is known for being spicy but also popular for the box lunches, which usually include a vegetable, rice, meat, and a banana.
As you can imagine, in a country that is primarily covered in ocean, seafood is very popular and there is a wide variety of it. Among the freshwater favorites locally are lele, a small catfish, and gurame, which is similar to a perch. The lele is prepared by battering and deep frying the ENTIRE fish, guts, head, fins and all. Everything but the bones are consumed, with the head being sucked like a crawfish (also considered the best part). The fins are eaten and have a consistency similar to potato chips. I particularly like guarame, as it has a mild flavor and is often served with sweet and sour sauce (saus asam manis). There are many creative ways of serving it, as well. One I was impressed with had the meat filleted but still attached to the body. The whole thing was battered and then fried so that it appeared to be swimming and was served standing on the plate balanced on the pectoral fins. You pulled the strips of meat off and dipped them in the sauce.
As far as ocean favorites, tuna is very popular, which is fine by me. But the one that really blew me away is the prawn. Having grown up on the Gulf coast, I know jumbo shrimp (which any more is an oxymoron), but these prawns make the biggest of our jumbo shrimp pale by comparison. They are green and literally the size of a small lobster. A meal consists of one of them. I’ve seen some that are easily bigger than a pound of pure meat. It’s hard to impress upon you the size of these things. If you are familiar with tiger shrimp, then you are a fraction of the way there. If you are a shrimp lover, this will put you in a state of euphoria.
Of course, there is squid and octopus, smelt, red fish, and many more familiar varieties. One that I particularly like is called belut. It is a variety of eel about a foot long. At the store, they are kept live in tanks, and when you order it, they pull out your selection, club it over the head and slice it into chunks that are prepared in several different ways, most popular being fried (of course).
Among the more curious foods are dog, bat and squirrel. These are generally considered to be Batak and Manado favorites. I have told about my dog story some time ago, but the bat is far more exotic. It is a particular variety of bat that is medium-sized, and could be a type of fruit bat, though I’m unsure. To prepare it, the bat is gutted and denuded, battered and (you guessed it) deep fried. Some of the more creative presentations have it with wings spread and standing on the plate. The wings are considered to be a delicacy and are crunchy and really not bad, not unlike pork skin cracklins. It’s difficult to describe the taste of the meat, although “just like chicken” comes to mind. Being from Texas, the squirrel wasn’t really all that exotic, although the word for squirrel here is tikus bajing, with tikus being the same word for rat or mouse, so I was a bit put off until I figured out what it was.
One that I was not particularly fond of was something called usus ayam. Now ayam means chicken, and at the time I didn’t know what usus was, and since I am in the habit of every now and then picking something on the menu that I don’t know, so that I have to try a new experience. I have since learned that usus means guts, and that is exactly what I got, grilled chicken guts on a stick. Basically, the gizzard was at one end with the intestines playfully snaking up the middle, with the heart and liver at the other end. The whole affair was dipped in yellow curry before grilling, which gave the items a sickly yellowish cast, making the whole experience rather unpleasant, even though I like curry.
Some items that I really enjoy include patagol and gado-gado. Patagol is hard to describe, except to say that it is kind of like meatloaf, but made with fish. It is thick enough to cut into bite-sized blocks, which are then, say it along with the chorus, battered and deep fried. It is served with a very thick and spicy peanut sauce and kecap manis, or sweet soy ketchup, a thick black liquid. When done right, it is very good with a mild flavor and smooth texture. When done badly, it tastes and smells like three-day-old fish, which is why the really good stuff is also expensive. The good one runs about 80 cents apiece, while the nasty one costs about 10 cents. Gado-gado is one of my favorites. It is a hot salad made with tofu, bean sprouts and cabbage. It is tossed with a spicy peanut dressing, and regional variations can include cucumbers, black beans, corn, and other additions.
The Indonesian table is usually set with only a fork and a spoon. Those items are recent additions, as traditionally, all foods are eaten with the fingers. For this reason, there is a food called kerupuk. Kerupuk comes in a dizzying number of varieties. All of them are some substance the is sliced and (yup) deep fried. Some are about the size of a potato chip and have the consistency of the puffy kind of Chee-toes. Others are quite large and are slices of a kind of root called singkong, which looks like a giant parsnip and have the flavor and texture of a potato. There are at least ten or fifteen kinds of kerupuk that I can think of, and probably quite a few more than that.
Of the meats, chicken and fish are the cheapest, and naturally the most common. Beef is available, but is fairly expensive, so harder to find at the street vendors. For red meat, the most common and popular is goat. It is fairly easy to find duck and frog, as well. Pork, as you might imagine, is virtually impossible to find and very expensive. If you can find it at the store, it is kept in a section that is completely isolated from any other foods and clearly labeled with the image of a pig. There are some stores, mostly in areas frequented by foreigners, where you can buy fresh pork, but the store must have two separate butcher shops: one for pork and one for everything else. As you can imagine, it is almost impossible to find hickory smoked bacon, and one of the things I dearly crave is a thick, toasted BLT piled with pepper-crusted bacon. Cheese, for that matter, is also very rare and expensive here. A half-kilo of Gouda can run $20, when you can find it.
At this point, I am having trouble typing since the keys have become slick from my drool. Perhaps it’s best if I leave food behind and get into other subjects.

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