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Feed Me, Seymore!

This being the holidays and all, I thought it would be a good time to talk about one of my favorite subjects of all time: Food. It's something I haven't really addressed here, but it is one of the main attractions, in my puny little mind, that merits comment with regards to Indonesia.

Keep in mind that Indonesia is actually an amalgam of many different cultures. Not only are there hundreds of indigenous people, but there is strong influence from Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish cuisines, as well. In other words, there is a wide varity of foods with distinctinve spices and preparation styles, ranging from drop-dead spicy to mildly entertaining.

As you might imagine, the local foods involve a lot of rice and soy products, as well as fruit and vegetables. Common meats are chicken, beef goat, fish,crab, and duck, with pockets of pork and exotic things like frog, octopus, squirrel, dog and bat in some areas.

Each ethnic group has its own distinctive favorites that are generally popular and can be found in restaurants that specialize in the various cuisines. For anyone wanting to try these dishes, and who don't have an Indonesian restaurant nearby, you can search the name of the dish online and most will return some good recipes. Most of the preparations are not difficult, but you might find it hard to get bamboo or banana leaf for the proper presentation. Most of the dishes can be prepared in a mild version, though typically Indonesians like a little zip to it. Many times, the table includes spicy sauce called sambal, which is added to taste after serving.

I have heard it said that Americans will eat anything with two slices of bread, and the same can be said of Indonesians and sambal. The most common pepper is the cabe rawit, a small hot pepper that many Americans would recognize as Thai peppers or the Tobasco pepper.

So, we begin where every Indonesian does, at the end. Dessert. Indonesians have a decidedly sweet tooth, and if given the choice, will start with the sweet so they're not too full afterwards.

Martabak is a very popular treat. There are two primary varieties, manis or sweet, and telor or egg. The sweet variety is basically a variation on the Dutch panenkoeken. It is a very large pancake, about two inches thick, smoothered in butter, split down the middle and filled with chocolate and crushed peanuts. You can feel your arteries hardening as you eat! The egg variety is something like an omlette wrapped in a thin filo pastry and fried on a griddle. It generally involves any number of fillings using a variety of meats and vegetables. This one is served with a spicy sambal on the side.

Nasi goreng or fried rice, is a staple of the Indonesian diet. If you haven't been to Asia, then you may not be aware that fried rice is considered a breakfast food. The rice, meat and vegetables left-over from the night before are stir-fried together with soy sauce and bumbu/seasonings. The dish is commonly garnished with cucumber and tomato slices and, of course, sambal. A popular variation is called nasi goreng komplit, which is crowned with a fried egg.

There are dozens of snacks that involve packing some meat and/or vegetable inside a ball of sticky rice and then wrapping it in distinctive shapes that tell you what's inside. One common variety is called bacang. The balls are formed into little tetrahedrons, wrapped in banana leaf and then steamed. You can find them at the market strung together in five or ten and make a handy and quick self-contained meal. There's a variety popular in Manado, where the inside of a piece of bamboo is lined with banana leaf, stuffed with sweet sticky rice and then steamed or grilled. There are literally dozens of these kinds of snacks from every area, with a wide variety of fillings and flavors.

Bubur is a classic found all over Asia. It's a porridge made of rice to which any number of meats, vegetables and spices are added. Every region has it's own distinctive recipes. The most common are chicken, peanuts, green onions, coconut, sweet soy sauce, and of course, sambal.

One of my personal favorites is gado-gado, which is a warm salad made with chunks of tofu, cabbage, bean sprouts and various other vegetables, smoothered in a spicy peanut sauce. It is typically served with kerupuk, which is any one of dozens of varieties of fried, crispy wafers that serve the same purpose as dipping chips.

One Indonesian original that is known the world over is, of course, sate, bite-sized pieces of meat on a skewer that are grilled and served with several different sauces. The most common varieties are chicken and goat, but beef can be readily found. depending on the meat, it is served with spicy peanut sauce or sweet woy sauce with chilis and green onions. Just about everywhere you go, you will find men manning the hibachi grill, using coconut husks for fuel, and waving a kipas (a fan made of coconut fibers), smoking up a storm. It is usually served with rice and cucumber slices, and a tall glass of es teh manis Iiced sweet tea) to cool off from the spice. One variety of sate that I have tried, but am not very fond of, is usus ayam, or chicken guts. The liver, gizzard and entrails are snaked up the skewer and then the whole thing is maranated in yellow curry sauce before grilling. Not that the flavor is bad, but entrails have never been my cup of tea.

One of the most popular cuisines is padang, which is named after the region in Sumatra that originated it. The restaurants, called rumah padang, or padang house, are distinctive for having a steeply pitched roof, in the Sumatra style over the main entrance. There are three primary ways of ordering padang food: one is the ubiquitous box lunch that comes complete with meat, vegetable, rice, banana, and green sambal, which have been known to cause medical emergencies; the second is to walk in and order cafeteria-style from the steam table; finally, you can just sit down and within minutes a foot-tall stack of plates with a serving of two of everything they make appearing in front of you. Though slightly more expensive, this last option must be seen to be believed. You are charged by what you eat, and the remainder is dumped back in the pot. I've certainly never seen anything like it. it's kind of like a buffet that comes to you. The food is usually fairly spicy, though the more mainstram houses tone it down a bit. The purists, like me, prefer the original seasoning, which as noted above, strikes fear into the stoutest heart.

Another favorite is pisang goreng, or fried bananas. One must first be aware that there are a dizzing variety of bananas here. By my count, there are at least seven different types. The best for frying, in my opion, are huge, green, knarly looking things that come from Kalimantan/Borneo. They are sliced about an inch thick, smashed flat, battered and deep fried. The pisang goreng kalimantan are generally most favored for the sweet flavor and crunchy texture. The stalls who sell this variety are usually quite busy and the smell fills the street for blocks.

Finally, another ubiquitous favorite is pecel lele. Lele is a small, fresh-water catfish that is often grown in tanks on people's front porches. The fish is normally Ibut not always) gutted, the whole thing lightly battered, and then deep fried. The head and fins are considered special treats. The fins are crispy, like potato chips. Use them to scoop up some (all together now) sambal.

And so we end up back where we began, with dessert. This one is a nice treat on a hot afternoon. It's called es campur or mixed ice. You take shaved ice, add pieces of fruit and flavored gelatin, red beans, a little coconut milk, and top with sweetened condensed milk. Mix is all up and enjoy!

So there's a quick tour of Indonesian food. In a future article, I'll get into some of the more strange and unique things, like cobra blood, bar-b-qued dog, fried bat, and squirrel stew. All of it's pretty good, once you get past the part of picturing what you're eating. There's some interesting fruits and vegetables that take a little getting used to, as well. And what would a gastronomic tour of Indonesia be without talking a little about coffee. After all, 'java' is American slang for the stuff.

Until then...ojo lali mangan e! (That's Javanese for, "Don't forget to ear!")

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