October 24, 2009


"Kue Serabi" is a traditional Indonesian snack with many regional variations, but this is how I remember, and like, it best. The 'pancake' batter is made from rice flour and coconut milk and flavored with pandan. Then it's drenched with a thin syrup of gula jawa (palm sugar) and coconut milk. As with many 'jajanan pasar' (market goodies/snacks), most people don't make them at home, but simply buy these tasty pancakes from vendors.

October 13, 2009

Out of desperation...

I made my own mayonnaise not because I wanted to broaden my culinary horizon. I made it because I was desperate.

When I was living in the United States, mayo was another staple in the kitchen. There was always a store-bought jar in the fridge. I love mayo on bread, either as a solo spread or as the key element to a satisfyingly toothsome turkey sandwich. Mayo was very affordable, ubiquitous and available in many different brands, making it easy to be taken for granted.

But when I went back to live in Jakarta in early 2008, it was a different story. I was happy to find at least one American brand of mayo (Kraft) in some supermarkets (though not a single sighting of my favorite: Best Foods/Hellmann's). Then about the middle of the year, I found out even that had completely disappeared from the stores. I searched everywhere. Even the most 'exclusive' chains of supermarkets that specialize in imported goods didn't have it. I heard something about the Indonesian government passing a ban on certain kinds of imported foods (another 'victim' was the good ol' Oscar Meyer bacon... *hiks*). The only mayo available here now are the domestic brands, plus a few imported ones from Japan and Korea. I found them to be artificial tasting, cloyingly sweet and/or tart and thin textured (apparently this is the type of mayo that Indonesians/Asians prefer).

I couldn't stand them. At this point I can no longer just 'go buy' the mayo of my preference in any store!

So out of reach now...

I had read and watched from many different sources that homemade mayonnaise was (supposedly) easy to make and its taste was superior than any store-bought stuff. But somehow the prospect of making my own mayo seemed so intimidating. There's no 'in-between' results: you either end up with a deliciously creamy concoction, or just a runny, 'broken' mess.

Mayonnaise is basically an emulsion of ingredients easily found in any kitchen: egg yolks, cooking oil, lemon juice/vinegar, salt. You can vary the flavors by adding seasonings such as garlic, herbs, white wine, mustards, etc.

I settled on using Michael Ruhlman's mayo recipe because I already had all the ingredients and also because he's one of my favorite food writers (the 'trust' factor is important to me :) ). In place of the stated vegetable oil, I used palm oil (the most common cooking oil in Indonesia and the only one I had at hand, and it's 'vegetable', right?). Well, this proved to be a significant factor, but more on that later. Most of the other recipes require mustard or white wine, I had neither one and I didn't want to buy a jar/bottle just to use a few tablespoons of each. And because I was still a bit spooked by the hand-whipping technique, I decided to use the immersion/stick blender, 'learning' how to do it via (what else?) a YouTube video.

It looked simple enough in the video: dump all the ingredients in a tall container, dip the blender to the bottom, whip it up and voilà: mayo in under one minute!

Not in my case. I whipped and whipped, but it just wasn't happening. It never changed from a runny, 'broken' mess. (I tweeted Ruhlman about using a stick blender for his recipe, he actually answered me back and said there shouldn't be a problem. I'm not sure what went wrong, maybe the container wasn't narrow enough? Too much oil?)

Not accepting defeat, several hours later I decided to try again. This time I faced my 'fear' and did it manually: a balloon whisk powered by my arm. (The photos that accompanied the recipe on Ruhlman's blog egged me on. Ha.). Starting with the yolk, lemon juice and salt, I whipped as fast as I could, then added the oil bit by bit. And less than 10 minutes later, I successfully whipped up my first ever batch of homemade mayo! It was thick, smooth and creamy, with just enough tang from the lemon juice.

My (slightly) sore arm was worth it.

I immediately smeared some on a piece of bread and savored every bite. Finally.

I stored the rest in the fridge as I eagerly looked forward to enjoy my mayo for many more days ahead.

But the next morning when I took it out, what greeted me was a sad, solid lump. Just like cold butter. I tried spreading it on bread, but the thawed mayo just separated into a yucky, oily smear.

Okay, remember the palm oil? I suspected it was the culprit and after I did some Googling, my suspicion was confirmed: palm oil solidifies in the fridge, thus mayo made from it will also. (I never stored palm oil in the fridge, I didn't know it would congeal like that!).

Anyway, I'm not too disappointed because I gained a new culinary technique (and confidence) out of this. Next time I'll make sure to use the right oil(s), and maybe try to make some aïoli... mmmmm....

PS: Just as I was finishing this post, this article on Serious Eats caught my attention: mayo from animal fat! Baconnaise, anyone? (Ahhh, but I have to find great bacon first! It's not an easy task here ... Or should I make my own bacon? Maybe I'll tweet Ruhlman again, this time for tips on curing bacon in the humid tropics...).

August 28, 2009

Es Campur - the quintessential Indonesian 'slushy' dessert

"Mixed Ice/Slushy" is the literal, albeit vague, translation of Es Campur. Its toppings (hmm, they're actually buried under the shaved iced... anyway) typically include cubes of smooth black grass jelly (cincau), slices of chewy atap/aren fruit (kolang-kaling), sweet jackfruit, creamy avocado and soft young coconut flesh. Chunks of tape singkong (fermented boiled cassava) offer some funky and unusual element into the mix, but a true Es Campur won't be complete without it.

Ice is shaved on top of these until it grows into a small hill, then it's finished off with drizzles of sweetened condensed milk and neon-pink syrup that gives Es Campur its signature color.

Now, dig in! Start by carefully crushing into the icy mound with a spoon and slowly mix everything. The distinct tastes and textures of the toppings, all washed down with the sweet milky 'slush', are what makes eating Es Campur so enjoyable.

My favorite vendor of this slushy goodness is called Sinar Garut (yes, it has 'franchises' all over Jakarta, but beware of impostors!). A bowl costs 9000 rupiahs, or slightly under US$1, and it comes in a portion generous enough for two to split as a post-meal dessert.

Or, just for one as a meal... *ehm*.

July 16, 2009

Martabak Manis (Sweet Martabak)

My favorite: cheese-filled martabak manis.

I'm not sure of the proper English translation, but as you can see, martabak manis* resembles a super-thick pancake/crepe with fillings. But that description doesn't really do it justice.

Hardly anyone here makes it at home, people simply buy them from martabak vendors. It's always made to order and the martabak vendor begins by pouring the batter onto a special martabak cast-iron pan. The thick batter has yeast and also coconut milk that contributes to its richness. The cooked 'pancake' is thick, chewy and toothsome ... and ready to receive one or more delicious fillings!

Top inset : butter up!
Main photo and bottom inset : a thick blanket of shredded cheese.

While it's still hot off the pan, the vendor slathers lots of butter on the pockmarked side (where it immediately melts into the nooks and crannies) and then he heaps on the filling(s) of your choice: grated cheese, meisjes (chocolate sprinkles), crushed peanuts, toasted sesame seed, sliced bananas, or even durian! (I never tried the one with durian, I think it's overkill on an already rich snack).

Next, everything gets generously coated with ribbons of sweetened condensed milk. Then the martabak is folded in half, more butter is smeared on the outside, and then it's cut into serving pieces.

And there you go: a totally indulgent sweet snack (and definitely not for those on a diet) in less than 10 minutes. Happy tastebuds, greasy fingers and chins dribbled with melted butter are guaranteed!

*another very popular snack here called Martabak Telor/Martabak Asin is a totally different dish in how it's cooked, its ingredients and flavors (telor = egg, asin = salty). But it's very delicious as well. Maybe next time...

April 8, 2009

Dining in a museum (sort of...)

I never intended to write a review when I went to Lara Djonggrang.

My husband and I recently went there on a spur of the moment. We happened to be in the neighborhood during the evening rush hour and we wanted to wait out the congested traffic by stopping for dinner first. At first my husband suggested a noodle place located on the same street, but as we were approaching it we changed our mind at the last minute.

The unique thematic décor of Lara Djonggrang already began at its parking lot. The mood was immediately set by a gnarly, ancient-looking beringin (banyan) tree of enormous girth that stood like a sentry by the entrance. Its long-reaching branches spread over most of the lot and giant multi-colored lanterns along with the banyan's aerial roots dangled down from this living green canopy.

The non-smoking dining area we were ushered into was dimly lit, but we could still see numerous antique Indonesian artworks on the walls and various pedestals all around the room. There were enormous stone carvings and wooden statues, wayang puppets and traditional paintings. Even some of the furnitures could be considered carved artworks (I tried moving/lifting a chair, boy, it was hefty!). Other sections of the restaurants were similarly decorated. Votive candles were placed everywhere, on tables and footpaths, and floated on the indoor ponds, providing an intimate vibe and intensifying the mystical feel at the same time.

This piece was set right outside the window,
it was over one meter high.

As I sat down and absorbed all this, the overall impression was like entering a museum of Indonesian antiquities to have dinner in it, which was not surprising given the fact that the restaurant is named after a mythical Javanese princess who was turned into stone by a spurned suitor. The legend of Lara Djonggrang was literally 'carved in stone' and immortalized by a complex of ancient Hindu temples (candi) in Prambanan, Central Java. The restaurant's décor was very evocative of that whole mystical atmosphere (I even smelled a whiff of incense when I stepped through the door!).

Okay, now to the food itself! The menu was quite extensive with a wide selection of seafood, beef, poultry and vegetables prepared in traditional Indonesian ways. The cuisine was rather loftily described as 'Imperial Indonesian', even though there were also more pedestrian fares like tempeh and tahu. We both decided to order out of a section titled Nasi-nasi Kepulauan (Rice Platters of the Islands) where each 'platter' is named after a region of the Indonesian archipelago and comes complete with rice and a slew of side dishes from that region. I chose the Balinese rice platter and my husband the Padang (West Sumatra) platter. Other regional platters included those from Central Java, West Java, Manado, etc., each with its respective unique ethnic side dishes.

When our orders came I was quite impressed. I was expecting the rice platter to be served in the usual 'nasi campur' (mixed rice) way: a heap of steamed rice crowded by a variety of side dishes, all plopped on a single plate. But not here: the waiter first set down the rice which had been molded into the shape of Arjuna's head (so said our waiter. I thought it was an island at first and I was trying to identify it.). Even the actual plate itself wasn't just your typical plain restaurant-white: it was an oversized ceramic piece with ornamental designs.

Then our server returned with an even bigger serving platter containing bowls filled with the side dishes. I counted them: there were seven side dishes for each order, and that's not even including a serving of crispy beef cracklings for each of us. So between the two of us, we were able to sample fourteen separate dishes!

The side dishes of the Balinese Rice Platter

I loved the Balinese sambal matah (I'm a sucker for all manners of sambal) with its fragrant slivers of lemongrass. The famous Balinese duck specialty, Bebek Betutu, was falling-off-the-bones tender and thoroughly marinated by its spiced sauce. The vegetable and squid (or octopus?) dishes were okay, but not memorable. I also had a taste of ikan balado (fish in chilli sauce) and beef rendang from my husband's platter. Both were nicely spiced, but I noticed the level of 'heat' of these dishes (even the chilli-laden sambal) was far below normal. I'll go into my theory of why this is so later.

Crispy deep-fried beef skins/cracklings

A serving of serundeng (a condiment made of deep-fried grated coconut, spices and peanuts) was included as a side dish in both orders. I love serundeng, for it gives steamed rice and whatever dish it's sprinkled on an extra crunchy, savory kick. And for whatever reason, the serundeng from my husband's Padang platter also included salted ikan teri.

If you come for the first time to Lara Djonggrang like we did, I highly recommend ordering one of the Rice Platters. It gives you an opportunity to try a variety of dishes at once without over ordering. And it's quite a huge serving, too, I couldn't even finish mine. Moreover, it's surprisingly economical: our rice platter only cost Rp.68,000 each (about US$6 at the time of this writing), not including the 10% tax and 5% gratuity charges. As a matter of fact, most of the items on the menu were moderately priced and not as expensive as we first thought, given the upscale setting.

So what's the bottom line? Lara Djonggrang is truly one of the most unique and memorable restaurant I had ever dined in, but it's based on the overwhelmingly thematic fit-for-a-museum décor and detailed, above-the-ordinary food presentation. That's also why I decided to write this 'review'.

The food itself is good and authentic, but I've had better.

I also made an interesting observation while dining there: while the restaurant wasn't full because it was a weeknight, I noticed that my husband and I were practically the only exclusively Indonesian customers there. All the other tables were made up of foreigners (even when there were other Indonesians, the others in their party were non-Indonesians). There was even a Caucasian lady who came into the dining room with a little blond girl, talking to each other in American accent (which made me miss southern California even more...).

Reading other reviews, foreigners seemed to fall head-over-heels over the 'luxurious romance' evoked by the setting (... romance? eh?). Or maybe it's the exotic allure of another ancient culture that appealed to them. As an Indonesian however, I have my own impression: it's a bit spooky. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the depth and breadth of culture represented there, but just not as a background for dining.

So if you have foreign/non-Indonesian friends to impress and want to treat them to authentic Indonesian food without worrying that it could give them diarrhea (either from questionable hygiene or overly-spicy-food), take them to Lara Djonggrang where they'll be steeped in ancient Indonesian culture unlike in any other restaurants.

As we walked to our car, I couldn't help but gawk again at the banyan branches soaring high overhead with its pretty lanterns and tentacle-like roots. I quipped to my husband, "If there's one word to describe this place, it's atmospheric."

Jl. Teuku Cik Di Tiro 4
Jakarta Pusat
+62 (21) 315-3252

April 4, 2009

Goat Feet Soup

Sometimes I'm bemused by the hooplas surrounding the seemingly 'groundbreaking' trend of cooking with offals or 'variety meats' by noted chefs or restaurants in America. The simple fact is, in many other countries, including Indonesia, utilizing the animal from 'head to toe' as food is a normal part of everyday cooking (and it makes a lot of economical sense!).

Sop Kaki Kambing (Goat Feet Soup) is a prime example of this don't-waste-any-part cooking philosophy. Yes, the goat's feet (hooves intact) are parts of the ingredients, as well as its various innards and other organs (known collectively here as jerohan), as you can see from the photos below.

Recently my husband and I went with a couple of friends to try one of the most famous Sop Kaki Kambing in Jakarta. As with many other well-known food establishments in this city, 'Sop Kaki Kambing Dudung Roxy' is not a dine-in restaurant, but rather a roadside food stall of the amigos (agak minggir got sedikit) dining style. From what I've heard, this place has been very popular for decades, with the grown children of the original 'pak Dudung' now running the operation. (Roxy is the name of the neighborhood where it's located).

Upon entering the tent we saw a long table lined with large bowls containing miscellaneous goat parts. All of these 'parts' have been pre-cooked, with the exception of one organ (you'll see it later). Each of us was given an empty bowl and down the line we went picking and choosing the parts on our own (actually my husband did, I opted for something else).

A closer look at the contents of one bowl: babat or tripe/stomach lining (the grayish stuff on the lower left) and various segments of usus or intestines.

What my husband chose: a leg/foot (mostly bone and tendons) and a hoof (skin on) ... and the delicacy better known here with the nickname of 'torpedo' (that creamy pink blob on the upper right): goat's testis. He went on to add other parts, mostly gristly and bony, which I couldn't identify...

He then gave his filled bowl to this guy, who chopped up everything before cooking them briefly in a soup base.

The completed soup: the chopped parts were now swimming in a savory broth made of thin coconut milk and spices, then sprinkled with thinly sliced scallions, chunks of fresh tomatoes, crispy deep fried shallots and emping belinjo (padi oats crackers). Hot steamed rice and various condiments (house sambal, pickled veggies, sweet soy sauce, lime wedges) rounded off the meal.

I did have a taste of my husband's soup, including a tiny bite of the 'torpedo' (I gave the rest back to him...) and a chunk of chewy gristle with tiny fragmented bones (which I also returned to his bowl). He (and our friends) seemed to enjoy this very textural experience for a meal, but I simply couldn't. Gnawing and chewing my way through these goat parts isn't my definition of a good time (but I somehow love picking apart and devouring a whole fish down to the bone... but that's another story).

As I mentioned above, I opted for another dish: Soto Betawi, essentially the same with Sop Kaki Kambing, but it's made with beef instead of goat. I had mine made with regular beef cuts and chunks of tendon, although I could also have lungs, hearts, etc.

Dudung Roxy also serves other dishes using goat meat such as satay (nicely charred, bathed in peanut sauce and sweet soy sauce... delicious!) and fried rice, but for most Jakartans, that name is synonymous with Sop Kaki Kambing.

The scene immediately outside the tent, the street is also lined with other food stalls offering their take on Sop Kaki Kambing!

February 24, 2009

A fish tale

One of the earliest and most enduring memories from my childhood is our family's frequent trips to a Sundanese/West Javanese restaurant just outside Jakarta. The dining area was on a traditional wooden pavilion built over a small lake, accessible by a bridge from the shore. But even before we got to the bridge, we'd pass a row of large ponds to choose our soon-to-be-lunch from the fish still swimming in there. A restaurant employee would then scoop the ones we pointed out and bring them to the kitchen to be cooked to our liking (deep fried or grilled). Lunch selected, we'd then walk across the bridge and be seated.

Our order would come with plenty of hot steamed rice, a plate of lalapan (raw vegetables such as cabbage, sliced cucumbers and kemangi/holy basil leaves) and freshly made sambal bajak (with the pungent terasi or fermented shrimp paste as a main ingredient) served on its cobek (stone mortar and pestle). Something about the gentle, cool breeze that flowed through unhindered by the 'wall'-less pavilion, the sound of water rippling across the lake and leaves rustling up in the trees, combined with the delicious aromas of the food would make all of us absolutely ravenous. Talk about the feast of the senses! Then we'd all dig in... no, make that 'attacked' the meal spread before us. No utensils needed here, everybody used their fingers, tearing into the fish, scooping it up with a mouthful of rice and a dab of sambal.

The fish... oh, the fish! It was definitely the star of the meal. Each one was left whole, only cleaned of its guts and scales. We'd compete for the skin, crispy and salty from being deep-fried, or charred and smoky from the charcoal fire. The flesh underneath was sweet, moist and succulent.

A grilled tilapia smothered with the hot and spicy Manadonese bumbu rica.

I really missed this kind of meal when I was living in Los Angeles. Seafood dining in American restaurants didn't hold much appeal to me. The seafood section in American supermarkets seemed very anemic and sterile with their uninspiring sliced fillets and fish 'steaks', in forms so far removed from the original creatures. There was so much of the fish that went to waste just to get a nice chunk of fillet!

Looking back, I don't think in all my years in America I had ever bought a whole fish from an American supermarket. It had always been the Asian/Chinese markets that had the best quality and selection of fresh (even live) seafood in town. The seafood counter there was always the most crowded as customers chose from row upon row of glistening tilapia, bonito, eel, yellow tail, etc., not to mentions from the live ones that were still swimming in large tanks. (Another bonus of Asian supermarket seafood counter: you can have your fish deep-fried for free! We would race home as its enticing aroma filled the car.).

While we often ordered fish in Chinese restaurants, it was almost impossible to find charcoal-grilled ones on the menu. Fish in Chinese cuisine are mostly steamed, deep-fried or stir-fried with other ingredients, never grilled.

There was one highlight of 'feasting on fish' while I lived in California: my husband and I and a couple of friends went fishing from the Huntington Beach Pier when I was about six months pregnant with our first child. It was a beautiful summer day and it got much better because after just a few hours of fishing, we caught over twenty bonitos, each about as long as a forearm (just in case you're wondering, yes, I caught a few also! I was a pregnant fisherwoman! Oh, by the way, we were warned by a few older ladies at church that it was verboten for the husband of an expectant woman to go fishing, because the child would be born very ugly. Huh? We happily ignored that. Not only did my husband go fishing a few times during my pregnancy, I sometimes tagged along too! As for our baby? He's one handsome little boy, thankyouverymuch!). Anyway, I digress. It was just about lunchtime when we left the pier with our bounty from the Pacific Ocean, so when we got home we immediately went to work to clean and broil a few of those beautiful bonitos (which are related to tuna and mackerel).

That was a superbly delicious lunch, to say the least. Those critters were still swimming in the ocean a couple of hours before that! The freshness was unbeatable.

But that kind of meal was very far and few in between in all my days of living in America.

So ever since we returned to Jakarta about a year ago, one of the things I've often indulged in is grilled whole fish. A medium-size fish weighing less than a pound (perfect for two people, or just me when I'm particularly hungry) is left whole or butterflied (with head and tail intact), then cooked to perfection over a charcoal fire. The best seasoning is usually the simplest: salt and lime juice, but there's always the additional sambal and ubiquitous kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) served on the side to spice things up.

A butterflied and grilled kwe fish with a simple sambal
made of sweet soy sauce, chopped chilies and shallots.

Here in Jakarta enjoying fish or seafood in restaurants is very affordable compared to southern California. One grilled baronang (a local fish related to perch) at one of our favorite seafood 'tent' restaurants here costs about Rp.40,ooo (less than US$4 at the time of this writing). Every time my husband and I eat there, our entire meal would cost only about Rp.100,000 (less than US$10).

When it comes to grilled fish, I devour it clean down to the bones. I save the head for last (a fish head is a terrible thing to waste!), slowly picking it apart and coaxing each savory bit from every nook and cranny. And as I did in my childhood, the only utensils I use are my fingers.

I'd stop only when the fish is reduced to a messy pile of bones on the plate.

February 6, 2009

Bone marrow porridge

Okay, okay... it's not actually the stuff you extract from an animal's bone, but a dessert named so because of its rich, melt-in-your-mouth texture that resembles cooked bone marrow (sumsum in Indonesian).

Bubur sumsum can be easily made at home from rice flour, coconut milk, sugar and salt, but more often than not, people simply buy it from the bubur sumsum vendor that hawks his stuff around the neighborhood (which is how I got this bowlful of goodies).

At its most basic, this white 'porridge' is eaten warm, topped with a sauce of thinned coconut milk or a syrup made from palm sugar. Others, like the street vendor I bought it from, treat the soft snowy mounds as a canvas for a myriad of toppings, as pictured above. Each of the 'topping' is also a dessert on their own terms: there are the yolk-like orbs of chewy biji salak (their characteristic taste and orange hue comes from a dough made mostly of yam or sweet potato), a spoonful of bubur ketan/pulut hitam (black glutinous rice porridge) and a smattering of pink tapioca pearls.

This was truly a comforting (and filling) dessert, perfect for a cool and rainy day!

If you'd like to make your own Bubur Sumsum, click here for a recipe, courtesy of Zara.

February 5, 2009


When people ask me which cuisine I like best, my answer is Manadonese (Italian is second). Even my 20+ years of living in the United States couldn't erase that. Both of my parents came from Manado, a city on the northern tip of Sulawesi, which is known for its beautiful girls (ehm) and spicy, hot food. Although my siblings and I were all born and raised in Jakarta (on the island of Java), we grew up eating all types of dishes redolent of many herbs, spices and chilies -- the hallmark of Manadonese cooking.

Even if there was no spicy dish on the table on a particular meal, at the very least one type of condiment was always present: sambal (chili sauce) or, as they call it in Manado, dabu-dabu. And there are as many versions of sambal or dabu-dabu as there are cooks.

The sambal on the right is commonly known 'bumbu rica',
another Manadonese specialty.

Here's how I do the most simple, yet the most refreshing, of them all: dabu-dabu lilang. A meal of hot steamed rice, grilled or deep-fried fish (flavorful ones such as tuna, bonito and tilapia) and this piquant dabu-dabu is one of the best in my book!

Dabu-dabu Lilang

2 tomatoes (such as Roma), diced
3-4 large shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
(or you can substitute 1 small onion for the shallots, peeled and diced)
as few or as many Thai bird chilies as you can handle, sliced thinly
juice of 1 lime

In a bowl, mix the tomatoes, shallots/onion, chilies and lime juice. Salt to taste. Mix in just enough sugar (start with a very small amount: just a pinch, then add more if needed) to take a bit off the edge of the sourness of the lime (it's not supposed to be sweet!). You can use this right away, or as I prefer it, let it sit for at least 15 minutes to let the juices from shallots/onions and tomatoes seep out and meld with that of the lime.

This yields a small bowl of dabu-dabu. This recipe is very flexible, you can multiply the amount as needed. If there's any leftover, it will keep for a few days, covered and refrigerated.

Those who are familiar with Mexican food will say it's very similar to pico de gallo. It is, except for the cilantro!

January 15, 2009

Kangkung and Papaya Blossoms

I don't remember ever eating the buds and blossoms of papaya when I was growing up in Jakarta. And I know for sure I never ate them while I was living in the United States (are they even available there?). But since returning to Indonesia a year ago, it's one more 'vegetable' I have fallen in love with.

Papayas are in abundance here. The ripe fruit is lusciously sweet, the green (unripe) one has a mild taste and is pleasantly crunchy, often used in fruit salads and spicy pickles. But the leaves, buds and blossoms, which are used in vegetable dishes, are a contrast in flavor: they're bitter. The bitterness, however, can be scaled back by boiling those parts before cooking them with the other ingredients.

Below is my favorite way to cook (and eat) papaya blossoms: the Manadonese style (which means it's hot and spicy)! If you live where papaya blossoms or kangkung are not available, don't despair (see my note after the recipe). This recipe is more about technique, actually: vegetables stir-fried in garlic and a bit of cooking oil. You just need to sauté the greens until wilted. This cooking method is simple, quick and versatile, used not only in Indonesian cooking, but also in many other Asian cuisines.

Manado-style Kangkung and Papaya Blossoms
serves 4 as a side dish

A large bunch of kangkung*
A large handful of papaya buds and blossoms (more or less, depending on your preference for bitter greens)
2 garlic cloves (more if you want), finely chopped
4-5 red chilies, thinly sliced on an angle
[if you want it really spicy, you can add a few chopped Thai/bird's eye chilies)
cooking oil
salt and pepper

First, clean the greens. Rinse the kangkung well and drain the excess water. Using your hands, scissors or knife, pluck/cut the leaves from the stems, but also include the cut green stems until about 5 cm below the leaves, they're still delicious and provide a nice crunch. Discard the lower stems. The prepped kangkung may look like a lot, but they'll cook down considerably.

Rinse and drain the buds (which look like short, light green Q-tips) and blossoms, discarding any hard stems. If you like very bitter greens, you can leave them as is. If not, you can cut back on the bitterness by boiling these (not the kangkung!) in water over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Drain well.

Heat a wok or sauté pan on high heat and swirl 2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil, making sure you coat all the surface. Sauté the garlic and chillies in the hot oil, stirring all the time. When the garlic is fragrant, but not yet browned, mix in the boiled (or raw, if you prefer) buds and blossoms. Stir for about 30 seconds. Then stir in the kangkung, working in batches if you need (waiting for the leaves in the pan to wilt, then adding the next handful, and on until all the kangkung is in the pan). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Take off the heat as soon as all the kangkung is wilted but still retains its green color. Don't overcook it. Serve immediately over hot steamed rice.

*Note: in southern California, kangkung (where it's labeled ong choy, water spinach or water convolvulus) is widely available at most Asian supermarkets. I don't know its availability in other parts of the United States (or other non-Asian countries). If neither papaya blossoms or kangkung is available, you can try substituting them with other dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collard greens, Chinese brocolli (gai lan/kai lan), bok choy, etc.

January 5, 2009

Hola, amigos!

No, this post isn't about Spanish or Mexican cooking. Although it's the Spanish word for 'friends', I learned a new meaning for amigos when I moved back to Jakarta, and it has nothing to do with friendship.

AMIGOS here stands for "Agak MInggir GOt Sedikit", loosely translated as "off to the side of the road, near the sewer". It aptly describes the setting of most street food 'establishments' that can be found in every part and neighborhood of Jakarta. These ubiquitous open-air food stalls usually go up in the evening (though some are also open in the daytime), erected on parking lots or other unoccupied corners or sidewalks as the sun goes down each day. The locations aren't exactly prime real estate: there's usually an open sewer/drainage (got) nearby, presumably to expedite cleaning up. They're nothing more than an open, portable kitchen, with tents on poles covering a cluster of rickety folding tables and plastic stools that have seen much better and cleaner days.

If you're a stickler for hygiene, this won't be your cup of tea. These amigos dives will definitely give any restaurant inspectors the heebie-jeebies. (Brings to mind the scene from Ratatouille when the Parisian food inspector unexpectedly walked into the kitchen and found hundreds of rodents staring back at him. Well, it's not that bad, but you get the picture). Food safety health code? (never heard of 'em!) Keeping food at safe temperatures? (huh? Note: although most dishes are cooked to order) Kamikaze flies the size of your thumbnail? (ambiance!) And I also find that any food stall worth its reputation will have a few wild cats slinking through the table legs (and yours), waiting for scraps.

There's not much for atmosphere (unless you count the noise and the exhaust fumes of passing vehicles and cigarette smokes from other diners as so), but that's not why people still flock to these places. And don't be mistaken, their customers come from every level of society: from those who could only afford to eat out at these stalls' rock-bottom prices, to the ones who drove up in their latest, newest luxury cars.

One of the best sop buntut (oxtail soup) we ever tasted
is served at a stall in Sunter, North Jakarta.
A complete meal consisting of this bowl of steaming, fragrant broth
full of falling-off-the-bones meat, a plate of rice
and a glass of tea cost about Rp.32.000 (~US$3).
It would cost at least twice that in a restaurant.

People come because some of Jakarta's best foods are served in these food stalls and they get the most bang for their rupiah. They come here simply for the food, at prices stripped of many overhead costs of proper dine-in restaurants, where similar meals can cost about twice as much, if not more. Most stalls specialize in one type of dish or meal: ie. sop buntut (ox-tail soup) only, or just nasi uduk (coconut rice complete with side dishes), or seafood, nasi goreng (fried rice), es campur (shaved iced over mixed fruit), satay, roti bakar (grilled sandwiches), etc. But if you want variety in your meal, it's no problem either, because there are usually many other stalls nearby, so you can hop from one to another, or simply have the other vendor bring your order to your table.

Sate ayam (chicken satay) with peanut sauce, ten skewers for Rp.8000
(about US$0.80 ... no, it's not a typo)

So if you can get over the 'ick' factor of eating out amigos style, and there are plenty of 'ick' if you are not familiar with it, there is truly a world of food to discover in the nooks and crannies of this city. In fact, street food was just about the only thing I missed about Jakarta during all my years living in Los Angeles, which, despite being world-famous for many other things, doesn't have any street-food scene to boast about. The closest thing there would be the food carts at seasonal county fairs, but then those 'street' grubs aren't exactly easy on the wallet either (five bucks for a plate of funnel cake? Gimme a break! My vote for cheap 'street' food in LA goes to the $1.50 quarter-pound hot dog at Costco, and that already includes as much soda as you can drink! Anyway... back to the subject).

Beyond the obvious economical benefits of eating out amigos style here, there's a more ingrained reason: it has been a part of the fabric of life and culture for as long as anybody can remember. The simple make-shift tents are as much a part of Jakarta's dining scene as the newer, cleaner, glitzier restaurants. I simply can't imagine living and eating in Jakarta without them. So as far as food goes, I have the best of both worlds.