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.