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Can Indonesian Food Go International?

Updated on November 27, 2017
The fiery hot dishes of North Sulawesi cusine
The fiery hot dishes of North Sulawesi cusine
Mixing and matching with nasi rames, a simply but satisfying serving of rice with an array of samplings
Mixing and matching with nasi rames, a simply but satisfying serving of rice with an array of samplings

Getting the Word Out About Indonesian Food

The mention of Indonesia brings many meanings around the world. For those who have never visited the archipelago – Indonesia where? – these are often confused with the identities of other nations in the region, or coloured by terrorist incidents or sensational stories that the media deems worthy of attention.

For the fortunate who have visited Indonesia, the meanings are rich and varied: there is its raw, take-your-breath-away natural beauty; the vibrant spirit of its curious and sociable people; the hurtling pace of change in Jakarta and other major cities in recent years.

And then there is its glorious food, a true lip-smacking melting pot of the peoples of the archipelago and the migrants who have made it their home. Its smorgasbord has something for everybody – from the notorious fiery curies of Sumatra to the “sweeter” (but still highly spiced) dishes of Central Java, the vegetarian temptations of tempeh, tofu and gado-gado, sweet drinks and an array of snacks that might just sate even the greediest gourmand.

While its culinary delights are legendary among those who have experienced them, there is the confounding question on why they are not known around the world. Indonesian restaurants are thin on the ground internationally, and what they dish up is frequently a pale imitation of true Indonesian food. It is time to discover the recipe to share these wonders with the world, and put them on the front burner of international attention for once and for all.

One day, the proof just may be in the perkedel.


Simply Delicious

Sri Owen conducts the goings-on in her Wimbledon kitchen like a chamber orchestra. Her baton is her spatula as she stirs a huge pot of rendang; her lone supporting player is Lara Lee Wood, an enthusiastic London-based Australian chef who is getting in touch with her father’s Indonesian roots through food and weekly cooking sessions at Sri’s; the engaged audience, eagerly anticipating the final movement, is me.

Now in her 80s, Sri is exact about the way the food should be cooked. There is no mincing of words in her instructions to Lara, who dutifully follows them. Sri has made Indonesian food her life’s passion, and in the 1970s and 1980s, through her award-winning cookbooks and standing among the local lifestyle media, brought it increasing prominence in the UK.

Times change, editors move on and Sri, as she is quick to acknowledge, is inevitably slowing down, although she remains justifiably proud of her achievements (she is always quick to acknowledge the considerable contributions of her husband, Roger, to the editing of her writings). She may be passing her baton on to Lara, but the question is why Indonesian food has still not gained more popularity in the UK and around the world.

Along with their Indian curries, Britons now savour their pad thai and laksa, but you are hard pushed to find any Indonesian dishes, except satay (often considered Malaysian) and one-off novelties, in leading supermarkets. Indonesian restaurants are few and far between, and let’s be honest that often it is an inferior version of the original; yes, there is the much trundled out statement that rendang won the designation of “world’s best food” from CNN, and nasi goreng was second, but that was in a Readers’ Facebook survey of 35,000 people who chose to vote, where social media connected Indonesians most likely held a lot of sway (and who really looks to CNN as an authority on food tastes anyway?).

The issue of Indonesian food going international was discussed during the Indonesia Kontemporer (IKON) event in London in October. Academic Michael Hitchcock advocated the promotion of the culinary traditions of the sultanates of Java, the rijstaffel smorgasbord popularised by Dutch colonists as well as the unique Chinese-Indonesian food; self-taught chef Petty Elliot, who has cultivated an extensive following in Indonesia, lamented the lack of knowledge of Indonesia’s mind-boggling array of dishes stretching from the famed Sabang to Merauke; while freelance TV producer Janice Gabriel reminisced about her long and varied experiences producing shows about food in Indonesia, among other places.

It was a lively discussion, deftly handled by moderator Madam Hana Satriyo, and an exchange of ideas from people who clearly love Indonesia. There is validity in Hitchcock’s proposal to follow the late, great Joop Ave’s lead in promoting the luxury of Indonesian traditions – they need to be documented and preserved – but I find myself thinking back to the words of Iwan Tirta, the late batik designer, raconteur and expert on many subjects, including Indonesian food. Over dinner at his house, or at one of the upmarket Indonesian food restaurants where he was a consultant, the Yale-educated Iwan would talk about our mutual love of Indonesian dishes, in all their variety.

He could be intellectually snobbish at times – “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” he would witheringly pronounce of those with delusions of grandeur – and he laughed at comparisons of Indonesian food to high cuisine. No, it was good down-home cooking, and the real deal was to be found in the kitchens of simple homes across the nation. That was not to disparage the versions served up in tony eateries, but he shuddered at them being whipped up into fusion confusion or fancy, and tasteless, imitations. As for rijstaffel, that is a Dutch invention that lead to a confused stare from most Indonesians; there is simple, and simply good, pyramids of dishes at Padang restaurants and the nasi rames that is served up at restaurants and sidewalk stalls all over the islands.

Petty has a point that Indonesian food is amazingly, mind-bogglingly varied. And it must also be said that most Indonesians have only sketchy knowledge of food outside their own regions and the few dishes – rendang, noodles, soto, tempeh, tofu, fried rice, gado-gado – that have gained national prominence. They may have heard of papeda from Maluku, or the tempoyak ingredient from South Sumatra, especially from the many food and travel programs about Indonesia on local TV that have arisen in recent years along with a “yes we can” national pride, but it is unlikely that they would have tasted them, or know how to cook them.

I edited a monthly lifestyle magazine for many years in Jakarta, and food was always the focus of at least one issue a year. Once, we tried to take readers on a culinary journey from Sabang to Merauke in Jakarta, but were hard pressed to find an adequate representation of regional foods, apart from the vaunted cuisines of Padang, North Sulawesi and, occasionally, South Sulawesi; for instance, there were only a couple of Acehnese restaurants and one Papuan restaurant in the foodie heaven of Kelapa Gading neighbourhood. That is no surprise when you think about it; we only know a few Italian or French foods, apart from the internationally famous ones, and even within Britain there are many local specialties that we are probably unaware of.

Because I admired her writing and knowledge, I had also asked Sri to do a regular Letter from London on Indonesian food, and she wrote one on taking Indonesian food international. She believed that the focus should be on several dishes that would suit different tastes – rendang, for sure, Indonesia’s fried chicken or the poached and fried ayam pop of West Sumatra, soto chicken soup, in one or more of its many varieties, a noodle or fried rice dish, gado-gado, a sweet drink or cake (the sweet or savoury martabak pancakes would be sure to go down a treat), among others. Trying to serve up a bit of everything would overwhelm people coming to Indonesian food for the first time, and muddle the message.

I have been a bit of an Indonesian food snob in the past, believing that only Indonesians could cook it properly. That has changed; I have come to admire the efforts of several people, including restaurateur William Wongso and Garuda Indonesia’s Vindex Tengker, himself a chef by training before taking flight for marketing in the national flag carrier, to spread the word about Indonesian food abroad, especially in teaching young foreign chefs about how to cook it right. Those chefs will be the ambassadors in kitchens around the world, transferring their knowledge to others. There is also Theodora Hurustiati, whose story I found by chance in 2011, when she was the runner-up in a major TV cooking contest in Italy; the native of Jakarta lives there with her Italian husband. She continues to promote Indonesian food around Italy and Europe.

Upon reflection, I realise that Indonesian cooking can be taught to others, wherever they come from. I draw on my own experience as a 17-year-old high school exchange student in West Sumatra, ground zero for great Padang cuisine. I could not speak a word of Indonesian when I arrived, but I was fortunate that my father’s South African background, and my tasting of bobotie (itself a Cape Malay derivation from the Indonesian archipelago) and curries had given me a taste for spices and chili that my other peers lacked. Every afternoon, after returning from school, I tucked into the rendang, perkedel (again, I had eaten frikadel as a child) and dendeng at the table, under the watchful eye of the family housekeeper and cook, Tari. She was a stout, illiterate woman from Java who had only moved to Padang with my host family in her 20s, but her food was something to write home about (and I did). She had carefully studied how to cook rendang – including the many hours of stirring needed to produce the caramel-like, heady-tasting meat – and it became famed among the well-heeled community of entrepreneurs, academics and doctors of my host family.

Indonesian food may be one of the world’s best-kept culinary secrets, and it should rightfully be winning friends and influencing people, succeeding in the bid to “mengharumkan nama bangsa”. There is no reason for it not to; once difficult to obtain ingredients are widely available in the West, whether in Asian groceries or online, and the efforts are under way to teach others to cook it well. Perhaps one day it will become commonplace to hear, uttered at the office water dispenser or over the groans and moans at the fitness centre, “I made a great rendang last night …”


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