Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Islands of Indulgence

Tonight’s long awaited meal comes from the Southeastern Asian archipelago of Indonesia. My friends Ben and Jenni both had the amazing opportunity to live in Indonesia. Their parents are brave missionaries in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. A lot of tonight’s meal was inspired by Ben’s descriptions of some of his favorite foods that he has missed since he had to move back to the US for college. He has been telling me that I should cook Indonesia for months now, but I wanted to wait until I had enough time and the right ingredients to do it justice. Thankfully, right before spring break the head chef at the cafeteria I work in asked me if I wanted any lemongrass. It was the long desired ingredient that I had been waiting for but could never get my hands on! This happened to come about right before spring break when I knew I would have enough time to put together my Indonesian meal without getting too concerned about falling behind on homework. The stage was set for success. All I had left to do was recreate the dishes I had been drooling over for months.


Before I go into the cuisine of Indonesia and my culinary endeavors, I should probably share a bit more about the country and its people. One thing I didn’t know was that Indnesia is the fourth most populated country in the world. Its 252 million people live on 922 of the country’s 18,307 islands. (Wow! That’s a lot of islands!) The 742 languages spoken are represented by 300 different ethnic groups. The majority of the people are Javanese, and they control most of the politics, cuisine, and culture of Indonesia. I could go on and on about all the diferent aspects of Indonesia, but it would take me all day. From the island of Bali with its unique heritage and culture to the capital city of Jakarta to the complex and ritualistic Sundanese wedding ceremony, Indonesia is definitely not devoid of culture or tradition.

Indonesian food…… For my menu tonight, I wanted to go all out and try everything. Ben had pretty much convinced me to spend two whole nights on Indonesia, but I’ll never get through all the countries if I start cooking multiple meals from each one. I had to narrow down my choices to the best menu. I gave Ben two options, and he picked the one that he thought was the best and most traditional. The dishes are gado-gado which I have been dying to have since my mom and I first sampled it at an Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam two years ago, lontong which represents the staple of rice always present on the Indonesian table, your traditional chicken satay aka sate ayam, the necessary sambal kacang peanut sauce for the gado-gado and sate, soto ayam which Ben claimed was his favorite food on earth, and the famous and tedious beef rendang.

I first tried gado-gado back when my mom and I traveled to Amsterdam. Indonesia was a past colony of the Netherlands, and the influence of Indonesian cuisine has crossed over the many miles to reach the small European country. I had heard about Amsterdam's great Indonesian food, and wanted to try it out. Neither my mom nor I had ever had Indonesian food before, so we decided to try the rice table, or rijsttafel. The actual meal is a Dutch invention, but the dishes are Indonesian in origin. Rice tables incorporate a bunch of different Indonesian dishes that vary in taste, color, texture, and cooking methods. My favorite dish on the rice table was the gado-gado, a salad of blanched veggies topped with a decadent peanut sauce. I was so excited to finally get to recreate my meal. Gado-gado literally means mix-mix, and that's exactly what it should be- a mixture of everything yummy on earth!

1 small head of cabbage, shredded
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
a handful of string beans
1 red potato
1 cup mung bean sprouts
romaine, Chinese cabbage, or other leafy greens
sambal kacang

Optional garnishes:
tomato wedges
cucumber slices
boiled eggs
karup (prawn crackers)
fried tofu

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Have another bowl filled with cold water ready to dunk your vegetables in after blanching them. First boil the cabbage for 1-2 minutes until crisp tender. Dunk it in the cold water and drain well. Arrange the romaine or other leafy greens on a large serving plate with the cabbage in the center. Next boil the carrots and string beans separately for 1-2 minutes each and repeat the dunking and draining process. Arrange them scattered about the top of the salad or in individual sections. Cook the potato for about 8-10 minutes. Allow it to cool before peeling and slicing into ¼” thick disks. Finally, blanch the mung bean sprouts for about 45 seconds. Dunk them in the cool water, rinse, and arrange them on top of your salad along with the potatoes. Garnish with your desired garnishes and douse heavily with some delicious sambal kacang. You can enjoy gado
gado warm, at room temperature, or cooled.

A popular saying in Indonesia is if you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten. Rice is their staple, and is the center of their meal. All of the other dishes build off its foundation. I now know why. Indonesian food is pretty flavorful and spicy. You need the mellow and spice-cutting properties of the rice to combat all the different tastes exploding in your mouth from the side dishes. Lontong is a compressed rice cylinder boiled inside of a banana leaf. I don’t have banana leaves growing outside my apartment, so I had to sub tinfoil. You can eat lontong with peanut sauce covered dishes like gado-gado or soups and curries with a coconut base like rendang and soto ayam. Lontong is served cut into disks chilled or at room temperature.


1 cup cooked rice (I used jasmine rice.)

Form the hot rice into a log on the edge of a rectangle of tinfoil. Roll the tinfoil around the rice so that it is tightly compressed. Twist the ends to seal and refrigerate overnight. The next day, cut the log into disks and serve chilled or at room temperature.


Sambals accompany every Indonesian meal for dipping sate in, scooping over rice, adding flavor to dishes, and just to serve as a delicious condiment. There are over 300 varieties of sambal in Indonesia, and they can be mild or spicy. This sambal is peanutty, slightly spicy, and absolutely to die for. It's a must!


Sambal Kacang
3 ounces coconut milk
1 shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup peanut butter
2 tsp sambal oelek
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp cumin
6 ounces water
2 tsp oil

Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallot. Cook for about 8 minutes until the onion is golden and fragrant.  Combine the remaining ingredients into the pot, stirring to fully incorporate everything together. Bring the mixture to a low simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Allow the sauce to cool slightly before pureeing it in a blender.

Sate, or using its more modern spelling satay, can be made up of any kind of meat imaginable. I went with sate ayam which is a chicken sate. The dish is strung onto wooden skewers (or traditionally a coconut palm frond) and grilled over high heat. It originated in Java, Indonesia, and now is famous worldwide. Be careful to make sure and soak your skewers so they don't burn up while you're cooking the meat.


Sate Ayam
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1” ginger, chopped
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 chilies, chopped
1 pound chicken thighs, cut into ¾” cubes
6 sate sticks, soaked in water for 2 hours
sambal kacang

Combine the chicken, chilies, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic together in a large plastic bag. Marinate for at least 2 hours. Remove the chicken from the marinade and brush off any garlic or chilies that may have stuck to it. Thread the chicken onto the soaked skewers. Either preheat your grill or broiler to high. Cook the chicken as close to the flame as possible for about 5-7 minutes per side or until nicely charred. Serve with the sambal kacang for dipping.

Soto is an Indonesian soup made out of broth, meat, and vegetables. Soto ayam is specifically made out of chicken. Mung bean noodles and boiled eggs are common garnishes. It's like Indonesia's version of comforting chicken noodle soup.
Soto Ayam
serves 4-6
2 pounds chicken thighs
6 cups chicken broth
4 cups water
2 stalks lemongrass, chopped
1” fresh turmeric, minced
1” fresh ginger, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, chopped
1 tbsp oil
1- 6 ounce package of mung bean noodles, prepared according to the package’s instructions
boiled eggs, to garnish
sambal oelek, to garnish
sliced green onions, to garnish
lime wedges, to garnish

Bring the water, broth, chicken, and one stalk of lemongrass to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot, allow it to cool, and cut it into cubes. Meanwhile, heat a pan over medium heat a tablespoon of oil in it. In a food processor, process the shallots, garlic, ginger, and turmeric together. Add this paste along with the remaining stalk of lemongrass to the pan. Sauté for about 6-8 minutes until the mixture is golden. Pour this into the pot and bring the broth back to a simmer. Cook for another 30 minutes. Divide the mung bean noodles between serving bowls as well as the chicken. Strain the broth over each of the bowls. Top with boiled eggs, green onions, lime wedges, and sambal oelek.


Rendang is a method of slow cooking with a bunch of different spices and seasonings that yields a very spicy and dark curry-like dish. It is commonly served at festivals and ceremonies or to honor a special guest. Although the cooking time seems a bit ridiculous, DO NOT cut back. There are three stages during the cooking process. If you stop cooking the meat before the third stage, you will not have rendang. The first phase is gulai which is reached shortly after the coconut begins to boil and the meat is cooked. The mixture will be green at this point. Next comes kailo, or wet rendang. The mixture will still look a little greenish at this stage is still moist and light brown. Rendang is finally reached when just about all of the coconut milk has evaporated and the beef is dark brown/ black but not yet burnt. Rendang was a great invention back before refrigeration. Because of the antimicrobial properties of garlic, shallot, ginger, and galangal, rendang can last up to a month without refrigeration! Mine didn’t last that long, but feel free to try it out for yourself.


Rendang Daging
1 pound sirloin steak, cut into small cubes
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic
4-6 red chilies
1” ginger, minced
1” galangal, minced
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp coriander
1 tbsp lime zest (my substitute for kaffir lime leaves)
20 ounces coconut milk (from a can)
8 ounces water

Combine all of the ingredients except for the meat and liquids into a food processor. Process until you have a nice spice paste. Bring the spice paste, water, and coconut milk to a simmer in a pot over medium heat. Add the meat and reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until the rendang is dark brown. This takes about 4 hours.


Indonesian food sure is a process to recreate. After two days of cooking, I finally got to sit down to my meal well after midnight. It was worth every minute, though. I would do it all over again just for some more of that gado-gado. I'm still drooling! As for  the lontong, it was better than I expected. Cold rice might seem a little odd, but I thought it was great, and it really helped to cut the heat in some of the spicier dishes. The sambal kacang was amazing. I literally was licking it off the spoon by itself. It was like peanut butter's spicier cousin. The sate was really good as well. I loved the slightly spicy and salty flavor the marinade left behind, and cooking the meat over high heat created the perfect amount of char while leaving the meat nice and tender. My biggest regret of the whole meal. I should have strained out the spice mixture before adding the noodles. The taste was amazing, but I couldn't get passed all the splinters of lemongrass getting stuck in my teeth. Last of all, the rendang had a very unique flavor. I could not decide if I loved it or hated it. I'm still thinking about it. I did love freaking my roommates out with all the facts about it being shelf stable for so long. My one roommate, Rachel, refrigerates everything. (Even popcorn and tortilla chips.) She could not imagine anyone leaving the rendang out at room temperature for so long.

No comments:

Post a Comment