Good food presented simply is what you’ll find at rumah makans (eating houses) in Indonesia. Rumah Makan Murni (Pure Eating House) in Cepu, Central Java is my ideal for a rumah makan. With a seating capacity of about eight, it makes as good a gado gado, soto ayam, and opor ayam as you will find in Indonesia. The two women who run it, formerly two sisters, now one of the sisters and her niece, have resisted pressure to expand; they worry they wouldn’t be able to preserve the quality. I try to maintain that same commitment to quality.
You might have noticed that Rumah Makan Murni is incorporated into the URL of this blog. A pure eating house is what I aspire to in Javaholic, good food simply presented with clear photos and clean writing. The food is front and center,not the blogger. I’m not really interested in becoming the “next blog star.” The world has enough faux celebrities; take Snookie, please.
Why have a blog about Indonesian food? Why is a londo or bulé writing about rujak cingur? Indonesian food seems woefully underrepresented in English food blogs. The fourth most populous country in the world with as many as 16,000 islands, many with dishes unique to their particular island, Indonesia doesn’t get the same recognition as Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia enjoy for their cuisines. And that’s a shame. It’s too bad that more people aren’t aware of tahu telor, rempeyek, and semur daging. One of my aims in writing this blog is to make Indonesian food more accessible to others. While Indonesian food isn’t the only food featured on Javaholic, it is central to it.
I came to know Indonesia and its food by a quirk of fate. Previously a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal and then a United Nations Volunteer working in refugee camps in Malaysia, I was asked by the UNV agency if I’d be interested in working in China. They wanted me to teach in Qingdao, where Tsing Tao is brewed. This was in the early 80s. I was looking forward to enjoying days on the coast quaffing beer with bowls of steaming shrimp. Fortunately, the Chinese government apparently didn’t want an American, or at least didn’t want this American. As a result, I was asked if I’d be interested in a position in Java, at the national oil and gas training academy. That’s how I found myself a few months later in Cepu, swooning over the gado gado and soto ayam in Rumah Makan Murni. I spent most of the next decade in Indonesia, meeting my wife there while we were both working on Pulau Galang--the Indonesian camp for Vietnamese refugees--and eventually getting married in Surabaya in September, 1993.
As much as I enjoy Indonesian food, I have at least as much love for Vietnamese food. Not only did I live and work in refugee camps for close to three years, my wife and I lived in Vietnam for about a year shortly after we got married. Living with a Vietnamese family in Saigon, we were treated to a great wealth of Vietnamese dishes.
The recipes I present on the blog are sometimes straight Indonesian or Vietnamese dishes. On occasion I include an Italian or Mexican or some other recipe that I think is worth sharing. The focus, however, is on Indonesian and Southeast Asian food, and recipes influenced by them.
Salmon di Jendela--Salmon with Indonesian pesto in rice paper--is a dish that tastes as good as it looks. Adapted from Fiona Smith’s Dim Sum (which might be more accurately entitled Small Plates from Asia), the salmon packets resemble Banh Kep Ngo, Vietnamese wafers filled with a sweetish peanut praline and decorated with cilantro leaves. Wrapped in rice paper, the salmon is kept wonderfully moist, while the fried bottoms of the packets have a pleasing crunch. In her version Smith steams the packets after frying them. That seems backwards to me, resulting in a packet that no longer has a crisp texture. If you don’t want to bother yourself with frying the packets, they are still delicious simply steamed.
Salmon di Jendela
1 lb. skinless salmon fillet, cut into 8, two-ounce squares
8 8-inch rice paper rounds (banh trang)
a few cilantro leaves for placing on top of the salmon
1 TBS oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, minced
1 to 2 Thai chilies, seeded and minced
1 cup lemon basil (kemanggi) or Thai basil, chopped
1/4 cup dry roasted macadamia nuts, chopped
1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
2 TBS vegetable oil
Use a mortar and pestle to grind the pesto ingredients into a fairly smooth paste. You want to make sure to grind the lemongrass and chiles well to eliminate grittiness.
Soften a rice paper round in water. Place a cilantro leaf in the center, topside of the leaf pressed against the round. Lightly season a square of the salmon with salt and place on top of the cilantro leaf. Spread a layer of the pesto on the salmon. Fold the rice paper around the salmon forming a packet. Follow the same procedure for the rest of the salmon pieces.
Steam the packets for 3--4 minutes over boiling water. Heat the tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over medium high heat. Fry the steamed packets on their bottoms (pesto side) for a minute or so, crisping the rice paper.
Serve with rice and pea shoots fried with garlic for a delicious meal.