Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nasi Padang in West Java

Many Indonesian restaurants outside of Indonesia offer a rijsttafel option on their menus for diners wishing to try a variety of Indonesian dishes.  Popularized by the Dutch during their colonization of Indonesia, rijsttafel (rice table) is essentially an Indonesian buffet, with a large array of dishes for the diners to enjoy.  According to Wikipedia, the rijstaffel banquet enabled the colonial masters to showcase the variety of dishes from the islands throughout the archipelago that were under Dutch control.  After Indonesia gained its independence following WWII,  anti-colonial backlash caused the rijsttafel to fade away from Indonesia.

Nasi Padang is one of the precursors of the rijstaffel.  In a Padang restaurant diners are served numerous dishes to accompany a plate of rice.  Although it is originally from the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, nasi Padang is served in restaurants throughout Indonesia.  It's my understanding that because the Minangkabau are a matriarchal culture, with property passing down from mothers to daughters, the men move away and create their own businesses.  As a result, go just about anywhere and you can find nasi Padang. 

Nasi Padang restaurants not only offer a great variety of dishes, they are also cheap.  While as many as twenty dishes may be served, you are only charged for those you eat.  Plates that contain distinct cuts of meat, such as the plate with two pieces of rendang, are priced per piece.  For a satisfying meal as a reasonable price, it's hard to beat a Padang restaurant.

As much as I appreciate the merits of Padang restaurants, I am not a real aficionado.  I'm generally happier with a simple plate of good tahu lontong or a bowl of soto ayam, than with four or five indifferent dishes. It may be that I associate nasi Padang with buffet restaurants, an association that is not really fair, for I've seldom been disappointed by the food at a Padang restaurant.

  Last July while visiting Tjing's brother's family in Jakarta, we took a day trip to a remote area in West Java.  Although it was during Ramadan, we found a small nasi Padang restaurant open in one of the small towns we passed through.  One of the things I appreciate about Java is that even Muslim restaurants remain open during the fasting month, their windows covered and doors closed so as to not tempt faithful Muslims, but aware that there are customers who are not fasting.  Religion always has seemed a personal choice to me, and I can't understand how any person's belief in one religion or another gives him (or her) the right to insist that others follow the tenets of that religion.  It seems to me that if you believe so strongly in the truth of your God, show a little faith and humility and allow Him (or Her) to sort things out in the end.  Just sayin'.

In any case, the food at this restaurant was outstanding.  The rendang, ayam goreng, sambal kentang, and kari telor (egg curry) were all excellent.  They also had a dish of terong buncis (eggplant with green beans) that was remarkable.  It was just a small restaurant beside the road in one of the towns we drove through that day (more than eight hours of which were spent driving to and from our destination), but it was one of the better meals I had last summer.  I believe our tab for lunch came to 50,000 rupiah for the four of us (a little over $5). 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nasi Ketan Mangga "Istemewa"--Special Mango Sticky Rice

There are three stories about her visits to me in Indonesia my mother likes to recount.  Her favorite one is when I failed to meet her at the airport in Jakarta (I still insist she gave me the wrong date, telling me she would be arriving the next day) and she waited outside the terminal in Jakarta for several hours, the afternoon becoming night.  Another favorite is how my maid, when I returned home after teaching, would make sure that the standing fan in the living room was directed towards me, even if it meant turning it away from my mother.  The third story she likes to remind me of is about the breakfasts at the government mess where I lived in Cepu. 

The food at the mess was mediocre at best, but I said she and my father could get fried eggs for breakfast if they wanted.  I had to go to work before they had breakfast, so I left that as a suggestion.  Well, I forgot to mention that the eggs were fried early in the morning, when breakfast was generally served.  At 9:00 or so, maybe three hours after they had been cooked, the fried eggs were cold, rubbery, and probably coated with a film of congealed palm oil.  Not the breakfast my parents were hoping for.  Just as my mother can remember details from a lunch date in November, 1940, she cannot forget those eggs.  And she makes sure I will never forget them as well.

Nasi goreng istemewa (special fried rice) can be found throughout Indonesia.  While it may be eaten any time of the day, Indonesians prefer it for breakfast. There are countless variations of nasi goreng, but what makes it special is the sunny-side-up egg that is served atop the fried rice.  As my mother could tell you, an egg fried hours before it's served ain't all that special.  Unfortunately, it's not that unusual to get just such an egg on top of your fried rice in some places.

It was the idea of nasi goreng istemewa that inspired me to try this dish.  Sticky rice with sweetened coconut milk and mango is a popular dish in Thai restaurants.  It's similar to bubur ketan hitam, a popular breakfast dish in Bali, but has the added attraction of mango.  Breaking out my molecular gastronomy samples, I decided to top some sticky rice with a coconut and mango "egg".  The white of the egg was made from sweetened coconut milk and a pinch of agar agar.  The yolk was a sphere of mango puree made in the molecular gastronomy fashion from mango puree, sodium alginate, and sodium citrate that was set in a calcium chloride bath.

While I was pleased with how the "egg" looked, the yolk was not as intensely mango as I'd like.  In fact, it needed the fresh mango to rescue the dish.  If I try the dish again, I will try to make a more concentrated puree to intensify the mango flavor.