The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 13, 2008

Rendang? Padang!

The sad fact is that, growing up, I found myself in the wrong countries at the wrong times. What, I ask you, was the point of living in Venezuela when I was 4 years old? I would not have appreciated the sumptuous beauty of Venezuelan women then as much as when I was 14. Of course, I had no control over my residence, being a mere pack follower of my dad, as he got shunted from one posting to another in the interests of diplomacy.

From a gastronomic standpoint, however, I cannot complain about the trajectory of my life. Venezuelan cuisine is not awfully imaginative, and at four or five years of age, I was happy enough with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Four years in Moscow were a culinary washout - during the bleak years of Communism and general shortage of food, people were hardly thinking of haute cuisine. I do recall, however, begging my folks to get me shashliks from a local Kazakh deli. Because the deli was closed every time my mum stopped by, this lovely kebab of Turkish origin never passed my lips.

My sojourn in Indonesia, though, was a triumph in every way. I made some great friends, learnt about some great music, and sampled some truly superb food as well. As anyone who visits the cities of Asia is aware, food is available in delicious and inventive combos on every street corner. Indonesia, with its myriad tribes and ancient history and the gentle effects of the confluence of several foreign cultures, is a treasure trove for the gourmet. Not for us Vrikodara-clones the usual nasi gorengs and satays and the like. We ranged far and wide in search of rendangs and slow-cooked duck. We were agog with the spicy flavours of the Batak sambal, laced with andaliman. From Bali, we savoured stuffed pork, the mouthwatering babi guling. Aceh's pliu lit up the palate with a rich fermented coconut flavour, enhancing even the dullest salads and soups.

What were the other culinary delights? Well, Padang, for one thing: a tapas like arrangement of small eats - stews, fries, and fish - to be had with rice, very filling and delicious, named after the largest city in Western Sumatra. The Javanese iwak mas (carp), a fish seasoned with spices (ginger, lime, Javanese roots) and tomatoes and chili, wrapped in a leaf and roasted over hot charcoals, was readily available from a street vendor. The dish, reheatable, was particularly useful for trekkers, as it stayed good for days. Even better was the Javanese answer to meatball marinara: Bakso, tennis-ball sized beef balls in a soup of greens and cabbages and chili tomato.

As long as it had meat in it, I was game to try it all. Thus it was that I stayed generally away from gado-gado, a mixed salad of raw and cooked veggies and spicy peanut sauce. You wouldn't see me near the leafy green kangkung or the nangka, the curried jackfruit, if there was any flesh to be had.

Unfortunately, I don't recall any delectable desserts at all. Perhaps by the time we were done stuffing our faces with the main courses, we had no interest left in rice puddings and the like.

What a fantastic time we had, never to be repeated. The Indonesian restaurants I visited in the US were terrible. In London, I have yet to find any half-decent ones. Even in Holland, with its large Indonesian community, there were no memorable meals to be had. Oh well. I continue to salivate vicariously and parochially.

Interesting websites:

1. Real Javanese and Indonesian Food For Real People.

2. Indonesian Vegetables.


awesomewa said...

I had a similar experience with an exiled childhood except mine were holidays. I grew up visiting beaches off Hawaii and four decades later have yet to visit Tioman!
Recipes made my mouth water.

awesomewa, Wiltshire

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