“So what is Indonesian food?”
This is the most frequent question I hear from friends whenever I bring up Indonesian food. And while it irks me, it’s a reasonably fair question to ask. Most people in America, even Asian Americans living in Southern California where Asian food is abundant, know nothing about Indonesian food. It’s not anyone’s fault, the truth of the matter is that Indonesian food is incredibly rare and hard to find, except for certain cities in the San Gabriel Valley (West Covina, I’m looking at you).
Therefore, I decided to write a list of the five Indonesian dishes I usually suggest when introducing anyone to Indonesian food. This may not contain the same dishes another Indonesian person may choose, and I don’t claim to be an expert on Indonesian food or culture by any means, but these dishes are definitely some of my personal favorites and are great “starter foods” to Indonesian cuisine.
1. Nasi bungkus
A fast food of sorts, nasi bungkus is, in it’s simplest form, rice and meat wrapped in a banana leaf. While the contents inside can vary, nasi bungkus usually consists of coconut-flavored chicken, rice, a stewy beef rendang, a variety of incredibly spicy vegetables and fruits such as jackfruit, and a boiled egg topped with sambal (spicy sauce). It’s all very messy and often blends together, which only makes it more delicious.
2. Gado gado
Gado gado is technically Indonesian salad but it is probably not very healthy. In essence, gado gado is a mix of steamed vegetables such as string beans, cabbage and bean sprouts with tofu, tempeh, a sliced boiled egg and Indonesian chips called krepek that are all doused heavily with fatty and sweet peanut butter sauce. It’s also a very filling dish and not for the faint of stomach or possibly heart. But for those who can make it to the end, it will be worth every bite.
As a child, I wasn’t very fond of non-American food, but lemper was one of two Indonesian dishes I enjoyed. Lemper is usually served as a snack or appetizer. Simply put, it’s sticky rice with a meat filling wrapped in a banana leaf. However, its deliciousness is in its simplicity and I often find myself craving a lemper when stressed out or writing (like right now, for instance).
4. Bakmi Ayam
Bakmi ayam is a hearty, simple noodle soup with bok choy, chicken, and mushrooms that is somehow equal parts addictive and comforting. It can be eaten with or without the broth, so the soup is good all year long!
So here’s the second Indonesian dish I could eat as a kid, most likely because it’s fried. Pastels, which have nothing to do with colors, are fried meat pastries filled with glass noodles, peas, carrots, meat filling and eggs. Just like lempers, they are usually served as appetizers and/or snacks. And just like lempers, they bring the comfort that even the pickiest of children can enjoy.