A Wealth of Taste in Traditional Regional Cuisines (1)

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The group of island known as Indonesia extend north and south of the equator along a major volcanic belt, to which the Indonesian soil owes its high fertility. The warm, humid climate and heavy rainfall provide ideal conditions for the cultivation of a wide range and variety of fruit and vegetables, including rice.

Indonesia geographic isolation and economic wealth, especially the valuable spices found in the Maluku island group, made the country magnet for merchants and settlers form Portugal and Holland, together with Arabs, Indian, and Chinese; all of whom have influenced the indigenous cultures, religions and eating habits. Consequently each region, over time, adopted these foreign inputs that eventually evolved to become part of each region’s cooking. Indonesians take the infusion of outside elements for granted. These differs from Singapore, for example, where the Baba Peranakan, Mamak, Malay and Indian groups still produce their own cuisines in their home.

Indonesia’s cuisines, especially in the major island, have borrowed ingredients and cooking techniques from varied and numerous sources over the centuries. The Arab and Indian traders introduced their own spices, including the sweet rose essence, together with the couple of popular dishes like the Indian Martabak, a type of pancake common in food stalls. The Spanish and Portuguese traders brought New World produce long before the Dutch came to colonize most of Indonesia.

In western and central Indonesia the main meal is usually cooked in the late morning, and consumed around midday. In many families there is no set meal time when all members are expected to gather. For this reason, most of the dishes are made to last and remain edible for many hours at room temperature. The same dishes are then reheated for the final meal in the evening. Typically one can reheat yesterday’s leftovers for breakfast, for example fried rice, or you can go to a neighborhood warung for a local breakfast takeaway specialty.

A. PADANG/MINANGKABAU (WESTERN SUMATERA)

Western Sumatera has a matrilineal heritage. The majority if people are Moslem, the Minangkabau community is among the most entrepreneurial ethnic group residing in Western Sumatera. They often move to other regions in the Indonesian Archipelago and open up new businesses such as Padang restaurant. This is similar to the Cantonese who migrate overseas and often establish Cantonese restaurant, which are today found all over the world. The Minangkabau, however, do not migrate to other countries as do the Cantonese, but prefer to remain in Indonesia. With business success, they send or donate money back to their village, helping to build mosques and public facilities there.

Padang food is famous throughout Indonesia, largely because Minang restaurant entrepreneurship has led to the opening of Rumah Makan Padang all over the archipelago. So popular is Padang food that many non-Minang restaurateurs have open Padang eateries. Padang food has become a reliable cuisine for visitors and travelling Indonesians alike. In the city of Padang itself, every eating place serves Padang food. The most iconic dish of the Minang people is Rendang Padang. Indonesian adore Rendang Padang: thick, caramelized beef curry that churns out the aroma of spiced coconut milk and burning caramel from the good count of sugar in ripe coconuts. The final look is somewhat blackened, but not burnt. It could also be that in the old days when there was no refrigerator, food was always reheated the next day, hence the blackened color of the reheated beef curry. That leads to another rule I’ve discovered, that Rendang Padang can’t be red, green or yellow.

When it comes to rending, the people of West Sumatera have at least 150 variations of the dish. Every village has its own version. What they have in common is their caramelized nature. My belief is that this process is derived from the habit of continually reheating the dish, which turned steadily black in the process. Traditional kitchens in West Sumatera would process rending using buffalo meat for an average of eight to nine hours, although now it is more customary to use beef. It takes hard work, consistency and attentive sautéing to produce the best rending, but only one bite to prove the effort is worthwhile.

 

STYLE OF SERVING

Padang restaurants are well known for their abundant dishes that are served in no order; just sit and pay for what you eat. This format of service reflects impartiality between rich and poor. The Minangkabau lead very active lives. Hunting wild boar is a popular pastime and while it is taboo for Moslem to eat wild boat meat, hunting boar presents no problem. It can be compared with fox hunting, except the men follow the running dogs on foot and the dogs are the ones who eat the wild boar meat. For the Minang their hunting dogs are like family members.

Beef of buffalo rendang is the most popular of the dishes as it keeps well due to the caramelizing process mentioned previously, and is therefore a good food for traveling. It was commonly the food taken when people travelled on Haj or Pilgrimage.

Padang food is typically cooked with a lot of coconut milk, which though high in saturated Fats is still very popular. Meat and offal dominates the diet and the spices used reflect the rich Indian influence. Today coconut milk is blamed for Indonesian’s rising cholesterol level rather than the wide consumption of offal.

All meat dishes are cooked very slowly until tender and some might be drier, with the spices penetrating the meats. The chicken skin is always removed from the chicken before frying as skinless chicken has a longer shelf life. Rice has to be hot and fragrant, but sauces are not served hot, and have a coarse texture. Food left over in the evening is reheated for the following day. After a couple of days reheating the beef curry will naturally caramelize.

Because the Minangkabau are devout Moslem, there are many foods which are taboo. Besides not eat pork, they also do not eat crab (except for blue crab) or frogs, as amphibians are forbidden fodder. Popular meats are beef and beef offal (tripe, intestines, lung, brain, cow hoof), buffalo meat, chicken, duck, prawn, squid, fish, eels and mutton.

 

“Flavor of Indonesia.” William Wongso’s Culinary Wonders. 2016