Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Food in Indo (Part 1)

One of the first questions I get from Indonesians upon meeting them is what I think of the food here. I mean, I always get it. I don't think I've met anyone who didn't ask me what I think of the food in this country. They usually have two primary curiosities:

1. Do you like it? (They wring their hands and shiver with anticipation)

2. Is it too spicy for you? (Their eyes light up with an evil gleam, awaiting affirmation)

Whether you like Indonesian food is irrelevant. The only answer to the question is: Yes, you do. Saying otherwise would be steel-edged, Terminatorian cruelty. Indonesians, you see, love their own food, and they want you to love it, too. I have not yet met an Indonesian who professed to prefer "ethnic" to local.

At first, this took me by surprise, as America is full of variety, and most of my friends are hummus-eating artsy-fartsy types who extoll exotic "cuisine" over unhealthy, bland "food". If it comes from another country, especially one peopled by those who don't look like Europeans/Americans, it's probably imbued with some wholesome, salt-of-the-earth nourishment that realigns your chi and keeps pandas from extinction. But even those blue collar, God-fearing, meat-and-potatoes types are susceptible to burritos. People in America love foreign food, often more than "classic" American grub.

The foodscape here is very different. Every meal has a center, and that center is white rice. You might have one or two meals a week that don't involve rice, which means you're eating noodles. Indonesians claim--boast, really--that they simply don't feel full if they don't eat rice. For them, it's a sign that rice is the realest food out there; everything else is relegated to the role of snack. Now, I'm no doctor, but for me, it's a sign that they have larger stomachs than everyone else, because they're stuffing them three times a day with a food that expands after ingestion. Thus, the owner of a stomach constantly crammed with rice is rendered incapable of feeling full if said owner only eats things that aren't rice. Be that as it may, they love their rice. They take it more seriously here, too. Exhibit A: In the Indonesian language, there are four different words for rice…

1. While still growing in a paddy, it's called padi.
2. While still unhulled and unhusked, it's called gabah.
3. After hulling and husking, but before cooking, it's called beras.
4. When it's cooked and ready to eat, it's nasi.

Rice is king, and the only variable is what should flank it on the plate. Thankfully for my pampered American palate, there is variety here. Meat is relatively expensive here, so often enough there is none. If it's a meatless meal, you'll usually get tempeh (fried), tofu (fried), or eggs (fried) for the protein portion. There's usually some sort of vegetable, or combination of veggies. If there is meat, it's probably chicken, either grilled or in a soup. There's also a kind of beef soup called rawon that, if you ignore the spiciness, isn't so far from a kind of potatoless, carrotless Irish stew. Obviously, there is never pork.

Fish pose an interesting quandary for the non-vegetarian. I don't like seeing a creature's face while I'm eating its meat, which has turned me into whatever the inverse of a pescetarian is. That's because fish here are always cooked whole and served whole on the plate, heads, bones, scales, tails, and all. You're just supposed to dig out the meat. Which, don't get me wrong, is fantastic. No sugarcoating reality -- you are literally face-to-face with the thing you are eating. If you've got the intestinal fortitude to rip the guts off of an animal, pack them into your mouth, and spit out the bones, congrats on your membership in the Circle of Life. If, however, you do not have the mettle it takes to pick meat out of an animal's head, you just don't eat it. And the world is better off because meat consumption is reduced to less unsustainable levels. Win-win(?)

Of course, the food here is spicy as well. Indonesians don't like food that isn't spicy. And they're kind of smug about that, as well, if we can be honest here. They're usually licking their chops when they inquire about your ability to handle the spice factor. You can practically see them thinking: …Come on…just sayyyyy it…TELL ME IT'S TOO SPICY OH GOD I NEED TO HEAR IT!!!!

Here's the truth. It's spicy. But if you're used to eating Thai food above wussy spice level or putting real hot sauce on your tacos, then it ain't no thing. You can handle it. What's more likely to get you is accidentally popping an entire hot chili pepper into your mouth and chewing before you realize what's happening and ask yourself why the hell anyone would sneak whole chili peppers in a plate of rice. At that point, you'll feel like you just chomped on a chunk of lava and any natives around you will go into hysterics.

About half of the time, food is pre-spiced. The other half you have a spicy homemade paste the color of salsa called sambel on the side, to add as you like. Sometimes it's sambelkecap, which is a spicy AND sweet.


"Why, yes, I generally take tea with my sugar"

Which leads me into the third main thing about how Indonesians like their food: sweet. Kids love sweets. They love sweet drinks. I often see little kids prowling the streets, lips pursed around straws that snake their way into little plastic bags full of fluorescent looking liquids. The only limits on how many kids you can make happy and/or bribe are how much candy you can carry around with you and the amount of littering you're willing to put up with seeing after those wrappers open. Tea and coffee, the two beverages served most often at home, are usually sweetened to the point that you wonder what the stuff actually tastes like. Homemade sweets are normal for dessert, and are also put on the table basically any time you visit anyone, or if there is some social gathering (meaning anything that involves either a party or a communal prayer at someone's house). It is quite difficult to convince Indonesians that you like things without sugar.

All this eating sweets and the, uh, less-than-comprehensive education about dental hygiene, not to mention the general lack of medical/dental insurance, means that most people have some tooth issues. There is also a high incidence of diabetes here (colloquially referred to as kencing manis, or sweet piss).

I'm going to cut this topic off here, though it is far from exhausted, because I've run over a thousand words and attention spans are likely flagging right now. Also, it's late and I'm tired. I shall return to the topic of food soon, because it is truly a central feature of Indonesian social life and there remains a lot to say about it.


  1. mmm get me some of that gado gado or spicy anything. I know we've talked about this already, but damn, indo cuisine is deeeelish in my book. If you ever get your hands on some home cooked recipes, please don't hesitate to throw them my way.

  2. To affirm your statement, yes; we Indonesian felt that if it's not the rice that we're eating, then it's not a meal yet.

    We're rice-addicts ;-)