Hot Sour Salty Sweet

From the Indian traveller, Indonesia is strewn with exemplars of the familiar — till you taste the food.

Written by Sandip Roy | Kolkata | Published:May 1, 2016 12:00 am
A plate of ayam and rice. A plate of ayam and rice.

Others bring back Javanese batik from Indonesia. Lombok pottery. Ramayana shadow puppets. We carefully brought back bottles of kecap manis — soy sauce unlike any I had ever had — thick, salty and sweet like burned molasses.

It seems to be the secret sauce of Indonesian cuisine. It shows up as a dip. It’s the base of a meat stew. It spices up fried rice. My Bengali palate is happy, relishing that touch of sweet with the savoury.

If you like sweet and savoury, you must try the gudeg in Yogyakarta in Java, a friend tells me. Indonesia, I know, is famous for its nasi goreng, rendang and satays but apparently, Yogyakarta is the city for gudeg. Gudeg, it turns out, is unripe jackfruit. Or echor as we know it in Bengal, dubbed “mutton of the tree” for its meaty texture. I have not encountered echor outside a Bengali curry. But this is no echor curry. Gudeg is stewed for 13 hours with coconut milk and palm sugar until it melts into a dense glutinous reddish mass, almost as sweet as a chutney. The chicken leg (or head, if you are a little more adventurous) and the hard-boiled egg accompanying it help cut down the sweetness but it still feels sinfully like a dessert masquerading as a main course.

This is 24×7 food — you can have it for breakfast or lunch. Some restaurants only open at 10 at night. On a street lined with little gudeg shops, every other one has a portrait of a stern-looking Indonesian matriarch. She’s the Gudeg Queen of Yogyakarta, who apparently opened the first gudeg restaurant there in 1942. Sukarno had not even declared independence then.

Indonesia is a surreal country for the Indian traveller, strewn with exemplars of the familiar in the midst of unfamiliar terrain. Yogyakarta, like most of Indonesia, is Muslim but its two most revered landmarks are Buddhist and Hindu. Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple with over 500 Buddha statues. We are too lazy to get up at 3.30 am to check out the sunrise which means we have to brave the hordes of schoolchildren looking to practise their English instead. “Grade us,” they squeal after ambushing us on the terrace. A stilted “Where you from” conversation is not enough. To our horror, they hand out little report cards as well. But then, suddenly, I turn a corner and there’s nothing there but the most intricate frieze of a ship in full sail or a flying apsara and we could be in the 9th century. Alas, the illusion quickly evaporates as we leave the monument and find ourselves trapped in a maze of souvenir shops.

On the other side of Yogyakarta, the temple spires of Prambanan pierce the sky. In the centre stand the trimurti dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma and in front of them, the temples for their vahanas — Nandi, Garuda and Hamsa. I hear a tour guide telling the abridged version of the Ramayana to a group of Japanese tourists armed with giant cameras. It’s surreal to encounter your grandmother’s puja room and her bedtime stories so far away from home, in unfamiliar accents, to walk into the dimly lit recess of a temple chamber and see bats fluttering around Durga as Mahisasurmardini, or to lean on a balcony and realise you are leaning on Krishna dismembering Kamsa and that delicate carving next to you is no ordinary tree but the Kalpataru.

But when we leave Prambanan and return to Yogyakarta, it’s no crowded Indian temple town, bustling with marigold garland shops and holy cows. Instead, Yogya is chicken country, fried chicken country to be precise. KFC feels like an also-ran in the land of ayam goreng where the batter is infused with lemongrass, garlic and turmeric. Every local eatery has a neatly piled pyramid of crunchy batter-fried chicken in its window. The food courts boast brightly coloured local chains with names like Quick Chicken. Even the McDonald’s billboard tries to tempt us with a plate of chicken drumsticks instead of jumbo burgers.

A Buddha at Borobudur. A Buddha at Borobudur.

Ayam or chicken is the first word I learn here before “Good Morning” or “Hello” or “Thank You”. But there is more to life, and food, than ayam. On the sprawling sidewalks away from the ritzy malls are row upon row of food stalls that set up every night. I can take my shoes off, sit down cross-legged on the mattress and order what I want. The menu is on a billboard and helpfully illustrated like a children’s picture book. A chicken next to ayam. A cow next
to sapi. A duck next to bebek. And puyuh or quail. It all comes with dollops of sambal, the fresh red chilli sauce ground on a stone mortar.

Indonesia has some 14,000 islands and it seems as many sambals. I learn a few names — sambal oelek, sambal petis, sambal asam — but then quickly lose track. But when at a restaurant overlooking terraced paddy fields in Bali, an entire duck turns up crispy fried, the six kinds of sambal bravely surrounding it feel like lifesavers.

Bali, of course, is Hindu. That means there are little shrines in the corner of lush rice fields and canang sari offerings of flowers, betel nuts, cigarettes and tiny salty crackers in palm-leaf trays outside storefronts. Every family compound comes with its own temple and carved dwarpalas guarding the gate, black and white checked sarongs wrapped around their portly middles. Our taxi driver asks casually, “Oh from India? What’s your caste?” At the beach as the sun goes down, a sing-song message on a loudspeaker warns us, “Please be careful on the beach, it’s high tide, om shanti om.”

Yet it’s a Hinduism that puzzles many Indians. It’s devout yet beef is common. Once a year there’s Nyepi, a day of silence, when the electricity is turned off, the airport shuts down, cars are off the street and everyone stays at home and meditates. That’s unthinkable in India. At the ancient Gunung Kawi temples carved into the hillside, confused Indian tourists peek inside the empty chamber and ask the guide, “But where is the God?” The equally confused guide replies, “But God is everywhere.” The tourists look unconvinced, as if a Shiva or a Krishna has been spirited away and deliberately hidden from them. But this Hinduism without murtis fits rather neatly into the ethos of a largely Muslim country.

This is Eat Pray Love country and Ubud in Bali makes no bones about it. The main street is lined with chic restaurants, spas, stores that sell summery dresses. It’s like a California beach town, all sunblock, sunglasses and sundowners, just with more dragonfruit and papaya. The only locals around are the ones waiting tables or holding up signs that say Taxi. I miss the street food of Yogya, the vendor selling sticks threaded alternately with barbecued quail and quail eggs. But the guidebook tells us to go eat babi guling — suckling pig — in downtown Ubud and so we do. It comes with a dollop of rice and a crackling piece of pig skin. As we chomp down on it, we know we are not in Muslim country anymore.

Later, Ida Bagus, a Balinese priest and painter, takes us for a walk in the paddy fields. We are sceptical. Paddy fields might be exotic to retired Americans from the Midwest but for the Bengali, it seems a little overkill. However, the terraced fields of Bali and the centuries-old cooperative subak irrigation system with its water temples and canals and weirs is a Unesco World Heritage Site. So we go. And it is lovely to get away from the manicured ethno-chic of Ubud and walk in the fields, to smell mud and grass, to see flocks of scuttling ducks and lowing Balinese cows.

And best of all, at the end of it, there’s a lunch laid out for us. There’s the ubiquitous fermented soya bean or tempe, home-made pork sausage, and wonder of wonders, an actual salad made of tender succulent ferns and chopped coconut.

You have not eaten anything yet, says a friend. There’s Sumatran curries. And Manado cuisine of Sulawesi. Fish heads. Cow feet. Oxtail. Bakso meatball noodle soups from Jakarta beloved of Barack Obama. So many islands, so little time. The rest of the archipelago of flavours will have to wait.

But we have two bottles of kecap manis to tide us over till then.

Sandip Roy is a Calcutta-based writer.

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