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Sampling the cuisine and hospitality of Indonesia

When she was growing up in Indonesia, Sri Owen thought of the table as a Western invention. Now, in her home in Wimbledon with her English husband, Roger, and two sons, Irwan and Daniel, the dining table is the center of her home and hospitality. ``My parents ate at a table when I was growing up in Indonesia,'' Mrs. Owen says, ``but I ate in my grandmother's large kitchen, cross-legged on the square, mat-covered platform with my relatives and the helpers, licking my fingers, listening to the buzz of conversation around me. Even at the age of 6 I could tell that my grandmother's cooking was unusually good.''

We were seated at the table in her present home, above her Indonesian food shop and cooking school, Mustika Rasa, at 96 High Street in Wimbledon.

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Crisp shrimp wafers called krupuk, served first, properly whetted our appetites for an Indonesian dinner of home-cooked foods along with some stories of the cooking and culture of Java.

``When you eat in an Indonesian household, you will almost certainly find all the dishes on the table together, and you will be asked to help yourself. The Dutch took this as the basis for their rijsttafel, a most celebrated and sophisticated buffet,'' she explained.

She had brought to the table the dish known as Sate Ayam, diced chicken and pork on bamboo skewers, that had been marinated with soya sauce and grilled.

``Most food is cut bite-size in the kitchen, except for Rendang, which is in chunks, and chicken and duck, which are served on the bone. Indonesians like eating with their fingers and will not object if you do the same.''

Although Indonesians don't use chopsticks, Owen says she often cooks with a wok. ``My grandmother as far as I remember used a wok,'' she says. ``She, my father's mother, is perhaps more than anyone else the guiding spirit of my cooking classes and my cookbook.''

Owen placed before us two meat dishes. Gule Kambingi is a ragout of lamb in an aromatic sauce of cloves, cinnamon, lemon grass and pepper, and Rendang Kalio is beef that has been cooked long and slowly in coconut milk. Rendang is probably the most traditional dish in Indonesia. In West Central Sumatra, it is known as Minangkabau, which means ``Victorious Buffalo,'' Owen explains. ``People of this area eat more buffalo than beef, for cows are scarce in the islands, but in the US you can buy buffalo meat which is excellent, although beef can be substituted.

``Lamb,'' she says, ``is the best-liked meat in Indonesia. Indonesian cooks regard lamb as an undisciplined, highly flavored meat, which needs plenty of garlic to keep it under control.'' Along with the meat dishes was a fragrant Indonesian rice. Dessert was a colorful platter of fresh kiwi, pineapple, guava, and other fruit.

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Mustika Rasa is a true browsing and grazing shop where you may pick up a book on Indonesian, Middle Eastern, or Far Eastern cooking. You can also find the special ingredients that are needed for recipes in these dishes, as well as many specially prepared carry-out dishes. Throughout the year Owen conducts cookery classes, and she gives demonstrations with lunch and private dinner parties.

On a few days' notice she will cook any dish from her cookbook, ``Indonesian Food and Cookery'' (Prospect Books, about $13), from rijsttafel to a Hot Chili Sambal and a variety of Southeast Asian dishes.

Owen says her most popular dish is Pergedel Jagung, eggplant and corn fritters. She also makes Indonesian prawn fritters, but the eggplant and corn go like hot cakes among her customers. She also sells these to several stores, including Harrods in London. Rendang 11/2 kg (31/2 pounds) brisket or good stewing steak 6 shallots 3 cloves garlic Salt 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1 teaspoon turmeric 3 teaspoons chili powder 1/2 teaspoon laos (galingale) 71/2 cups coconut milk (santen) 1 salam leaf or bay leaf 1 fresh turmeric leaf, optional (daun kunyit)

Cut meat into biggish cubes. Crush shallots and garlic with some salt; add ginger, turmeric, chili, and laos. Mix and put into coconut milk (santen). Add meat and various leaves. Cook in a wok, letting mixture bubble gently, stirring occasionally until it becomes very thick. This should take 11/2 to 2 hours. Taste, add salt if necessary.

When mixture is thick, slow cooking must continue, but now meat and sauce must be stirred continuously until all sauce has been absorbed into meat and meat itself has become a good golden brown. This will take at least half an hour, perhaps as much as 11/2 hours. Serve Rendang hot, with plain boiled rice or Nasi Ketan.

Rendang freezes well, even though it contains santen (this becomes oil in the course of cooking and will not go bad). Dried laos can be found in Southeast Asian grocery stores. Soak 30 minutes in 1/4 cup water before using.

If you can buy your corn fresh, then there is no doubt that the pergedel will look authentically Indonesian. Owen says she has also made them with canned sweet corn, however, and although they look rather like ordinary corn fritters, they do taste like the real thing. Pergedel Jagung (Sweet Corn Fritters) 6 fresh ears of corn (about 111/2 ounces) 1 red chili or 1/2 teaspoon chili powder 4 shallots 2 cloves garlic, optional 3 ounces prawns, fresh or frozen (optional) 1 teaspoon ground coriander Salt 1 large egg Vegetable oil

Grate corn off the cobs. Put prawns, peeled shallots, chili, and garlic together through a mincer. Mix well in bowl with corn, season with coriander and salt. Break egg into mixture and whisk quickly.

Heat about 5 tablespoonfuls of oil in frying pan. Drop heaped tablespoonful of mixture into pan and quickly flatten with a fork. You should be able to fry 4 or 5 pergedel at a time, giving each one about 21/2 minutes on each side and turning once only. Serve hot.

Pergedel Jagung can be frozen. Thaw completely before you refry, or heat in oven at about about 350 degrees F. for 30 to 40 minutes.

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