`Sugar and Spice,' Indonesian-style
Islands' food combines tangy seasonings with subtle sweetness for almost endless variety
WHILE many Americans prepare a special ethnic meal on weekends, Sri Harjono does the reverse. Her family of six may indulge in hamburgers cooked on the grill, or spaghetti, or pizza, or corn on the cob. ``We eat Western on the weekend when I have more time to cook,'' she explains.
But during the week, the family enjoy dishes from Mr. and Mrs. Harjono's native land of Indonesia, such as the spicy skewered meat known as satay or the fried rice known as nasi goreng.
Such meals require Harjono's traditional cooking skills, which reflect a heritage dating back half-a-million years and a history founded on the famed spice trade. The explorer Marco Polo is said to have given the beautiful islands of Indonesia the nickname of ``Spice Islands'' because of their abundance of spices such as nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and pepper - still dominant ingredients in traditional Indonesian dishes.
While preparing a meal in the kitchen with her family, Harjono explains that the fiery, hot dishes of the Spice Islands are the combination of the intriguing flavor produced by hot spices tempered with sugar.
``The subtle sweetness of Javanese cooking is from coconut, not sugar cane,'' she points out.
``My husband and I are both from Java where you find Indonesia's most popular cooking. Each region has its own specialties. The people of central Java have a taste for sweets, but some Javanese cooking is a little hot. Still, the really hot food is from Sumatra,'' she says.
The Javanese use palm sugar to bring out other flavors. In some dishes vinegar and tamarind are added to the sugar, producing a subtle sweet-sour spiciness.
``Many people don't expect to like sweetened meats and vegetables. But the small amounts of sugar in these dishes somehow adds tone to the hot chilies and other spices - with neither being dominant,'' Harjono says.
In the more complex dishes of central Java (which include an array of chilies and spices) the sweetness is present, but the origin is somewhat a mystery.
The famous national dish Satay means barbecue. Delicious, bite-sized bits of skewered meat are marinated or basted with sauce, grilled over charcoal, and dipped into a hot sauce made of chilis, spices, and peanuts.
Satay is a regular favorite in Indonesia, and Harjono has prepared the dish today. While her teenaged son Erwin cooks the marinated meats on bamboo skewers on the outdoor barbecue, her eldest daughter Anna arranges greens and vegetables for Gado Gado, the famous Indonesian salad that is topped with a peanut sauce.
Satay can be shrimp, chicken, beef, or lamb, and has an almost endless variety of marinades and sauces. Every Indonesian cook has a particular recipe for satay sauce, and a special method of preparing the meat before grilling. Probably the world's earliest-known barbecue, satay evolved from cooking chunks of meat on a stick to the refined Indonesian specialty of today.
Throughout most of the predominately Muslim area of Java, beef, goat, and chicken are most commonly used for satay. But shrimp is used wherever shellfish is available, and in Chinese areas it is commonly made with tender chunks of pork. The Balinese make a satay from a paste of chopped turtle meat mixed with coconut milk and spices, which is said to be superb.
Peanuts dominate the wonderful satay sauces. The kemirior candlenut, similiar to the macadamia nut, is also used as a thickening agent and stabilizer in many Indonesian dishes.
Harjono has also prepared Opor Ayam today - an Indonesian chicken and coconut-milk preparation, similar to curry, with a white sauce that clings to the meat without overwhelming the chicken flavor.
A classic beef dish from Sumatra called Randang Padang is also included in the menu. Originally made of buffalo meat, it requires a long time to cook but is seasoned with wonderful traditional flavors of the archipelago - ginger, garlic, coconut, hot chilies, lemon grass, and coriander.
Several condiments and flavors are worth exploring in Indonesian cuisine. Trassi, a brick-red fermented shrimp paste with a powerful aroma, is used in small amounts in most sauces.
``I often shop twice a week in the Chinese markets in New York City. And now I can find coconut sugar and cans of trassi ... for sauces, which is very important,'' says Harjono.
``In the last two years, many more ingredients have become available here that were impossible to find before.''
Other seasonings that most reflect the Indonesian tastes are coconut milk, hot chilies, fresh ginger, tamarind, and the Java soy sauce known as kecap manis. Also important is a combination of root seasonings called jangkap, a Balinese term translated as ``the flavor of root'' seasonings, such as laos, kencur, ginger, and lemon grass. Spices include galangal, lemon leaves, cumin, coriander, and tumeric.
As she arranges the table, she explains that ``Indonesians usually prefer to eat with a spoon and fork or with their fingers, rather than a knife and fork.
``Some dishes really need a spoon, not a knife, for comfortable eating. Eating with fingers is difficult, but it is customary in Java and must be done gracefully and neatly and with the right hand only,'' she says.
For most Indonesians, rice is more than a staple starch like bread or potatoes. It is the main course in every meal. Unlike the chopstick-users of China and Japan, who usually eat rice in a separate bowl, the Indonesians like their rice on the plate with other cooked foods.
Rice is served rather dry and unsticky. But when mixed with a sauce, it is easily scooped up with the fingers, molded slightly into a neat ball, and placed on the tongue without a drop out of place. This technique, however, demands as much practice as chopsticks do.
Three of the four Harjono children were born in the United States, and that explains the blending of two cultures at their dinner table. ``They like pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken - but they like my fried chicken, Indonesian-style, too,'' says Harjono.
She seasons her chicken with coriander, garlic, salt, and tumeric, and marinates it with vinegar before deep frying until golden and crispy.
Hospitality is traditional with Indonesians and Harjono enjoys entertaining, in spite of running a busy household. ``I like a party. We usually have company once a month at least and I often cook special foods for the Indonesian community,'' she says. Next week: How to shop for and prepare Asian cuisine.