To me, no memory from my childhood is more vivid than those that are related to food. So here is five foods that I remember with fondness from Indonesia.
FOODS OF MY CHILDHOOD
1. Martabak Telor
Sold only at the night markets on the streets of Semarang, by the flickering flame of a gas lantern, this pan fried snack starts out with a pliable dough. Expert hands then stretch and work the dough into a thin membrane as wide as a bed-sheet. It is slapped onto an oiled griddle and then a curry-seasoned mixture of minced meat (usually goat or beef), green onions, and beaten egg is spread thinly on top. The excess flaps of the dough sheet is quickly folded over and after a few minutes of cooking, this flat mass transforms into a crispy melange of goodness. It is then cut into rectangles, perfect for finger snacking. Not quite an omelette; not quite a pancake; not quite an egg roll; but exhibiting the characteristics of all three. You might have seen Tony Bourdain trying and loving a similar dish during the Singapore episode of A Cook's Tour.
2. Sate Gule Kambing
This is actually two dishes made from goat ("kambing"); one is a soup and the other is grilled. Eventhough both dishes are unique in and of themselves, these two distinct preparations are meant to be eaten together. Like "fish and chips", you simply cannot have one without the other. Unlike fish and chips though, the soup is the "yin" to the sate's "yang". The whole meal becomes a perfect balance of asymmetric flavors and textures. The soup, called gule (pronounced 'guh-lay'), is curry-based. Made from simmering the bones and fatty, gristly meat of the goat in a big pot, it is rich and unctuous. But the consistency is surprisingly thin, with a subtle creaminess coming from coconut milk. The sate (pronounced "sa-tay"), on the other hand, is simply prepared. To make it, the most tender pieces of the goat is cut and threaded onto bamboo skewers. Then the skewers are cooked quickly over a charcoal fire. As soon as they are done they get brushed with a glaze made from a mixture of kecap manis, lime juice, and white pepper. The two dishes are enjoyed in concert with hot rice. I alternate between tearing a chunk of meat from the sate with my teeth and then taking a sip of the hot soup.
3. Soto Ayam
This is probably my favorite Indonesian dish of all. The best version, in my opinion, comes from my hometown of Semarang. In a ramshackle structure built of spare aluminum siding and tattered fabric, the family that owns this street-side "warung" wakes up every morning before dawn preparing simmering vats of soto, a shredded chicken soup seasoned with turmeric and other spices. Order a bowl and you see them assemble your breakfast. Rice, bean thread noodles, celery leaves and diced green onion go in first. Then it is doused with the clear, hot soup, garnished with crumbled fried garlic and shallots. But no bowl of soto is complete without some sort of side dish. The most common one is perkedel, a deep-fried mashed potato fritter. My favorite side dish, though, is a bowl of stewed bloody-clams and boiled egg. The kecap manis it is steeped in imparts a deep, sweet flavor and a dark, brown color; the perfect accompaniment to the bright yellow of the soup.
4. Nasi Pecel
This dish I remember because I ate so much of it one day on a trip to Surabaya that I was literally rendered motionless with a food coma. My mother chided me for gorging myself to this state, but I didn't care. Heck, I ate the same amount the next day. How could I resist this salad of boiled kangkung (Chinese watercress), bean sprouts, and string beans, dressed in a peanut sauce that was spiked with chilis, tamed with coconut milk, and made addictive with other unknown spices. This dish harnesses the non-translateable Indonesian word "SEDAP!". The closest I can get to an English translation is "lip-smacking, mouth-watering, refreshing, and savory." And even that doesn't do it justice! And oh yeah, no plate of nasi pecel is complete without kripik kacang, a typical accompaniment; a thin sheet of fried crunchy batter dotted with peanuts.
5. Nasi Ayam
This dish holds a special place in my heart because I remember eating it outside my grandmother's porch in Semarang. The nasi ayam lady would come around with her wares dangled on a long stick slung over her shoulder. After taking a seat on a portable stool, she'd peel a single banana leaf, tuck one side over the other, making a cone. Inside this cone, she would scoop a little rice, pour on some opor ayam, which is a thick soup made with coconut milk and chicken, quarters of boiled egg, and stew of julienned chayote, tofu and chilis. Then I'd eat the dish with a "spoon" improvised from a strip of banana leaf, folded and creased into a rudimentary scoop.