Nasi Bungkus (which literally translates to "wrapped rice"), is a stereotypical Indonesian take-out meal; a mound of rice with small tastes of different items heaped on top, packed conveniently in a folded-over banana leaf for easy carrying as you make your way home through the kampung (village).
If you lived in the tropics, there'd be no need for sytrofoam containers either, especially when you've got banana trees growing around you like weeds. And there's also that faint, but fragrant botanical aroma this natural packaging imparts to the steamed rice. Always a plus!
Toko Rame, one of the few Indonesian restaurants in Southern California, offers the dish in exactly this manner.
Served on a shallow basket made of woven bamboo stalks, the Bellflower restaurant's banana leaf rice parcel looked like a purse with fat lump of a belly. It's secured shut at the top with a wooden skewer threaded through the leaf like a nose-piercing on a tribesman from Borneo. I pulled out this bamboo spear and the package unfurled, revealing a colorful array of meat and vegetables, tightly packed-in with a football-shaped base of steamed white rice.
The ikan (entrees) inside included:
Sambal Telor: What looks like a giant red eyeball covered in veins is actually a hard boiled egg, deep fried in hot oil to create a lacy, blistered skin. The egg is then stewed in a brew of chilis and tomatoes. The main function of this item is to soothe the palate from the fiery onslaught of the other entrees, although it is itself, spicy.
Rendang: This is a chunk of beef braised in coconut milk, intensely spiced with lemongrass and turmeric. The meat falls apart in tender strands with a gentle pull of a fork. The flavor is deep, earthy, and bold. The Yang to the Yin of the rice.
Sambal Goreng Ati Rempelo: It's a lip-burning, throat-constricting, caustic stew of chili, potatoes and chicken liver. Easily the hottest item of the bunch. The potatoes crumble pleasantly, but the small chunks of chicken liver chewed and tasted like pencil erasers (the only misfire).
Ayam Goreng: A small cut of salty, marinated chicken thigh is fried to a golden crisp. Indonesians like their chicken well-cooked and dry, until you can't tell dark meat from white, and this one is no different.
Tahu Goreng: Simply, a cube of fried firm tofu. Another mild item to give the tongue a break from the spice lashing.
Lodeh: A douse of soup with cubed chayote, peas, and green beans simmered in a thin coconut curry broth. The chayote has the color and texture as soft as honeydew melon but without the sweetness.
The heat level of this dish caused a gushing geyser of sweat to cascade off my brow. Even as I write this review, beads of perspiration are forming on my scalp as I recall memories of that meal. This is a common reaction when I eat cuisine from the region of Sumatra called Padang. The cooks there are known for their fiery foods, with flavors that are razor sharp, vibrant, and sometimes, a little funky. It's the kind of stuff that I taste in my gurgled belches hours after the last bite.
The second dish we tried that night was tamer, but not by much. Soto Ayam Kudus is chicken soup seasoned with turmeric and other spices, made zesty with a squeeze of lemon juice. The color of the liquid is bright yellow and is customarily eaten with rice already immersed in the broth. Toko Rame serves the rice on the side, but the soup is still authentic.
But being a stickler for things I grew up with, I still prefer the rendition of soto from my hometown of Semarang which is more subtle and uses the jelly-like bean thread noodles instead of the firm "rice stick" noodles utilized here.
The quartered hard boiled egg and the fried emping (melinjo crackers) were a nice touch to the soup, the latter acting like those saltines people put in their Campbell's Chicken Noodle. These "chips," made from melinjo nuts, have a pleasant bitter taste that cuts through all the other flavors.
This dinner transported me to an exotic place; a bustling thoroughfare jammed with beeping mopeds weaving around street vendor carts, billowing palm trees, and the balmy sweet tropical heat of Java.
We paid the meager sum for our meal (cash only) to the owner, a woman wearing a hijaab and her twelve-year-old son, who was our server, and left the small, spartan dining room to the parking lot, ambling out in a food-induced stupor.
We were in a dingy strip mall on Bellflower Blvd. A few yards away, traffic swished by on the 91 freeway overpass, oblivious to the fact that the culinary delights of a tropical archipelago is just an exit away.
Toko Rame Indonesian Restaurant
17155 Bellflower Blvd
Bellflower, CA 90706