Saturday, July 26, 2008

Its a small world after all

So I'm sitting in the plane as it descends into Soekarno-Hatta airport - and I freak. Frankly, Indonesia's never been at the top of my list of places to visit. News headlines about the traffic, corruption, disparate poverty and pollution have always struck me as less than ideal reasons to visit this country. And so, looking out the window as my flight fumbled its way through the thick smog surrounding Jakarta, it felt like each of these stories were unfolding before me - one by one. Facing unfamiliar territory, language and culture - I wondered how I was going to deal with spending the following six days. But just about everyone I had spoken to raved about the food in this densely populated city - and so I took a deep breath (of smog) as I emerged from the airport and proceeded with somewhat reserved excitement
Nasi Padang
Breakfast in Indonesia is never just about getting a kick start to your day. Indonesians love eating - and the first meal to the day doesn't have to be any different in content to lunch, or dinner for that matter. Fried chicken, curries, stews are all game in the breakfast meal and there's no better example of this than Nasi Padang, literally a smorgasbord of all of the above served with steamed rice. I was also surprised - and to be honest, a little disturbed, that there is no ordering that takes place in this sort of restaurant. Instead, the waiter brings out tapas portions of everything there is on offer and lays it onto the table. You proceed to eat your meal and the waiter than calculates the bill based on how much is eaten. What is not finished or untouched is returned to the pots and brought out again for the next batch of guests. It was bizarre - the food was appealing and off-putting, both at the same time. So here's my travel tip: Go early in the morning for Indonesian Nasi Padang - that way you stand a better chance of having food that didn't belong to a previous group of diners.

Kembang Goela
If you're looking to sample local cuisine in a more upmarket setting (think silverware, chandeliers, smartly dressed waiters and a jazz pianist performing while you dine) - then you can't go past Kembang Goela, a restaurant that serves up beautifully presented Indonesian food. The Empal Balado (Crispy stewed beef in a fresh chilli dressing) and the Nasi Kuning (Turmeric flavoured rice accompanied by an assortment of sambals and Indonesian fried chicken) were standouts. The service was also impeccable - which is something that I actually noticed in almost all the restaurants and street stalls we visited during my stay. It appears that good service in Indonesia doesn't have to come at a premium price - which I think is something that all cultures can learn from.

The Soup Godfather
One of my favourite Indonesian dishes is the humble Soto - which is basically a rich chicken or beef soup filled with a choice of meats - including shredded chicken, stewed beef, beef tendon, marrow or my favorite - tripe. I love this dish because it is great comfort food - and the fact that every region in Indonesia has its own version. Pak Sadi is the undisputed Godfather of Soto Ayam (chicken soup). Originating from Surabaya, a large number of his restaurants (named after himself) are scattered across Indonesia, and of course, Jakarta. Pak Sadi even has his portrait hanging in each of these restaurants and also imprinted on the bowls and plates. How's that for feeding an ego?

Just like home
My parents come from a little town in Sarawak called Sibu, which is also referred to as Little Foochow due to the large number of Foochow Chinese who first settled there. Consequently, Foochow food has always reminded me of the visits to my parent's hometown since I was little. So it was with some surprise that these feelings came rushing back on this trip when I came across dishes that seemed to have strong Foochow influences. Bakmie - the famous Indonesian noodle dish that consists of freshly cooked home made noodles tossed in oil used to fry up crispy shallots, soya sauce, MSG (of course) and topped with minced meat or chicken tastes strikingly similar to the Sibu Kampua Mee. I also came across the Indonesian versions of Deah Biang (a crispy fried rice cake filled with minced meat) and Gom Biang (a chewy bagel topped with sesame seeds) which tasted heart-warmingly familiar.

And so, I realised that my initial reactions to uncharted territory were unfounded - that maybe the world is not as intimidating and different as we think it is. That you should never judge a country by just its cover story. Yes - we were stuck in traffic for hours. Its true - corruption in Indonesia is simply a way of life. There is also an unimaginable gap between the haves and the have-nots. But put aside your judgements about the way things are - and you'll find a country of genuine and respectful people who enjoy good food - just like yourself. And who knows? Just like me - you might even find yourself standing on common ground in a foreign land.

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