Bali good

Food - Bee Wilson explores a culinary blank spot

It is curious that the food of Indonesia is not better known. Much of the rest of south-east Asia now wafts its lemon grass, chillis, soy and ginger under the world's nose, and the world laps it up with a great collective slurp. Chinese rice, Thai curries, Malaysian laksa - all of these are now common and becoming commonplace. Yet Indonesia, despite being the fourth most populous nation of all, remains something of a culinary blank spot, and not even one to which any great rarity value is attached. Why is this so?

It is tempting to find the answer in the nation's diversity. What we call Indonesia is actually more than 15, 000 islands, of various climate, size, population and food. The cuisine of Bali is not identical to that of Jakarta. But then, regional diversity has hardly prevented China from exporting versions of its dishes to the rest of the world. Unlike China, however, Indonesia has no haute cuisine to speak of. Until 1967, there was not a single serious Indonesian cookbook, and there is no tradition of restaurant-going. More than 50 million Indonesians earn less than £1.50 a week, which, according to John Aglionby, explains the "basic" quality of much Indonesian street food.

A more serious cause of Indonesia's culinary ill-renown has been the failure - or refusal - to package its dishes in a way that westerners can recognise and enjoy. If I said the words "Thai food", you would probably think at once of those distinctive red and green curries common to every high street. We recognise these dishes almost as clearly as we recognise the different brands of soap they sometimes remind us of. Thailand has produced hordes of brilliant international entrepreneurs, especially in the restaurant business. Indonesia has not. Perhaps an explanation for the contrast in national spirit is that Thailand was never colonised, whereas Indonesia has been quelled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Japanese and then its very own Suharto.

Indonesians have suffered from a kind of culinary inferiority complex. As Sri Owen has observed, those Indonesian dishes that have been packaged to the world as typical are far from the nation's best. Nasi goreng, the most famous of all Indonesian dishes, is not truly Indonesian at all, but rather a borrowing of Chinese fried rice, often crowned with a leathery fried egg in homage to the country's Dutch colonial past. Gado-gado, a salad of cooked vegetables and hard-boiled egg in a spicy peanut dressing, is potentially delicious. But, when made here, it is usually marred by sugary peanut butter, and therefore tastes sickly. The same goes double for satay, that scourge of the polite drinks party (which is none the less a delectable morsel when made well).

Yet, much Indonesian food deserves greater notice. There are innumerable grilled fish dishes, as well as fish soups, made aromatic with basil and turmeric leaf. Layer cakes are eaten for tea, made with the nutmeg, cinnamon and mace that gave the troubled Spice Islands their name. Best of all, however, are the slow-cooked meat dishes, as flavoursome and tender as they are unprepossessing to look at. Rendang is a dish that is unique in its cooking method.

You start by simmering coconut milk with shallots, garlic, chillis, galangal, ginger, salam leaf and turmeric. Then you add meat - water buffalo is the most traditional; beef is an accessible substitute. The dish is cooked uncovered for an hour and a half, until the milk is rich and thick. Finally, the coconut liquid is reduced, stirred constantly until it changes to oil, and the meat, which began by braising or boiling, ends up being fried until it is sticky, dark and succulent.

Chicken rendang I have adapted this from Sri Owen's magnificent Indonesian Regional Food and Cookery

Take 1.7l coconut milk, made by blending 350g dessicated coconut with hot water, then sieving several times. Put in a wok with 4 cloves garlic, 6 shallots, a finger of ginger, 3 red chillis, all finely chopped, 1 piece galangal, 1 tsp turmeric, 1 stem lemon grass (bruised), 2 bay leaves, 1f tsp salt. Simmer for an hour. Add a jointed, skinned chicken and 2 tbsp tamarind water or the juice of a lemon, and cook for another hour. At this point you can stop, in which case the creamy-sauced dish is called a kalio. I actually prefer it like this. But for rendang, stir constantly until the sauce goes oily, and keep stirring until all the oil and sediment have been absorbed by the chicken. Serve with boiled rice and green vegetables.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture