5.11.2021 Dinner in Yogyakarta
First things first. Rice is perhaps the most essential part of Javanese cuisine. It is present at every meal, but for Lebaran, the popular name for Eid al-Fitr in Indonesia, it is made in a distinctive way called Ketupat, in which the rice is wrapped inside a woven palm leaf and then boiled or steamed, so that the grains expand and shape themselves into a distinctive diamond shape. According to some, the woven palm signifies human errors and sins, whereas the whiteness of the rice inside symbolizes renewal and purity, as is attained by a full month of fasting during Ramadan. Ketupat, therefore, is a quintessential Eid dish. Since we are by no means good weavers, we are instead just giving you the good part - sticky cubes of jasmine rice made fragrant by Indonesian pandan leaves. (Vegan, no gluten)
Another must-have dish for Lebaran, opor ayam is chicken decadently stewed in coconut milk broth, flavored with a menagerie of Central Javanese herbs and spices. With over 141 million people (~1,000 per sq kilometer), the relatively tiny island of Java is the most populous in the world. And by most accounts, the island is the de-facto center of Indonesia - with the Hindu-Buddhists empires, Islamic Sultanates, and Dutch East Indies all centralized on the island. While it is home to several ethnic groups (such as the Sundanese, Madurese, and Betawi), the Javanese are by far the largest presence and have had the greatest impact on the cuisine of the island. Much of the island’s cuisine stems from the imperial city of Yogyakarta in particular (along with the other imperial city of Solo) - the city itself is considered a special zone of Indonesia, the only one still ruled by a monarchy, was never formally colonized, and even served as the capital of Indonesia from 1946-48 during the Indonesian National Revolution. Besides being a bastion for ballet, batik textiles, and wayang puppetry, the city is home to countless indigenous dishes (like this one) and Jogja’s emphasis on sweetish, herbal flavor has come to broadly define Javanese cuisine. Our version of opor ayam has the rhizome trifecta of ginger, galangal, and kencur root, along with the distinctive Indonesian muntok white peppercorn. It is also incredibly aromatic due to the lemongrass, Indonesian daun salam leaves and fresh makrut lime leaves. Combined with ketupat, this is an Eid staple in Central Java. (Contains candlenuts; no gluten).
Rendang Daging Sapi
One of the national foods of Indonesia, rendang was named the best dish in the world by CNN in 2011, then again in 2017. Okay, we know those lists are rather subjective, but trust us on this one—they’re not too far off! Rendang has its origins in the island of Sumatra, part of the cuisine of the Minangkabau people (the largest matrilineal society in the world!) Rendang is actually the method of preparation and preservation - the meat is cooked until all the liquid evaporates, the coconut milk caramelizes and turns to dark coconut oil, and the spices permeate the meat. Like this, the dish can last weeks without refrigeration in a tropical climate or a long voyage - making it the preferred dish for Indonesian Muslims making the Hajj to Mecca. Today, the cuisine of the Minangkabau people is popular throughout Java, with “Padang restaurants” speckled all over the island (named after the city in western Sumatra). The peripatetic Minangkabau people have spread out throughout the country, and Indonesians often joke that wherever you go throughout the country’s 17,000 islands, you will find someone selling Padang food. Though many of the spices like lime leaves, daun salam leaves, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, cumin, and pepper are native to the island, others such as star anise, cardamom, and kokum were brought by Indian traders. The dish is very significant for special occasions, such as weddings, or religious ceremonies such as Eid al-Fitr, with the four main ingredients—meat, coconut milk, chilli, and spices—all symbolizing four pillars of society (leaders, intellectuals, clerics, and the rest of the society respectively). In Yogyakarta, it is considered another classic Lebaran dish, although it is even more significant since the First Lady Fatmawati brought homemade beef rendang to freedom fighters in the city during the Indonesian National Revolution in 1946. (Contains candlenuts; no gluten)
This dish is forever emblazoned on my memory, perhaps because when we got to our host’s house in Yogya, tired and sweaty from travel, this is what she served us—a simple but hearty vegetable dish cooked in coconut milk and laced with belacan, the dried fish paste that gives it its unique flavor. This is a very Javanese dish, often served in Jogja during communal feasts known as slametan ceremonies. The dish has now spread throughout Indonesia as well as neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore. The vegetables used can vary, but we use Chinese eggplant, Thai eggplant, baby corn, and green beans. We’ve also included tempeh, a traditional Javanese protein made from fermented soybeans. (Contains candlenuts, shellfish; no gluten)
A faithful presence at every street stall, or warung, Gado Gado is as simple as it is delicious. We found no authoritative explanations for the origins of Gado Gado, only conjectures. One of the theories goes that Gado Gado comes from “digado,” a word in a regional Indonesian language, Betawi, that means “without rice.” And sure enough, there is no rice in the dish, but only steamed, boiled, or uncooked vegetables, served with a peanut sambal reminiscent of a satay sauce. Today, Gado Gado is popular in many parts of the country, including Central Java. It provides a delicious, crunchy respite from the sauce and spice of the menu. Our version is served with a bevy of veggies (napa cabbage, green beans, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes) along with a soft-boiled egg, fried shallots, and prawn crackers. (Sauce contains peanuts, soy, gluten; contains eggs, shellfish; vegetarian without prawn crackers)
Speaking of spice, let’s talk sambals! Like chutney, sambal is a canopy term for many chilli pastes, made with a mixture of spices and ingredients such as shrimp paste, ginger, lime juice, and more. These condiments are present at every meal, always on the side so that the diner can decide their own level of heat. Sambal Bajak is a very central Javanese sambal, so popular that it is now widely available to the Indonesian diaspora around the world in pre-packaged form. Ours is homemade, though, and like all sambal bajak, it uses palm sugar and is therefore not as fiery as other sambals. It still packs heat though, so test the waters before you add a dollop to your food! (Contains candlenuts, shellfish; no gluten)
Bubur Pulut Hitam
If you’re a regular White Pine Kitchen patron, you know we love our rice puddings! It helps that every culture seems to have a delicious variant of it, and Indonesia is no different. We have to say, though, that this one is rather unique, made with glutinous black rice instead of the traditional white rice, giving it its distinctive pitch black color. It’s flavored with dried longans and pandan leaves and then topped with a generous dollop of coconut cream. Not only is it very distinctive and Indonesian, it will also come as a refreshing cap to the complex and savory meal it follows. (Vegan, no gluten)
This is a very common tea in Jogja, known affectionately as “trash drink” (wedang means drink and uwuh means trash). It is normally made from the refuse of spice production—nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves leaves, as well as bark from the secang tree. The trees are normally found in Imogiri Cemetery, the royal graveyard complex in Yogyakarta where the Sultan and his family are buried. We are not providing the tea, but we are including a recipe for you to try this at home. Check out its distinctive red color from the secang wood it uses, but don’t worry if you can’t find it, it’s equally delicious with just the herbs and spices!
While Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, teems with activity and high-rises, infamous traffic jams and the general hectic din of many Asian supercities, its much more low-key cousin Yogyakarta (pronounced Jog-ja-karta, or lovingly shortened to Jogja) is a different vibe altogether. Despite the similar-sounding names, Jogja is far removed from the super-modern, hyper-fast pace of Jakarta. Tourists do come in droves, mostly to make a quick pit stop for visiting Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. And this city on the island of Java is one of the two remaining royal cities in the country, with a palace complex in the city center, the Kraton, still housing the reigning Sultan and his family. But when I visited with my wife in 2018, we were immediately struck by how time slows down in Jogja, allowing one to take in the imperial history, the bustling student life (it is home to several universities), and, of course, the food.
But before we delve into Jogja, let’s talk Indonesia, that conglomeration of 17,508 islands that is, somehow, one nation. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, as well as the largest island country. The archipelago, with its thousands of islands, was home to trade and commerce for many centuries, taking in influences from Muslim traders and Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms. Then, of course, there was good old colonialism—the British, French, and Portuguese all vying for a piece, but the Dutch East India Company retaining foremost control over the islands for 350 years. Ironically, it was Dutch presence that cobbled together this group of islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited, into the single entity that exists today. There were neighboring islands that spoke entirely different languages, tribes that had no connection to each other. The nationalist movement in the 1940’s kicked the Dutch out, and introduced the Indonesian bahasa, a language that very few people spoke at the time, as the national language. It was perhaps an entirely unintended gift of colonialism. Unlike the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and even the English, the Dutch did not encourage the use of the Dutch language on the islands, not wishing for the “natives” to be their equals in any way. What that meant was that after independence, the Indonesians did not have to grapple with a leftover colonial language with rigid class connotations (like so much of the post-colonial world). Instead, they decided on bahasa. Today, most Indonesians are bilingual, speaking the language of their own tribe or ethnic group at home, and bahasa in all public contexts.
There might be linguistic cohesion, but otherwise, Indonesia is a cacophony of influences, a true experiment in syncretism. Java, the world’s most populated island, and the island where the capital and other influential cities are located, is primarily Muslim. Bali, second home to Australian spring breakers, is predominantly Hindu. The official motto of the country translates to “Many, yet one.” Like any country with such vast differences of faith and language, Indonesia has had its share of troubles along religious and ethnic lines. And yet, it is inescapable to anyone visiting that the experiment is often successful—mosques, temples, pagodas, bars, nightclubs, this country has it all.
Yet, delightfully motley as it might be, Indonesia is the perfect host country for our Eid-al-Fitr dinner—it is, after all, the most populous Muslim country on the planet. Islam arrived in the archipelago around the 13th century, introduced by traders from South Asia and the Arab world. Since then, it has evolved into a uniquely Indonesian brand, with a vast spectrum of beliefs. Lebaran, as the Eid-al-Fitr celebration is called in Indonesia, marks the end of Ramadan (“lebar” means to “to finish” in Javanese) and is celebrated with massive feasts throughout the country. Since we are going to Yogyakarta for dinner tonight, we will focus on the cuisine of Central Java, where Jogja is located.
Firstly, we have to mention rice. Indonesia is the world’s third largest rice producer, and within that, 60% of production comes from Java. Steamed rice is the go-to carb, served at every meal. Other common ingredients include coconut milk, peanut sauce, turmeric, and ginger, all products of the location and topography of the island, as well as its centuries’ worth of contact with traders from South Asia, China, and the Arab world. It is a cliche to say that food in Indonesia is communal–where in the world is food not communal—but I will say that while in Jogja, we were lucky enough to participate in some truly family-style meals, including a meal shared with an entire village near Selo, a mountain town two hours from our host’s home. We were there to attend a rain-making ritual, in which clerics asked the gods—Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian gods—for rain. The rest of the time, we ate with our host at the local warung, or roadside stall, where a kind woman called Etse served us the most mind-blowing nasi goreng we have ever had.
As I write this, I am taken back to sticky Jogja dawns, where, lying underneath a mosquito net, seeking the cool air from the open window, I would hear one of the world’s most ethereal sounds—the local mosque cleric calling believers to the morning prayer. Eid Mubarak!
Featured Recipe: Wedang Uwuh
Makes 4 servings
1 inch ginger
5 makrut lime leaves, dried or fresh (dried lime leaves sold at Spice Merchants in Kerrytown)
2 bay leaves
2 sticks cinnamon
5 cardamom pods
1 Star Anise
1 lemongrass stalk, crushed and knotted
¼ cup sappan wood (optional, available on Amazon)
4 tablespoons honey
4 cups water
Place all the ingredients except the honey
Bin a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let the mixture boil until it is a dark red color (or medium brown without the sappan wood)
Let it cool and steep for about 10 minutes
Add the honey and serve
Featured Recipe: Featured Recipe: Sayur Lodeh
Makes 4 servings
Adapted from Daily Cooking Quest
2 tablespoon oil
1 daun salam leaf (optional)
1 can (400 ml) coconut milk
750 ml chicken stock
2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tablespoon palm sugar (or regular sugar)
1 Chinese eggplant, cut into wedges
1/2 can baby corn
6 Thai eggplant, quartered
10 long beans, cut into 2-inch pieces (or regular green beans)
1/2 lb. soybean tempeh, diced
1 tomato, quartered
Spice paste (grind the following together):
4 oz. shallots
4 cloves garlic
2 teaspoon shrimp paste, toasted
1/2 inch galangal
1/2 inch ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon fresh turmeric
5 red chilies such as fresno
¼ tsp salt
2 tbsp water
Heat oil in a pot over a medium - high heat. Fry the spice paste for ~5 minutes or until fragrant
Add daun salam (if using). Stir for another minute
Add coconut milk, chicken stock, season with salt and palm sugar. Bring to a boil
Add eggplants, corn, green beans, tempeh, and tomato. Once it boils again, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are fully cooked and tender
Recipes Inspired By:
Anita’s great Chinese-Indonesian food blog
I was lucky enough to see Anissa Helou debut her cookbook Feast: Food of the Islamic World at the 2019 Islamabad Literary Festival. She’s a culinary powerhouse and this book is a spectacular resource for anyone cooking food from the Islamic diaspora, from Morocco to Indonesia!
Tajal Rao and Retno Pratiwi’s NYT write up about an Indonesian Eid al-Fitr feast
One of Bourdain’s posthumous Parts Unknown episode in Indonesia
Some more information about Padang food
Watching shadow puppets is a must do in Yogyakarta
Elizabeth Pisani’s masterful book Indonesia, Etc. is a must read to learn more about the amalgam of islands that somehow work together as a country
Lebaran will be different this year, but this is a good primer on the festivities in Indonesia this year