On the food trail
Indonesian food isn’t all that strange isn’t it? Perhaps it’s just chillies that sets it apart from other kinds of food, isn’t it? A littoral state, covering a large swath of sea, studded by 17,300 islands, 18,300 by other counts, the food here is as varied as the people and landscape.
But let’s start with the crazy cuisine. Pictured below are bugs. Live, creepy crawlies with 6 legs and a pungent sharp after taste. These little critters can be eaten fresh off the stalks of padi or mashed into a sauce with chillis. I can’t say it was my favourite delicacy but it didn’t force my stomach into convulsions either. Andrew and Bryan also gamely gulped down a few. For the benefit of our viewers and those following our blog, we studied the taste and texture of the bugs in depth too. Instead of just gulping them down with water, we crunched into the exoskeleton, swished it about our mouths, pressed the paste onto our palates to bring out the full flavour. Like wasabi, it does irritate the nasal passages but, only slightly. It has a lingering aftertaste that is sharp and slightly bitter like parsley or celery, and it leaves a hint of citrus flavours. Recounting our experience to other locals, some days later, it seemed that it wasn’t very popular amongst our Indonesian friends. They would only respond by scrunching up their faces and saying “ewwwwwwwwwwww”.
Next on the scary food menu were fanged rodents of the sky – Bats!!! Definitely a lot more approachable than insects, I was eager to try this. Skewered and grilled, they cut a gruesome sight with their dessicated bodies and skin stretched tight over their burnt bodies. They came in 4 flavours; grilled, fried, in slathered chilli, and slathered in a thick savoury sauce. The meat was dry and stringy. Just 1 or 2 bats would not make a substantial meal. The meat itself was very much like duck except it had a stronger, gamier, earthlier taste. With its lips stretched back due to the cooking process, the fangs protruded from the mouth more prominently giving it a very menacing look. I asked the stall owner if the animals were gutted before cooking, as there were no visible lacerations along its underbelly and its penis stood out noticeably. I didn’t have to wait for a reply as a hungry Bryan, probably dissatisfied by the amount of meat he was able to extract from the arms of the bat, took a bite out of its swollen belly. Teeth piercing the abdomen, a squirt of oil spilled forth. Pulling away, a trail of its intestines, caught in Bryan’s teeth, followed.
” I think I taste poo”
No surprise there, Its probably too much work to gut these little bats, one by one. If you stick to the flesh around the arms and on the outside of its ribcage, it really is quite a tasty dish. Do make advance orders, though, as these aren’t ordinarily sold over the counter. This same place, however, also sells a variety of very delicious pork dishes, chief amongst these was the Babi Guling. The slices of flesh of the roasted suckling pig was so juicy and filled with flavour that every strip that i put in my mouth was an explosion of taste. In the 3 week trip that I took to Lombok and the surrounding islands, I had cravings for this on many occasions, and went back thrice. It was THAT good. I dare even proclaim it to be the best thing that I tasted in all my time in West Nusa Tenggara.
Other meals were less dramatic but no less an event, if for nothing else but the shock and awe of flavour and taste. A defining point of the dishes is how it is marinated. With every bite, it is evident that sauces are carefully prepared with every nuance of its seasoning designed to bring out the best in the ingredients. The time taken is also discernable; every inch of vegetable and meat is packed with flavour. Nothing is bland, nothing is insipid.
Almost every meal is a plethora of culinary exploration. There wasn’t a day that a meal bored us or left us with a growling stomach at night.
The simple act of grilling seafood was also given an islander touch by the method of using coconut husks to stoke up the flames and embers over which the bounty of the seas was cooked. It imparted a different kind of smoky flavour to meats from the usual charcoal or hickory. There was a sweet smell to the smoke, like a subtle incense.
Even simple street foods, or familiar foods were tastier here. The humble satay, found all over South East Asia here, reaches a zenith in its preparation here. The texture of the meat is neither too rubbery from the flesh of an old animal, nor was it too soft like that of an animal grown in a factory battery. And once again, the flavour packs a punch. The flavours were never subtle.
Simple Chinese fare such as sweet and sour pork and egg foo yong were given a halal treatment. No pork but that didn’t take anything away from how delicious it was.
What I liked about the food in Indonesia was the pluralism it displayed, just like how Indonesian society functions. Alongside traditional halal food, one can find all kind of cuisine side by side. Although most of the time it is slightly less conspicuous to take into consideration religious sensitivities, one would not be hard pressed to find Hindu food, Chinese food and traditional foods just next to stalls selling Muslim food. Western desserts, fast food and public houses all operate openly and respectfully of one another, so much so that the choices are simply dizzying.