Indonesian food or where sunrise becomes sunrice

“rice field with sunray” by Daniel Nainggolan on Unsplash

Olive food, from the head tomatoes. But what I knew about Indonesian food before coming here? Not much.

I have visited South East Asia before (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore) which painted an idea. I am also a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain (and will never put a past tense there) and seen episode of his show No Reservations (Season 2 Episode 12) and later Parts Unknown, as well as other episodes of food-world personas such as Andrew Zimmern. Mostly I imagined a lot of colors, taste, spices, and rice. 
Oh, I was right about the last one.

Mentioning Bourdain’s visit to Indonesia while filming Parts Unknown, two things strikeout. Bourdain, known not only for diving into food but into the culture when visiting a place and known for battling his personal demons too, talked about death with local people and how is it perceived in Indonesia. It is not the end but only the beginning. 
There are six officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestant, Roman-Catholic, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. And more than 200 non-official religions. Belief in reincarnation and this life/death cycle is most common for Hindu people and if you are interested in it, I recommend to visit Balinese people.

Second thing, he talked about his own end. Or the beginning, if you chose to believe in the same thing as Indonesians. He said: “Leave me in the jungle. I don’t want a party: ‘reported dead.’ You know, what actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me, unless they can provide entertainment value,” Bourdain says. “Throw me into a wood chipper and spray me into Harrods, you know, at the middle of the rush hour. That would be pretty epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”

I remembered these words when I found out he died and remembered him in a way he would approve of. I was visiting Zaragoza in Spain in that time, went to a local market with 0 Spanish level and met a friendly seller with 0 English level and managed to charade out and buy ham and red wine and sat next to the fountain while enjoying every last bit and bite. I already knew I am going to move to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2 months. I sat there, ate and drank and thought about it all.

I love doing research when visiting a place, is kind of a foreplay before the big foodgasm. What did I find out during these 2 months? When living in Jakarta on a scholarship (read as: on a budget) eating well can be a struggle. 
Most popular venues are warungs (hawker street stall), where dishes are local, cheap, quickly ready but at the same time fried in palm oil, everything comes with rice or noodles and if you have a delicate stomach, things might get “interesting”. 
All my expat sources adviced me to bring a bottle of booze (as a remedy plus there is a crazy tax on alcohol), to bring honey (expensive too) and spices that I like.

So, what is the reality? I am starting my 3rd month here and (sorry, Indonesia) must say that in my opinion, among SE Asian cuisines, this one is the least variable, healthy and tasty one. 
Dishes are not salty enough, they are either sweet or spicy. Rice is offered with everything, breakfast too. Lot of my local friends say: “If I don’t eat rice, I feel like I haven’t eaten.” 
That is my biggest struggle: rice, fried food and expensive and sometimes tasteless vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Oh, and wine.

On the bright side, you can always ask for tidak gula (no sugar), bakar (grilled) or rebus (cooked) instead of goreng (fried) version or shop for groceries and cook at home. 
I love dining out and the atmosphere of warungs and I am not stopping to try new Indonesian dishes either (or weirder ones like paniki — bats and belalang — grasshoppers. Actually can not wait to eat out of Jakarta.)

Here are my top 10 dishes so far:

1, soto ayam — chicken noodle soup
2, kangkung — water spinach
3, sate telur puyuh — quail eggs skewers
4, kwetiau rebus — cooked flat rice noodles
5, ikan bakar — grilled fish
6, ayam bakar — grilled chicken (better than goreng, that is usually made in the morning and sits there all day. Plus, not fried in palm oil, yaay.)
7, cumi bakar — grilled squid
8, otak goreng — brain fritter
9, rendang — beef stew
10, sate domba— lamb satay/skewers

Eating is one of my favorite activities.

You guessed it right, just combine the main ingredient (ayam is chicken, ikan is fish etc.) with the style of preparation (rebus, bakar, goreng) and you can order a food by yourself! Bagus! (Good!) Other useful words are makan = food, minum = drink, pedas = spicy, gula = sweet/sugar, nasi = rice, mie = noodles and terima kasih = thank you.

It would be great if Indonesians start to think of food packaging and used materials the same way they think about life. It is a cycle. When you finish and throw the plate or straw on the ground, it stays “alive”. In the oceans, stomachs of animals or just flying in the wind, until piled up by someone and sadly, set on fire. That is why I urge you to learn those words too: tidak sedotan = without plastic straw, tidak tas plastik = without the plastic bag and if ordering a takeaway, bring your own food container or flask/bottle.

If you want to watch the episode, it is season 12, episode 3 of Parts Unknown.

Again, I agree with Anthony. Occasional treat in form of fried rice (nasi goreng), sweet ice tea (teh es) or if you are into sweet stuff, fried banana (pisang goreng) won´t kill you. On the other side, occasional treat in form of cheese (80 000 Rp for a block), a glass of wine (95 000 Rp) or pasta salad in a zero-waste restaurant (125 000 Rp) won´t kill you or your budget either.

In the end, it is most important who you break your bread with and the fun and good conversation you are having while doing it. Just like Anthony Bourdain did.

“Selamat makan!” (Bon Appétit!)