Breakfast at Zest Hotel Airport, or Indonesian Dishes 101

Zest Hotel Dining Room

I’ve traveled a little within the United States and I’ve been on several long flights. I’ve eaten my fair share of prepared breakfasts. But I was surprised by the food offered by the breakfast buffet at the hotel we stayed at. I shouldn’t have been. My dad had been offering me “breakfast food” like fried rice, noodles and kerupuk for years. My brothers regularly accuse me of being totally American. Perhaps they are right, because eating such foods for breakfast had never seemed appropriate for me. I would rather have Western cuisine like yogurt, toast, eggs benedict, bacon, sausage, and hash browns for breakfast. This time, though, I really didn’t have a choice.

The things offered at the buffet were a mix of Western and Indonesian cuisine. “American” foods like oatmeal, cereal, and toast were offered, as well as hardboiled eggs. But the eggs had already been peeled and cut in half. The accepted way to eat those was to apply a liberal dollop of chili sauce (Indonesians love spices) and other toppings. More common fare such as spicy fried noodles, fried rice, congee (known as bubur in Bahasa Indonesia), and of course, kerupuk were available as well.

I’ve always loved Indonesian food. I maintain that it’s one of the best parts about going to visit there. Not only is it incredibly cheap (10000 Indonesian rupiah is exchanged for $0.75 — $0.76 at the time of this writing, and most meals are around 30000–50000 rupiah) but it’s also vibrant, flavorful, and extremely diverse. Indonesian cuisine demonstrates very complex flavors in even the simplest of dishes. One of the first sets of words Indonesian babies and children learn are the words for flavors: gurih (savory, or umami), pedas (hot and spicy), manis (sweet), asin (salty), asam (sour) and pahit (bitter).

As everything in its culture, the cuisine of Indonesia reflects an incredibly long history as one of the most important global trade regions since at least the 7th century. The Indonesian archipelago is composed of thousands of islands, and each region has its own culture, including a unique dialect and often a unique cuisine based on foreign influences as well as indigenous culture. I marvel still at each Indonesian individual’s ability to seamlessly switch from one regional dialect to another. Most Indonesians I’ve met known at least three languages. For example, my grandmother knows at least half a dozen regional dialects, as well as fluent Dutch, German, and standard Bahasa Indonesia.

Spanish and Portuguese traders introduced European produce in the country even before the Dutch came to colonize the archipelago. Everyone from the Middle Easterns to the French played a significant hand in the development of the modern Indonesian culture and their influence is evident in the cuisine. For example, Sumatran cuisine has Middle Eastern and Indian influences, featuring curried meat and vegetables such as gulai and kari. Javanese cuisine is mostly indigenous but has a moderate Chinese influence. Chinese food such as bakmi (noodles), bakso (meat or fish balls), and lumpia (spring rolls) have been totally assimilated and are now standard dishes in Javanese cuisine.

Sate ayam (chicken skewers)

Popular Indonesian dishes such as nasi goreng (fried rice), gado-gado (salad of boiled, blanched, or steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, fried tofu or tempeh, lontong, kerupuk, and peanut sauce dressing), sate (meat skewers), and soto (soup of broth, meat, and vegetables) are ubiquitous and essentially considered the unofficial national dishes. The official national dish, however, is tumpeng, chosen by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy as a dish that binds the diversity of Indonesia’s culinary traditions.

Tumpeng is a cone-shaped rice dish shaped like a mountain with vegetables and meat as side dishes. The rice itself may be nasi tim (steamed rice), nasi uduk (rice cooked with coconut milk), or most commonly nasi kunig (nasi uduk colored with kunyit, or turmeric). The rice stands on tampah (rounded woven bamboo container) covered with banana leaves, and surrounded by assorted Indonesian dishes. The philosophy of Tumpeng is related to the geography of Indonesia, especially as one with numerous mountains and volcanos. It dates back to ancient Indonesian tradition that revered mountains as the homes of hyangs. A hygang is an unseen spiritual entity that has supernatural power in ancient Indonesian mythology. It can be divine or ancestral. The shape of the rice is meant to mimic a holy mountain. The surrounding dishes represent the life and harmony of nature. Traditionally, the dishes must have a balance to them, containing at least one animal meat to represent a land animal, fish to represent sea creatures, eggs to represent birds, and vegetables to represent the plant kingdom. They feature at parties, weddings, and ceremonies, including the Javanese feast of slametan that symbolizes the social unity of those participating in it. The feast is common with closely related Javanese, Sudanese and Madurese people. They can be given to commemorate almost any occasion, including birth, birthdays, circumcision, marriage, death, moving to a new house or city, and so forth. After the people participating in the ceremony pray, the top of the tumpeng is cut and delivered to the most important person. He or she may be the group leader, the oldest person, the honored guest, or the one being celebrated.

A traditional tumpeng dish
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