It took us until 2011 to earn global recognition for our exquisite cuisine – thank you, Beef Rendang – but of course, as you all may know, Rendang is but a mere cog in a much larger machine. You see, in a nutshell, Indonesian food is made from a combination of hundreds of indigenous cultures mixed with outside influences chosen by way of natural selection that lasted for centuries.
The reason why our culinary landscape has such a diverse history is due to our country being recognised as an international trade hub during the days of yore. Our ancestors picked up a thing or two about cooking, and away they went. The Gado-Gado (mixed vegetables), for instance, is named from the word “gadu”, which means “mashed” in Portuguese. Our Iberian trader friends also gave us the likes of Bika (honeycomb cake) and Risoles (rissole) as well, while the Spanish lent us our penchant for hot, spicy flavours.
Dig deeper and you’ll be astounded even further. Most of our meat-based dishes – especially those that use mutton such as Tongseng (curry stew), satays and so on – come from our Arabian friends from the Middle East, whilst the Chinese brought noodles, rice and tofu into the mix. Our longest conquerors the Dutch taught us to make slow-cooked Semur (stew), while the way we use a rainbow of spices for our food is a method learned from the Indians.
The country of spices
Spices have probably played the biggest role in defining Indonesian cuisine. Some purvey a variety of health benefits that have been known since ancient times, composed of plant-based nutrients, essential oils, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants that are required by our body. For thousands of years, these same spices have been used as an anti-inflammatory remedy and digestive medications, while a number of them have been found to have anti-clotting effects that could help in easing blood flow, preventing stroke and coronary artery diseases. Heck, there are even claims that quite a handful of these spices can help prevent cancer.
The great thing is it’s that we have so many of them. Some have grown naturally in the eastern part of the country, such as nutmegs, cloves, and galangal, while others have been brought in by outsiders and left to blossom in our fertile soil. They include lemongrass, cinnamon, tamarind, and coriander from India, as well as ginger and garlic from China.
What makes Indonesian cuisine so special is how we have managed to combine all the spices together in harmony – from the ingredients to the cooking techniques – yet each region has its own way of putting them in unison.
When someone says he or she likes Soto (soup with meat and vegetables), that person has to be way more specific than that. That Padang restaurant franchise does serve Soto, but it’s Soto Padang (Padang beef soup), which is different to, let’s say, Soto Mie Bogor (Bogor noodle soup).
Indonesian food is the perfect representation of Indonesia as a country; a country that is so diverse because it comprises hundreds and thousands of islands; a country so fertile and rich where some say “even a stick can grow”; a country so abundant in experience, knowledge and skill passed on by visiting traders from all over the world for centuries.