The Indonesian diet is based fundamentally on rice. Most meals consist of a big scoop of white rice with some protein or vegetables to accompany it. Even in places where no rice can be grown, people buy and eat large quantities of it. Fishermen trade the fish they catch for rice, just as farmers will sell the rice they grow to buy protein to supplement their diet. Rice lies at the heart of the civilizations of Indonesia and East Asia. By creating flat, terraced wet-rice fields, up to three or four crops of rice can be grown and harvested every year without depleting the soil. Because it is grown so quickly, Indonesian rice often has little taste. After a few months of eating rice every day, we could taste the difference between bland, mushy, wet-field rice and the tastier, nutty-flavored dry-grown kind.
The food that accompanies rice is laced with spices so that small quantities can be mixed in to give it flavor. “Nasi campur” (literally, mixed rice) might consist of a heap of rice surrounded by a small amount of fried tempe or tofu, a piece of curried chicken, fried chicken or beef “rendang” (meat cooked in spicy thick coconut gravy), an egg or some bean sprouts or boiled vegetables in a spicy salad. All of these condiments are cooked ahead of time and served cold with the rice. We never understood how they kept under the hot sun all day long without spoiling. Indonesian cooking uses the same spices as elsewhere in South-East Asia : lemon-grass, garlic, onions, ginger, galangal, pepper, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and fresh turmeric. In addition, there are several ingredients that are specifically Indonesian. Candlenuts (“kemiri”) look like large macadamias, but have a bitter taste. “Salam” look like bay leaves, but have a stronger, more aromatic flavor. Texture is important in Indonesian cuisine. Raw coconut, bean sprouts or peanuts are often mixed in with salads and vegetables to give a satisfying crunch. Sometimes sweet flavors are mixed with the salty or spicy together in one dish. Indonesians love “kecap manis” (sweet soy sauce), one of the principal ingredients of sate sauce and of “gado-gado”, a salad of boiled vegetables and chunks of cooked rice smothered with spicy peanut sauce. The food quality we encountered depended as much on the cook as on the available ingredients. A woman selling food from a flimsy table on the street corner could often outdo big restaurants in freshness and taste. When in doubt, always ask the locals!