September 21 – 23, 2010
If you traced the twists and turns of world history on a map, you might as well have traced the routes of the spice trade. For 5,000 years, spice had been imported the world over from an archipelago in the East. In its wake, countries and cities developed and declined, Machiavellian economics and colonization ebbed and flowed, new lands were discovered and traded, indigenous peoples either ended up as converts to foreign religions or casualties of wars and genocides. Truly, this earthy assortment of roots, leaves, rhizomes, seeds, and bark, collectively known as spices, had shaped the geopolitical world as we knew it. To paraphrase a song, it was a spice world after all.
People no longer had to wage wars or stake their flags on foreign soil to have spices in their kitchens; my mother had an array of them in her cupboard. Nevertheless, I was still looking forward to sample these spices in their land of origin: Indonesia. I only asked one favor from my local friend – feed me authentic Indonesian cuisine garnished with homegrown spices.
For my first meal in Jogjakarta, my friend took me to a roadside restaurant. Nothing fancy: no air-conditioning – just wheezing ceiling fans, widely-opened entrances, and a coldly distracted waitress. Aqua-colored Soto Kadipiro Baru was small but spacious, and known for decades as the best place for soto, the ubiquitous Indonesian food, in the city.
Soto was a piping hot broth made with chunks of meat and vegetables. I opted for the chicken soup variety. My friend introduced me to soto ayam. I retorted, “AJ, I am” then bowed and ate.
The soup was curry bright – blame turmeric, a spice native to Java and used by Hindus as a dye, for its yellow color and aroma. Rice and various herbs submerged in the soup made it look like jaundiced porridge, admittedly not an appetizing sight. My mother said turmeric also gave paella its sunny color. But it was too hot for me; my sinuses went into overdrive and matched each sip with free-flowing mucus.
Dinner was a more formal occasion and, fingers-crossed, mucus-free. My friend and his wife took me to Bale Raos, the venue of their recent wedding reception. The restaurant’s Javanese architecture and proximity to Kraton Jogjakarta (the Royal Palace of Jogjakarta) lent a distinctly traditional dining ambiance. More significantly, it served cuisine favored by Jogjakarta royalty.
It turned out I didn’t have royal taste; I was hopelessly plebeian. The fusion of flavors of Javanese food was jarring to me. The couple ordered a sekul-based dish, which showcased a cone-shaped mound of yellow rice surrounded by vegetables and meat. I correctly guessed it was shaped in honor of Merapi, an active volcano in Jogjakarta, and its surrounding dishes the varied offerings for the gods. Its rich taste was dominated by coconut – from coconut shreds sprinkled over the meat. I relished the fruit and its juice, but cringed at teaming its strongly distinct flavor with any viand. Another tragic touch was the inclusion of cashew nuts, which I found overpowering. Thankfully, the spinach, tomato, and krupuk (prawn crackers, called kropek in my country) side servings saved the dish for me.
Of all the spices in the dish, ginger was the overriding flavor. A perennial product in Chinese apothecaries, ginger was also a dining table staple in medieval Europe. I was not a big fan, though. Even among the Spice Girls, I found Ginger Spice to be a loud scene-stealer; she was appealing only in small doses – so was her herbal namesake. Ginger was a major ingredient of Bir Jawa, or Javanese non-alcoholic beer, which had all the appearance of beer, complete with frothy top, but with the taste of ginger tea. I wondered how it compared with ginger ale. Some historians blamed the spice trade for bringing the Black Plague to Europe, but ironically, the Germans sprinkled spice – ginger – on their ale as a preventive measure. The curative reputation of ginger had been well-known for centuries. And so, to me, it was as tasty as medicine.
My last night in Jogjakarta called for a more let-your-hair-down celebration. The perfect venue was the rooftop restaurant of Mirota Batik, a famous souvenir shop on Jalan Malioboro, the kinetic shopping street of the city. Mirota Batik offered a wide range of traditional products with very affordable prices. Oyot Godong, the restaurant perched on the top floor, was built like a tree house. The elevated and private hut-like compartments were accessible by steep wooden ladders.
In contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed this food finale. We had nasi goreng kamul (it sounded like that anyway), a burrito version of Indonesia’s national food, nasi goreng – fried rice with garlic and onions. It was akin to Shanghai rice in my country. This culinary variant rendered nasi goreng as stuffing in an egg wrap. The dish struck a Goldilocks balance of flavors and spices, sparing my taste buds from further shock. Its richness was tempered enough to be a daily fare.
A universal dinner dynamic between host and guest dictated that the former should insist the latter taste something scarily exotic. After much ado, the foreign guest would usually consent for goodwill, and then squirm. Case in point: wedang uwuh, literally “garbage hot drink.” Not a recycled drink, it was a motley concoction of spices – ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and secang – traditionally gathered from the grounds of an ancient palace, dunked in a glass of hot water, turning it blood red. Leaves, pieces of bark, and julienned herbs were all stuffed in the glass as in a trash bin. Amidst the cheers of my friends, I took tentative sips of it at first. In all fairness to the drink, it didn’t taste like rubbish at all. In fact, its aroma was slightly soothing like menthol. The taste was still cough-syrupy, but I supposed water and sugar had already neutralized the powerful flavors.
The islands of Indonesia surely spiced up their foods. Flavors were strong – spicy was really spicy, sweet was really sweet in Javanese cuisine. And, as in wedang uwuh, they mixed them all together. These Indonesian spices made the world go round, as oil would eventually do.
But I still wondered how else Europeans used these spices from the east, other than in food, medicine, perfumery, embalming, and superstition. Then I thought of how, say, Queen Elizabeth and her boy toy, the Earl of Essex, could smooch before the invention of toothpaste and mouthwash. What could they have used as breath freshener? I didn’t have to wonder after guzzling that aromatic red liquid. All those spices made me feel fresh, flushed, and definitely not funky. Selamat minum!