Spice World

Jogjakarta, Indonesia

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 has been imported the world over from an archipelago in the East. In its wake, countries and cities have developed and declined, Machiavellian economics and colonization have ebbed and flowed, new lands have been discovered and traded, indigenous peoples have 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, has shaped the geopolitical world as we know it. To paraphrase a song, it was a spice world after all.

Wedang Uwuh (Garbage Hot Drink)

People no longer have to wage wars or stake their flags on foreign soil to have spices in their kitchens; my mother has 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 Kadipiro Baru
Soto Ayam

Soto is 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 gives paella its sunny color. But it was too hot for me; my sinuses went into overdrive and matched each sip with free-flowing mucus.

Bale Raos

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 relish the fruit and its juice, but cringe 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.

Sekul
Bir Jawa (Javanese non-alcoholic beer)

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’m no 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 is a major ingredient of Bir Jawa, or Javanese non-alcoholic beer, which has 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 has been well-known for centuries. And so, to me, it’s as tasty as medicine.

Nasi Goreng Kamul

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 (no, this is not a paid ad). 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.

At Oyot Godong with my Jogja Friends

A universal dinner dynamic between host and guest would have the former insist that 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 it means “garbage hot drink.” No, it’s not a recycled drink. It is 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.

Wedang Uwuh (Garbage Hot Drink)

The islands of Indonesia surely spiced up their foods. Flavors are strong – spicy is really spicy, sweet is really sweet in Javanese cuisine. And, as in wedang uwuh, they mix them all together. These Indonesian spices had made the world go round, as oil does now.

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!

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47 thoughts on “Spice World

  1. Food trip this time AJ? I’m delighted to read this from your blog by the way. 🙂 Indonesia is best known for its authentic and spicy cuisine. Singapore’s food has had so much influence from their kind of flavor which includes the likes of ‘nasi lemak’, ‘ayam panyet’ and ‘mee rebus’.. and a lot more others. I like the nasi lemak the most…

    Now, you give me the idea to do a food trip for my travel as well..:) It’s sure to be an exciting food escapade …

    Happy New Year and May You Have a Prosperous One..!!!!
    Cheers!!!
    Jorie

    1. Food-tripping is part and parcel of traveling, unless you go to McDonald’s all the time. Well, maybe once but not more than that. 🙂 I love the nasi goreng kind of cuisine, but I’m not really a spice boy. That’s why I’m overwhelmed by the richness and hotness of Javanese food.

      Yeah, you should write about food too. I heart Korean cuisine! Get a post out about that. 🙂 Thanks, Jorie!

    1. Not much of a foodie either, but being in the original Spice Islands (casually speaking, we can include Java) can turn you into one. Thanks, Meis!

    1. Wow! What did I do to deserve a comment from Lady D?! You can’t imagine how touched I am! You deserve a huggie huggie when I see you!

    1. Hi Neneng! I’m over the moon that you see and appreciate the joy I derive from traveling and blogging. They are already rewards in themselves, but getting comments like yours is the cherry on top! 🙂

  2. It all looks very yummy AJ. Pictures are great as always too. I just became a fan of your facebook page too. I know have a page and you can become a fan if you like.

    Hope you have a wonderful and Happy New Years. I look forward to your posts in 2011.

    Debra

    1. If you like ’em hot and spicy, they’re delish. I’m not familiar with Moroccan food so can’t say if Javanese food is similar.

  3. The food looks yum! More than the colour, turmeric (Hindu name “haldi”) is used for its medicinal properties. It is believed that it heals the body from pain and injury so we, since childhood, add a pinch of turmeric to a glass of hot milk and drink it before sleeping in the night, if need be. It is also believed that it cures the body from the inside:)

    1. Right, a lot of these spices are not just used as flavoring or coloring. They also double as curative or body-enhancing ingredients in food and potions. Now I know why the Spice Islands (the Mollucas in Indonesia, specifically) became the vortex of trading history.

  4. “Even among the Spice Girls, I found Ginger Spice to be a loud scene-stealer; she was exciting only in small doses – so is her herbal namesake” — The best original line I’ve seen in recent times. Good, Age.

    Well, food history is something that has always fascinated me and I always try to dig up trivia on food all the time. Needless to say, I found this post visually and information wise quite stimulating. I am getting a bit repetitive when I compare everything (almost) to India but I find there are many many intersections. Almost all the spices we have in our kitchen do not belong to our country. They are the legacy of the hordes of visitors who overstayed their hospitality in our country. I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but I cannot imagine life without those spices. The spices are so common place in our kitchen that we have long forgotten that they are actually foreign to our kitchen. Well, I enjoy spicy food and would have relished the dishes that you found a bit on the extreme.

    Well, I think I write a bit too much.

    Thanks for another blast from the past (This one was found by me!)

    Joy always,
    Susan

    1. I couldn’t resist slipping that Spice Girls bit in the article. 😀

      Don’t quote me on this but, if I remember my history correctly, foreign merchants transplanted these spices in other places like Grenada, Mauritius, and probably India too. These merchants wanted to circumvent having to make the long trip to Indonesia and battling with colonial powers there. In the end, some of the spice species thrived in their newfound home, others didn’t.

      Isn’t history the most exciting thing? It makes us understand our world a little bit better by framing it in such a context.

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  6. i have seen this post ..long time back !! hehe giving pose with a beverage !! good boy .hmm what is the Garbage Hot Drink ?? i wonder how it taste like ??

    1. @Sheril: Yeah, reposted for the World Blog Action Day, which I only knew about today!

      @Reiza: The rich flavors of Indonesian cuisine is for you then.

      Don’t let the name of the drink scare you guys (as I was, hehe). The flavors are not so strong, actually. And it’s mentholated, so cool to the throat. Like cough syrup, haha!

    1. Well, it’s a relief I did not do the opposite. I’m not into strong flavors, but a lot of people (like you) are. I think Javanese cuisine is a close cousin of Indian cuisine.

  7. Authentic Javanese gastronomy! Never tasted anything but I am sure these foods will make my taste buds go crazy!

    @Soto Kadipiro Baru, I like the way you experience their food the way the locals do 🙂 I am so glad that you’ve shown us this post and I will be checking more of your pages later @AJ! Happy Palm Sunday!

    1. When I travel, I always try local food, not the touristified version. Plus, it’s cheaper that way, haha! Javanese food was made to make taste buds go crazy, so good luck! 😀 Happy April Fools Day!

  8. Hi Aj! Glad to found a fellow wordpress.com blogger here. The ‘soto ayam’ intrigues me, made me wonder what meat is it made of? The term ‘ayam’ in our dialect means ‘dog meat’. Hopefully not. 😉

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