October 07, 2009
Surabaya, Indonesia - The Heart of Indonesian Cuisine
The Second Largest City in Indonesia
The average outsider, or at least foreigner in the eyes of an Indonesian, might say something like, “hm, I don’t know where Indonesia is, but I know where Bali is,” or they might say, “Hm, isn’t Indonesia IN Bali?” You’ll rarely get someone who’s not familiar with world affairs to proclaim that they know even an ounce about a major world city like Jakarta (one of the largest cities in the world by population). And if you manage to come across someone who’s heard of the second largest city in Indonesia, they’re either a native of the city or someone named Javier or Mattatouille. Yes, Surabaya is the oft-forgotten “town” where our host, Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, is a native citizen. It’s also the source of some of the most fantastic food experiences of our trip.
Though we spent an evening here on our first night in Indonesia, we weren’t given to opportunity to experience this city for all it was worth. Surabaya, is a portmanteau of two words in Indonesian that mean “shark” and “crocodile”, a meaning that’s encapsulated in an intriguing sculpture of the two beasts battling mid-air, located along some unremarkable roadway in the city. What this city does well is ease Javier and I into the heart of Indonesian culture, which to me means three things: motorbikes, malls, and damn good food.
This city of 2.5 Million has something like 2 Million motorbikes. I’m not quite sure how that figure works out considering that the average number of passengers on a motorbike is easily over 2.75. Yes, at times we’re talking whole families of four, though I think in one instance I saw an outlier of five. Five people on one motorbike (well, 3 teeny kids and 2 tiny parents, but still). It’s nuts how many people are whizzing around on these little 150cc bikes. Javier’s enamored, that lover of all things two-wheeled. He misses his Vespa-like scooter back at home.
Malls. Look for the largest structure in your eye’s plain sight and it’s probably a multi-storied collection of frou-frou department stores and brandless retailers hawking cheesy but still manageably trendy menswear or maybe a ragtag collection of massage equipment, ready to be delivered to your doorstep in a matter of hours. Don’t forget to look for the ubitquitous J.Co, a Krispy-Kreme copycat who actually does a much better job of catering to Asian tastebuds and sensibilities, with flavors that don’t pucker the palate with saccharine sweetness. Instead, J.Co offers peculiar combinations like “Mona Pisa” (A striking rosy beauty with tomato-cheese spread and chopped chicken sausages) and “Da Vin Cheez” (Savor the enticing aroma of creamy cheese donut garnished with gourmet minced garlic. Bon Appetito!).
These are real donut flavors in a real donut shop with actual descriptions beneath them. We passed on these creations and opted for more sedate choices like green tea glaze, strawberry cream filling and plain vanilla. The texture is light, airy, and scrumptious. In my entire time in Indonesia, I think we ended up going to something like 8 malls. Seriously. More on them later when I talk about Jakarta. You can see here there's more to malls than just shopping and food, as Fiona and I bust out our Dance Dance Revolution skills (rather ineptly) barefoot in the mall.
The Cuisine of Surabaya
Good food – ah, this is when you voracious readers of this blog start caring about forlorn post. Well, consider that we started off running, with Mamma Chandra greeting us ragged travelers from Bali with a fantastic meal of pork satay, oatmeal-crusted fried shrimp, fried slices of eggplant, and Chinese-style veggie stir-fry. I think early on in the meal I completely forget any sense of propriety and ate with the utter abandon of a starving little boy. I scrounged off those succulent pork pieces, slathered in nutty sauce, while munching off a head of the poor shrimp with my other hand. Next I’d wolf down the slightly crisped eggplant slices, candied and sweet from a spicy glaze, then take down a half-dozen chopstick scoops of rice interspersed with the stir fry veggies. I’m quite sure I neglected any table conversation and sure as hell forget to drink water in between gulps of food. It wasn’t just that I was hungry, it was all so delicious! It was good to come home to such wonderful home-cooked food after finishing off the better part of Bali with overpriced tourist crap (suckling pig, bbq ribs/lamb and crispy duck excepted).
The next battery of meals continued to delight my curious appetite, more or less smitten by the intrigue of flavors and the raw but well-executed preparation of Indonesian foods. The next day Mrs. Chandra took the three of us bloggers to a deserted lunch spot featured uber-traditional fare. I later found out why all of these spots were empty during our stay – we’d arrived during the two-week long Ramadan. We’d had our share of excellent, and incredibly authentic Indonesian home cooking thanks to Mrs. Chandra, but we hadn’t really delved into what restaurants could offer. Though we might have been the only diners during lunchtime at this particular establishment (the name eludes me), the fare hit notes that Javier and I could scarcely imagine.
The first taste was dewat, a cold soup with a mélange of various foods, such as mung bean, jackfruit, and red bean, the liquid being comprised of coconut milk and ice. It’s a peculiar combination of flavors that confuses me for dessert, but is really something that intersperses every few bites of the meal. Another plate holds things like cold brisket, fritter, and tempeh, a favorite of vegan establishments and completely appropriate at this table. Though Javier might have been exuberate at being able to try tempeh in its natural habitat, I didn’t care much for the bland, natto-like mold of fermented whole soybeans. Either way, I hear this version is much more palatable than something you’ll find at a hipster vegan joint in Echo Park (those dreaded places). To me, it tasted like soil-flavored plastic, with the texture of year-old playdoh.
Instead we skipped over to what might be the quintessential Indonesian dish, a salad made with leafy greens, crunchy bits, and a powerful peanut sauce that bound the ingredients together. It’s similar to gado-gado, the mother dish of Surabaya, both of which contains cold greens in a peanut sauce. Two dishes based on short rib come along, one nestled in a turmeric-flavored broth, the other covered in a thick peanut sauce. The flavors are hard to pinpoint for my palate, which are unfamiliar with the combination of spices that engender Indonesian cuisine. Mostly everything has a hint of or sometimes an overwhelming sweetness. It’s a bit how vinegary flavors tend to dominate Korean cuisine or curry flavors in Indian. It’s such a different spectrum for me, but I thoroughly enjoy it. The beef satay covered in a thick satay sauce, in all its peanuty glory, conveys and confirms this theory. The strands of bright lemongrass give a superb contrast to the heavy sauce.
We end up having some of the best meals of our visit to Indonesia, and there’s so much more to come. In my next post, I’ll talk about Padang food (the origin of which is the city which was severely affected by the earthquake in Sumatra last week). I’ll also cover a few Chinese-Indonesian seafood restaurants which successfully meld the best of both cuisines.
Posted by mattatouille at 8:17 AM