You Are The Sunshine Of My Life
That’s Why I’ll Always Stay Around
You Are The Apple Of My Eye
Forever You’ll Stay In My Heart
Breakfast at the Four Seasons in Jakarta, the morning after the Jakarta Post 25th anniversary celebration with the effects of a few too many “sherbets” making me feel a little under par (don’t you just love parties).
The smooth sounds of The Ireng Maulana band playing “You are the sunshine of my life” still humming in my ears. I was looking for a soft tender meal to start the day; one that would bring me back to the land of rosy cheeks and boundless energy. Rows of bain-maries filled with sausages, bacon, potato roesti and baked beans beckoned. I glanced at the pastry section; croissants, Danish pastries and multi-grain breads. Sliced fruits, dazzling in their arrangement, tempted me like Eve’s apple. How to resist?
But then… like Pepé le Pew in one of those love-struck moments when stars appear in your eyes and you go all quivery at the knees, I spotted the server of my choice – Indonesian curries, beans with tempe and lontong, compressed rice cake, sambals and more. Dare I say I was smitten and love-blinded at once? I piled my breakfast plate high (sorry, Vikram, but what’s a girl to do?). The flavours were sublime and each mouthful presented a new taste sensation.
My thoughts drifted off to ‘curries’ and its many incarnations across the archipelago and beyond. Don’t you love how the mere taste of a dish can send you into a global culinary spin? The power of food does this to you, or, at least, to me. My mind floated down the Ganges, through tropical jungles, paddy fields and other exotic curry-eating destinations.
Can you imagine a world without curry? Heavens, no! But let’s start with the word “curry”. Said to be an anglicized version of the Tamil word, kari, which is, in fact, a type of vegetable stew that is eaten with rice. The word itself is believed to simply mean “gravy”. Nowadays, in the Western world, it is synonymous with any dish that is simmered in coconut milk seasoned with a commercial curry powder or spice paste.
In Britain, the favourite curry dish is Chicken tikka masala. Marks & Spencer sells about 19 tonnes of the chicken tikka masala curry every week and 23 million portions a year are sold in Britain’s more than 8,000 Indian restaurants, many of which are located in and around London. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook announced that chicken tikka masala had become ‘Britain’s national dish’ thus demoting fish and chips to second place.
Back to the emerald isles of Indonesia. Gulai, kari, kalio and opor are what you might call Indonesian curries. In Bali, my favourite jackfruit dish, jukut nangka, is affectionately called a curry in English, although it bears no resemblance to a Indian curry and does not usually contain coconut milk. In reality, it is more like a stew but let’s face it, “curry” sounds more luscious.
There’s something about a curry that conjures up a dreamy blanket of seductive flavours, like snuggling under a duvet on a cold winter’s night, with a chilled champagne.
There are wet curries and dry curries. Rendang, from West Sumatra, is a perfect example of a slow-cooked dry curry and reigns supreme in the flavour department. You can find rendang in all Padang restaurants across Indonesia. And what a divine dish. I remember in my early days in Bali, a visit to Denpasar was always timed to include an early lunch at the Padang restaurant in Batu Bulan, just as the steaming bowls of beef and chicken rendang, cassava leaves, green chilli sambal and others were pouring forth from the kitchen.
Another favourite Indonesian curry is gulai, especially gulai kambing or goat curry. Gulai kambing is the star on the menu of the village “bazaar” events that the Balinese hold to raise money for their temples and so forth. In my family, it goes without saying that a meal at these gatherings must include a bowl of soupy gulai kambing with rice.
Opor Ayam or white chicken curry is another perennial favourite that I overdose on every time I go to Yogjakarta. In this land of lesehan or street-side cafes, I sit back and relish each mouthful of tender chicken bathed in a gentle coconut milk gravy while serenading street musicians hover around strumming their guitars. As for lontong cap gomeh – I confess I’m an addict. And then there are my favourite Balinese curries that include torch ginger or a touch of long pepper and nutmeg, the queen of sleep.
But what makes a curry so divine? For me, it’s the delicate balance of fresh gingers: of galangal, turmeric, ginger and kencur; and the layers of subtle flavours born of coriander seeds, lemongrass, chilli, lime leaves and more. Coconut milk adds an elegant finishing touch.
Indonesian curries are the symbol of a nation; of home-cooking that represents the bounty of Indonesia, a succinct blend of vitality and sunshine, of simmered flavours born of the Spice Islands. Unity in diversity. They capture the majesty of the East in all its finery, from sunburnt yellows to the deepest fragrant browns. So let us rejoice in a dish that charms the most jaded spirit; that hugs and kisses in the warmest way.
And if you have a favourite curry recipe to share please send it my way……..”forever you’ll stay in my heart.”
© Janet De Neefe 2008