14 Nov 2009

Indonesian: Magellan’s Footprints

nasi_tumpeng21A deja vu struck me when I set foot in the island of Zanzibar. Plants of vanilla, cardamom, saffron, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon spread across the plantation in central Zanzibar, sharing characteristics with Asian spices since they were brought by the spice merchants from Asia. Indonesia is the primary source of spice trading from the ancient time to the discovery of the New World. Asian spices made their way to Europe and the New World via Middle East and Africa, pioneered by the first expedition successfully circumnavigated the world, led by Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal who served the exploration under the Spanish Crown. Magellan’s voyage led the fleet of five ships to the spice islands of Indonesia. The only survived ship returned home to Spain with a cargo load of cloves from the island of Maluku, or best known in the west as The Moluccas. You’ll find things left behind from the trades en route Europe-Africa-Latin America-the Pacific-Indonesia-and back. These regions are sharing culinary footprints more than each wants to admit. Everybody claims the popular dishes belong to them, but often the truth is far fetched.

Once upon a time there was a scandalous tale of “Rendang Padang”. Rendang is a stewed beef in coconut and chili gravy, brewed for hours in charcoal to intensify the smoky flavour. Padang is the capital of West Sumatra province. A few years ago Malaysia filed the patent rights for the term “Rendang Padang” which means, nobody else can use the term for commercial purposes. This angered many Indonesians, especially those from the rightful region of Padang. Their sense of belonging and pride were hurt, and it became a matter of “stolen identity”. Even a culinary expert Julia Child once thought Rendang Padang belongs to Malaysia, not to mention many other gourmands who missed this piece of history. Until today it remains a bitter topic of discussion among Indonesians. If you ask about it, chances are you’ll hear some strong opinions.

Indonesian cuisine offers a rich blend of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Polynesian influences. History took place in Indonesian soil from the beginning of Silk Road trading route to the ancient kingdom of Srivijaya to the Dutch and Portuguese colonizations to the WWII Japanese invasion to the 20th century independence. The results: centuries of mixed cultures, 500+ languages and dialects, interracial descendants, and a melting pot (literally!!).

Indonesian food is regional, meaning you never taste the same thing when you do island hopping while counting the many islands along their archipelago stretch, which is the largest in the world. Regions in Sumatra are known for their spicy food and bold taste. Provinces in Java are known for sweet and sour characters, which further broken down by many layers in between.

I’m often asked which one is my favourite Indonesian dish, and I could never answer that question. Not because I’m indecisive and afraid of commitment, but I simply like too many and can’t live with just a single choice. Oh, wait a minute, this sounds a lot like what men issued for their infidelity… <grin!>

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