Some Americans picture Bali when they think of Indonesia. Others think of Java or Sumatra. And since the release of the film "The Freshman," a few may imagine Komodo, home to the giant prehistoric lizard that steals the show from Marlon Brando. I think of Borneo.
When I was rowdy as a child, my mother would tell me to stop acting like "The Wild Man of Borneo." It turns out the "Wild Man" was two men, brothers from Long Island who toured with the circus and got their stage name from impresario P.T. Barnum. It turns out, too, that Borneo is not Borneo anymore. It is now known as Kalimantan, though it is still a densely forested "wild" destination for adventure travelers.
Actually, they're all islands of Indonesia, and what brings them to mind now is the Festival of Indonesia that starts Sunday at the Kennedy Center, with dance and music performances, and continues nationwide for months with exhibits of painting, sculpture, photography and textiles, and with lectures, puppet shows, gamelan and dance performances.
At the National Gallery of Art, "The Sculpture of Indonesia" continues through Nov. 4. "Trailing the Tiger To Golden Cloths of Sumatra's Minangkabau" runs at the Textile Museum until June. Next spring and summer will bring "Beyond the Java Sea," a collection of artifacts, to the National Museum of Natural History and "Court Arts of Indonesia" to the Sackler Gallery.
Indonesia has 13,667 islands, 6,000 of them populated, making it the world's largest archipelagic country. It is also the fifth most populous country, home to more than 300 ethnic groups and almost as many styles of cooking. Indonesians find an apt symbol of their exuberance in the eagle-like Garuda, a mythological creature representing creative energy.
In Jakarta a few summers ago, I attended the 50th birthday party of the father of one of my students at Montgomery College. The remarkable variety of Indonesia's regional cuisine became apparent to me when I saw that roast suckling pig was practically the only food I recognized on the laden buffet table.
My student's mother came from Sulawesi (the Indonesian name of Celebes), an ethnically varied island once a major port of call for merchant ships carrying spices and fragrant woods. She cooked her family favorites, dishes of tiny dried fish in tamarind sauce, spicy baby squid, cassava leaves, hollow-stalked water spinach, sweet potato leaves, glutinous rice in bamboo canes and who knows what else.
According to Copeland Marks, a lecturer in the Smithsonian series "Indonesia: The Jewel of the Tropics," the first of several about the country, "great ethnic recipes are an endangered species" even on the smaller islands. He has traveled to most of them to cook with local people and record their culinary heritage in his two cookbooks: "The Indonesian Kitchen" with Mintari Soeharjo (Atheneum, 1981) and "The Exotic Kitchens of Indonesia" (M. Evans, 1989).
Though variety and contrast characterize Indonesia, "Unity in Diversity" is the national motto. And there is, surprisingly, an identifiable Indonesian cuisine.
The culinary influences of India, China, the Middle East, Holland and Portugal are discernible. And certain common ingredients find a place in most kitchens. The staple food is rice, except on the arid islands where people eat corn, sweet potato and sago. Dried fish, bean curd and tempe (fermented soybean cakes) are the main sources of protein.
Fresh coconut milk, made from grated fresh coconut meat, is ubiquitous. So is kecap manis, the main flavoring sauce. It is a combination of dark soy sauce, sugar, star anise and Indonesian herbs.
Complex pastes -- called bumbus -- made of an impressive variety of herbs and spices are the hallmark of Indonesian food. The lure of these spices fueled the search for a shorter route to the Spice Islands, as Indonesia was known then, that led Columbus to America. Turmeric, lemongrass, lemon leaves, salam (dried laurel leaves that are not the same as bay leaves), laos, kencur (wild ginger), ginger root, holy basil, coriander seeds, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, mace, pepper, garlic, shallots, tamarind and palm sugar are among the most important.
Peanuts, introduced by the Portuguese, are popular in satay sauces. Native kemiri nuts or candlenuts, which are similar to macadamias, commonly thicken coconut milk sauces. Hot chiles, brought from the New World, became integral to sambals (chili pastes) made with trassi (fermented shrimp paste) and lemon juice or coconut milk. Sambals appear on most tables along with fried garlic and onions, acar (pickled vegetables) and serundeng (toasted spiced grated coconut). Udang krupuk (shrimp chips) and emping belinjo (puffed belinjo nut chips) accompany most meals.
Sweet and spicy Javanese and peppery Sumatran dishes are best known and most likely to be part of the rijsttafel or "rice table" made popular by the Dutch, who ruled Indonesia for 350 years. The idea is for the table to be covered with little dishes of food with varying textures and flavors. The centerpiece is either white rice or nasi goreng (fried rice).
Always present is satay, the national dish if there is one, made of barbecued marinated chicken, beef, shrimp or lamb on skewers and served with peanut sauce. Then there are salads: rujak made with unripe papaya and mango; gado gado, a cooked vegetable and hard-boiled egg combo dressed with peanut sauce; and asinan, a tart and spicy mixture of crunchy vegetables such as cucumber, jicama and bean sprouts with leafy greens and pineapple chunks.
Also popular are Dutch perkedel or fritters made of potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes and bean curd as well as chopped beef, chicken, fish, shellfish and pork mixed with coconut, nuts and spices. Lumpia, the Indonesian version of spring rolls, are a delicate appetizer.
Indonesia is blessed with a glorious climate for tropical fruits -- custard apples, papaya, durian, passion fruit, mango, salak (called snake fruit because of its skin), star fruit, rambutan, mangosteen, jackfruit. People are also partial to puddings and to tiny noodles dyed green and combined with fruit in iced coconut milk. One specialty, thousand layer cake, is a holdover from the colonial period. Alternate layers of plain and spiced batters are baked one layer at a time until the cake has as many as 15 thin layers. And fried bananas are a common snack.
Indonesian ingredients are available in some Thai grocery stores or from mail order companies. Write De Wildt Imports, R.D. 3, Bangor, Pa. 18013, or call 1-800-338-3433. Or write Van's Imports, 370 36th St., Grand Rapids, Mich. 49548, or call (616) 243-0649.
Cooking techniques are the familiar deep frying, stir frying, broiling, braising and steaming. And many dishes can be prepared ahead and refrigerated or frozen.
SARINAH'S AYAM PANGGANGSTART NOTE: END NOTE KECAP (Grilled Chicken in Sweet Soy Sauce) (4 servings)
At Sarinah Satay House in Georgetown, chef Sarah Pribadi cooks "home style dishes." This chicken dish, learned from her mother, is what she calls an example of "typical Jakarta home cooking."
1 3-pound frying chicken, halved
10 kemiri nuts (or substitute macadamia nuts)
2 red chili peppers
5 tablespoons kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce, available in Oriental groceries or see recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Lettuce leaves and lemon slices for garnish
Grill chicken over hot coals or in the broiler until done. Meanwhile, roast nuts and chilies in a dry skillet. Grind together and add kecap manis, pepper, salt, water and lemon juice. Arrange lettuce on a serving dish. Cut chicken into serving pieces and place over lettuce. Top with sauce and garnish with lemon slices. Serve with steamed rice.
Per serving: 556 calories, 69 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 192 mg cholesterol, 916 mg sodium.
SARINAH'S KECAP MANIS (Makes 1 quart)
Good brands of Indonesian sweet soy sauce, kecap manis, are available commercially. But many cooks prefer to make their own and vary the flavoring according to their taste. Cookbook author Copeland Marks adds star anise or cloves and salam leaves to his.
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
2 cups water
3/4 cup unsulfured molasses
1 1/2 cups dark Chinese soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground laos
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine sugar and water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook until sugar is dissolved. Boil until mixture is the consistency of maple syrup. Over low heat stir in molasses, soy sauce, laos, coriander and pepper. Simmer over low heat 5 minutes. Strain and cool. Keeps, refrigerated, several months.
Per tablespoon: 38 calories, .6 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 391 mg sodium.
SARINAH'S SAMBAL GORENG TAHU TEMPE (Tofu and Tempe in Coconut Sauce) (4 servings)
Tempe is a protein-rich fermented soybean cake that is available in health food stores. Important in Indonesian cooking, it is usually deep fried or stir fried and topped with spicy sauce, according to Sarinah's chef, Sarah Pribadi. It can be baked and roasted, too.
2 cakes firm tofu (bean curd)
1/2 pound tempe
Oil for deep frying
1 small onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 fresh red chili pepper, sliced
2 slices laos
1 salam leaf (substitute bay leaf)
14-ounce can coconut milk
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Cut tofu and tempe into small bite-sized pieces. Heat oil, add tofu and tempe and fry until golden. Drain on paper towels. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or skillet. Add onion, garlic, pepper, laos and salam leaf and stir fry until lightly golden and aromatic. Add coconut milk, salt, pepper and sugar. Stir in tofu and tempe and cook until heated, 1-2 minutes. Serve with steamed rice.
Per serving: 452 calories, 23 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 34 gm fat, 15 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 21 mg sodium.
NASI GORENGSTART NOTE: END NOTE (Fried Rice) (4 servings)
Recipes for fried rice, a common dish on Indonesian menus, are as numerous as the cooks who make it. When it was served at the opening of the National Gallery's "Sculpture of Indonesia" exhibit, Windows caterers cooked this slightly spicy version.
4 red chilies, seeded
4 cloves garlic
8 small shallots
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons oil
2 cups shrimp
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 cups cooked day-old rice
Salt and pepper to taste
Kecap manis and Chinese soy sauce, to taste
1 cup chopped green onion
1 cucumber, sliced
Grind chilies, garlic and shallots. Heat butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wok or large saucepan. Add chili mixture and saute' until light brown. Add shrimp and stir fry until cooked, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a small skillet. Add onion slices and fry until crisp and golden brown. Add rice, salt, pepper, kecap manis and soy sauce to wok. Cook, stirring, until rice is heated through, 3 to 5 minutes. Top with green onion and fried onion and garnish with cucumber.
Per serving: 439 calories, 17 gm protein, 59 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 94 mg cholesterol, 124 mg sodium.
TAMARIND TUNA (4 servings)
Sauces for fish are often hot and tart, as in this hot and tart tuna preparation Copeland Marks found among the Buginese people in southern Sulawesi and published in "The Exotic Kitchens of Indonesia" (M. Evans & Co. Inc., 1989).
1/4 cup tamarind paste dissolved in 3/4 cup water
1 cup water
1/2 cup sliced onion
2-3 medium hot red chilies, sliced and seeded
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1-2 teaspoons brown sugar, optional
1 pound fresh tuna, cut in 4 pieces
2 tablespoons oil
2 shallots, sliced
In a saucepan, combine tamarind liquid, water, onion, chilies, turmeric, sugar (if used) and tuna. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat 20 minutes. Heat oil in a skillet and stir fry shallots over medium heat 2 minutes. Transfer fish to a platter with a slotted spatula and garnish with shallots.
Per serving: 235 calories, 27 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 51 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium.
SWEET POTATOES IN SWEET SAUCE (4 servings)
This simple but delicious dessert recipe is adapted from "The Secrets of Indonesian Cookery," a booklet that can be obtained free from the Embassy of Indonesia, Information Division, 2020 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.
2 cups cubed sweet potatoes
3 cups coconut milk
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
Combine and cook all ingredients until potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves and serve hot or cold.
Per serving: 381 calories, 4 gm protein, 71 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 169 mg sodium.
Gail Forman teaches English at Montgomery College and is a freelance food writer.