Tag Archives: indonesian food

On being kept at arms’ length

I suppose there’s a reason I started this blog here, in Indonesia, rather than when I lived in the UK or the Netherlands. I found out this week it’s likely because this is the first place that I’ve truly felt like a foreigner.

I can’t say that this realization came to me organically . It was the hypothesis of an Argentinian guy I spoke with recently. He’s lived here for seven years and said that, of all the places he’s lived, this was where he could never truly feel a part of the Indonesian society, let alone Balinese. And in my more limited experience, I have to agree with him.

Of the expats I know that have lived here for many years, even those who are married to or work with Indonesians and speak the language fluently, all still run in expat social circles. This is not to say integrated foreigner don’t exist, I have stories of a couple and perhaps I have too small a sample size to declare this definitively, but the integration of foreigners or immigrants into Indonesian society is relatively minimal.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the extremely rich cultural heritage of Indonesia and, again, Bali in particular. Unless one converts to Balinese Hinduism and joins a Banjar, one is seen as an outsider. This has more to do with the strength of society than of any social barriers that are constructed

Another factor that influences this is the strong nationalism that runs through Indonesia. This is not a nationalism that was fueled by an immigrant narrative like the US (current Presidential candidates notwithstanding) or a kind of secular civic nationalism like in France, but a vibrant post-colonial nationalism that places the Archipelago’s fight for independence against European colonialism at its center.

This is not to say that I’ve had negative experiences or see this a social defect. Indonesians are culturally the most welcoming and friendly people I’ve come across, almost to the point of over politeness. But there is a distance, possibly even a society-wide wariness, that is hard to ignore.

And in some ways this is reflected in government policy. I’ve complained about the immigration process before, but it goes even further. Foreign citizens are not allowed to own real estate in Indonesia (with a minor and recent exclusion of high-rise apartments in Jakarta) and must have an Indonesian business partner to own a company (I think that’s how it works, at least). Both of these are disincentives for expats to make a permanent life here. Naturally many still want to and find ways around the regulation (for example 99 year leases), but the point remains.

But I don’t think Indonesia is alone in this. Any country with a strong ethnic base (I could go in depth here into why I called Indonesian nationalism post-colonial and not ethnic but I’ll save you the IR talk and just point you to the Types of Nationalism Wikipedia page) would have some incarnation of it.

And for what it’s worth, it makes for some entertaining and controversially worded conversations at expat bars.

Use a Condiment

I’m going to try and get through this without too many puns and references to a certain And1 player but I can’t promise anything. I want to talk to you today about a particular and highly developed section of Indonesian cuisine: sambal. Really the direct translation of sambal, condiment, doesn’t do its Indonesian equivalent much justice, nor does the often-synonymous term, ‘sauce’.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word condiment? Probably ketchup, which is actually germane since the word originates with the Indonesian-Malay word kecap[i] – originally a pickled fish sauce from China – that was brought to the American colonies by English sailors in the 18th century. Then there’s mustard and pickle relish and even HP sauce for those partial to Anglo cuisine[ii]. You might go so far as to include hot sauces or their erstwhile opponent, mayonnaise. You would have to include all of these, their varieties, and more to approach the breadth and value of sambal to the Indonesian kitchen.

I’m going to admit right here that I am not an expert on sambal and to write in any sort of real depth on the subject requires a good deal more education and/or experience than I have. I will say this; sambal is some delicious shit. Most frequently sambal is tomato-based but only in the loosest of terms because really it’s more pepper, hot peppers, spicy peppers, extremely spicy and hot peppers, than anything else. Then there’s probably some garlic, maybe onions and definitely oil and salt that give sambal’s spiciness a great depth of flavor. Everything is ground, traditionally with mortar and pestle, then simmered and left to cool.

But I only just described one type of sambal. There are dozens of types and then thousands or millions of recipes because every ibu worth her weight in salt has her own special recipe, or seven, with each tailored to whatever dish she is serving. I say ibu[iii], but men and even bulés are known to cook sambal. Yes, I’ve tried my hand at it, twice, and I wasn’t unsuccessful either time.

Frying almost completely blind (I’m sorry), I bought some tomatoes and peppers, collected the spicy little green buggers that warungs give out with gorengan (fried food), grabbed a couple cloves of garlic and then threw in some elbow grease (mortar and pestles aren’t for weak). The result was an overly-chunky version that went pretty well with on an egg sandwich.

With obscure hot sauces like Sriracha becoming vogue, if not passé, I think the Western foodie market is ripe for a new edition to the condiment pantheon. Why not a product that literally means condiment in another language? So let this be the official call for investors in my latest venture: Semawang Sambal™.

[i] ‘C’ is always pronounced with a ‘ch’ here.

[ii] I’m not going to get into the trans-Atlantic debate about ketchup being called ‘tomato sauce’ or even more absurdly ‘red sauce’ nor the ketchup-catsup debacle.

[iii] Ibu is translated directly mother but is more frequently used to mean ma’am or Mrs.