Walk around just about any U.S. city and chances are you’ll stumble upon a decent number of Asian restaurants slinging variations of dishes from the continent’s many countries and vast array of influences. And it’s no longer just the inauthentic, Americanized takes on these cuisines — large chunks of sticky General Tso’s chicken and imitation crab-stuffed California rolls — that people have come to embrace. We clamor for reservations to sit at the counter of the latest omakase-only hot spots and wait in long lines during lunch breaks at our local bánh mì vendors. We re-create northern Thai specialties at home and take pride in knowing how they differ from their more recognizable southern counterparts. Sure, we’ll order in sweet and sour pork every now and then, but we’ve come a long way toward understanding the efforts that have been put into replicating some of these countries’ traditional dishes in our homeland.
Then there’s the curious case of Indonesia, a sovereign state in Southeast Asia that comprises close to 20,000 islands and boasts an estimated population of more than 250 million people, making it the world’s fourth-most-populous country. A recent CNN International online poll of 35,000 individuals found one of the country’s trademark dishes, rendang, to be the world’s most delicious food. And yet pose the question “What is Indonesian food?” to the majority of the very same people described in the above paragraph, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare or a shrug of the shoulders. Good luck searching for a nearby establishment serving any of the island’s regional dishes. But why?
We recently chatted with chef Vinh Nguyen of Brooklyn’s Selamat Pagi (“Good morning” in Indonesian), a small restaurant serving seasonal, traditional and inspired dishes from the islands of Indonesia. At the kitchen’s helm since early 2014, Nguyen was born in a refugee camp in Indonesia and has extensive experience cooking with similar ingredients and flavors, having owned Williamsburg’s now-shuttered Vietnamese restaurant Silent H.
Here, in the chef’s own words, Nguyen breaks down three of Indonesia’s most iconic dishes, hypothesizes why the islands’ cooking has yet to truly carry over to the West and what it might take for the country’s food to eventually become a full-blown trend here in the U.S.
Nasi means rice, and goreng means fried. You put that together and it’s just “fried rice.” What makes it really unique is that it’s always made with a crazy sambal, so there’s some funk in it. The nasi sambal that we use has shrimp paste and kecap manis. Kecap is a variety of soy sauce that carries the same notes as smoky molasses. Overall, the dish has a smoky, fermented funk to it. Nasi goreng is unlike any other fried rice I’ve come across.
Another cool thing about nasi goreng versus Chinese fried rice is the amount of bumbu spices that hit the wok. Bumbu spices are aromatic — think galangal, turmeric and ginger. We have about ten different aromatics that hit the wok. Nasi goreng is especially popular in the Malay islands, Singapore and Malaysia. You can find tons of versions of it cooked in restaurants, prepared on the streets and made at home.
Rendang originated in West Sumatra. If you strip away everything, it’s a caramelized beef stew with lots and lots of spices. It’s almost like a coconut curry meeting a beef stew. Unlike other beef stews, though, there aren’t vegetables in it — it’s strictly just the protein. Everyone has his or her own recipe, and it can be anything from lamb to any other protein. In the recipes that I’ve come across, there are always around ten key ingredients. I think this is the dish that Indonesian people are most proud of — it’s the quintessential dish. It seems like meat isn’t traditionally consumed that much, so when it is, people go all out.
Sambals are just sauces. They’re usually made up of quintessential Indonesian cornerstone spices, which are called bumbu spices. You usually unlock those flavors when you sauté vegetables with spices like turmeric, galangal, shallots, garlic and chilies. When you unlock those flavors, you start mounting in the chili and either coconut milk or tomato or tamarind to balance it all out. So you have tamarind sambal, tomato sambal, et cetera.
Sambals, in my opinion, are sort of like what salsas are to Mexican food. Whereas salsas are more like condiments, though, sambals can be so complex that they are often a side dish themselves. Sambals are usually part of a family meal setting, where you have a whole myriad of them. I’ve heard stories where you sit down with your rendang and you have your 31 flavors — a Baskin Robbins–style selection — of sambals. People really take pride in it. My personal favorite is sambal matah. That’s really, really finely shaved lemongrass, shallot, chili and a little bit of kaffir lime leaf, served raw and uncooked. What cooks it, in a sense, is the heat from the chili, shallot, lime juice and fish paste, which makes it really funky and delicious.
Why haven’t these dishes really caught on in the U.S.?
I think the reason why some trends like pad thai and noodle dishes have caught on is because people in America have a general palate for things like pasta. So it makes sense that they can easily switch from pasta to a Southeast Asian noodle dish. It’s a similar thing with sandwiches and bánh mì and steamed buns. Just like my mom would say, “This is Chinese spaghetti. Try it.”
I feel like we don’t eat a lot of beef stew. There’s not a similar comfort dish that you go out and eat at a restaurant or line up at a stand for. Rendang almost has that satisfaction of Southern barbecue. It’s rich, meaty, sticky, tender and slow-cooked. When it becomes more accessible to people, they’ll make that connection naturally.
I also feel like the reason that sambal is not being served more in American restaurants is because it’s pretty cumbersome just to have your pantry stocked with the ingredients, especially in a city like New York, where it can run $20 per pound for galangal root. But I feel like it’s a matter of not being exposed to it. For example, tomat sambal is always in my fridge. We serve it to our customers plain, and we serve it with our fried chicken as a sauce. It has also snuck into about ten other sauces that we make. I’ve had customers tell me that the tomat sambal is better than sriracha — it has those spices, that sweetness, that acidity and that aromatic savory side to it. So they’re already making that connection.
Will these dishes ever become more popular in the U.S.?
Absolutely. So far, it’s just recognized mostly by Indonesians, people who have traveled to Indonesia or those who have stayed in Amsterdam, where they have a really huge Indonesian palate. It’s going to take a little exposure and popularity. It’s going to take perspective from chefs and restaurants to draw that mass appeal…someone is going to figure out that these things are tasty as fuck and make a killing slinging it. They just need the audience for it.