Indonesia

Selamat pagi! Good morning from Indonesia, a country with a long list of impressive distinctions. In terms of population: Indonesia is the world’s most populous island nation, most populous Muslim nation, and the fourth most populous country overall—just behind the United States. In terms of geography: Indonesia is a transcontinental country situated between Asia and Australia, a transoceanic country situated between the Indian and Pacific oceans, and an equatorial nation that nevertheless boasts a range of snow-covered mountains on the island of New Guinea.

For breakfast on Saturday morning, Jess prepared a vegetarian version of bubur ayam, a chicken congee (or rice porridge) popular in Indonesia.

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Even with tofu instead of actual chicken, our breakfast was warm and delicious. Throughout much of the weekend, we listened to an album called Indonesia: 22 Galeman Favourites from Java recorded by a gamelan ensemble who call themselves the Bali Balladeers.

After buying lots of groceries—some from our local Vietnamese market, which is the closest we could get to Indonesian—we had time to watch an amusing episode of Geography Now before lunch:

Jess had found a vegetarian recipe for mi goreng, an Indonesian fried noodle dish, that I stirred up for lunch. I added both the optional tofu and optional scrambled eggs, but held back a bit on the cayenne pepper.

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The recipe turned out well, although I should remember to cut things smaller in the future. We got a look at some more authentic styles of Indonesian (specifically Javanese) cooking that afternoon when we watched this over-enthusiastic street food tour of Jakarta, the country’s capital and largest city. We also viewed a melodramatic state-sponsored tourism video as well as the following Java travel guide created by a native Indonesian:

There is much more to Indonesia than the island of Java, but don’t worry—we planned to explore several more of the country’s better-known islands later in the weekend. What we weren’t able to find, however, was much in the way of Indonesian food and culture here in Buffalo.

The noteable exception is a downtown boutique called Sasmita Batik Indonesia, a shop that sells clothes and accessories decorated using a traditional Indonesian method of fabric printing known as batik. In fact, when Jess was in college, she participated in a batik workshop and learned how to use wax to apply a beautiful design to this canvas bag:

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Jess was equally skilled at preparing an Indonesian feast for dinner. She prepared a traditional eggplant stew called asem-asem terong together with a vegetarian rendang made with tempeh (the very last recipe on this page). Tempeh is not usually my favorite, but to my surprise, everything tasted delicious.

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My growing admiration for Indonesia was shaken that evening when we watched a documentary film called The Act of Killing (2012). As you can see in the trailer below, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer sits down with the geriatric gangsters who carried out the vast purge of 1965 in which communists, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese, and all others who opposed the new dictatorship were brutally murdered. For me, the most shocking part of the film showed gang members continuing to shake down present-day business owners for cash. Some of the gang members are also high-ranking government officials.

Despite this jarring introduction to the country’s corrupt and violent underbelly, we pushed on and sought to learn more about other aspects of Indonesian culture on Sunday. After another tasty breakfast of vegetarian bubur ayam, we turned our attention to the island of Bali—one of the few Hindu enclaves in an otherwise Muslim archepelago, and known to international tourists as a “paradise on earth.”

Done Bali, below, is a documentary produced in 1992 by filmmaker Kerry Negara. It calls attention to the unhappy history of the island under Dutch colonial rule and to the unstable economic conditions that hold back the Balinese people even as tourists flock to admire their “authentic” way of life.

As I began to prepare a Balinese tofu and vegetable curry for lunch, we also got a more lighthearted introduction to the island’s cuisine with a street food tour from Mark Wiens. Here’s how my own dish came out:

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I was pretty pleased about it until discovering that was far too bland. Watching the street food tour helped us to understand that a lot of Balinese food involves meat (or fish) topped with plenty of hot chili sauce. After lunch, we also watched a third street food tour showing what was available in the markets on another major island, Sumatra.

We prepared a few snack items in the afternoon: I had found a simple recipe for turmeric jamu, a chilled drink made with turmeric, lime, and ginger, while Jess made short work of some leftover bananas with this recipe for Balinese banana pancakes. (Last year, I had tried making Malaysian-style banana pancakes after reading about them in Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, with mixed results.)

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Now that was some proper street food! Our visit to Indonesia wouldn’t have been complete without an opportunity to admire its natural wonders, and we enjoyed this first episode in an Animal Planet series called Wildest Islands of Indonesia (2017).

We also liked watching this short report about a photographer dedicated to raising global awareness of the critically-endangered Javan rhino. All in all, our weekend in Indonesia showed us that while a country so vast was bound to have a mix of positive and negative characteristics, there’s plenty to appreciate about a place with so many natural wonders, vibrant traditions, and delicious cuisines. Until next time, selamat tinggal!

–Derek

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