Exploring Javanese cuisine in Surabaya
Indian cuisine is an explosion of flavors. It is perhaps possible to live an entire year without repeating dishes if one had unlimited access to cuisines from across my country. I’ve been lucky to have reasonable exposure to food from many parts of India. And so, even though I’m not a foodie and that is something I must emphasize, I found myself looking out for the food I ate in these two back-to-back trips to Indonesia I’ve made.
Javanese cuisine, I realized, is incredibly diverse with a mix of influences- Arab, Chinese, Indian and European. Friends I made on my recent trip to Surabaya in Eastern Java told me I’m lucky to be Indian and tolerant to spices so I could enjoy this diversity. And enjoy I did!
My first meal in Surabaya, had with French and Indian colleagues, was a tentative exploration. To my delight, I tasted tamarind in the Sayur Asem curry we ate which tasted remarkably similar to the rasam my grandmother used to rustle up! I later realised that asem (tamarind) is a popular taste to look out for in this part of the world. We also sampled lontong, or rice cake, made out of steaming rice pressed into banana leaves, though we clearly were not aware of the right combinations as yet. Fruit juices are a big deal in Java and I tasted soursap (jus sirsak) for the first time, opting for the unsweetened version since a generous dollop of sugar is normal in these parts!
At the grand dinner that the Mayor of Surabaya threw for the delegates of the Habitat III Prepcom3 conference, I was urged by my friend Ashok who is intimately familiar with Surabaya’s secrets, to try rawon, a delicately flavoured beef broth with moong dal sprouts, sambal and kluwak nuts topped with pieces of roast beef. My friend Ashok graciously took it upon himself to be our guide in Surabaya, having the known the city for a long time, and this was the first of his many culinary recommendations.
At lunch on Day 2, I tried the lontong lodeh, that had rice cakes in a vegetarian curry with jackfruit and beans in coconut milk broth. This signature dish, commonly eaten during Id-ul-Fitri celebrations I later realized, became a hit with the vegetarians in the group, though us non-vegetarians added on a sprinkling of meat on top.
Dinner on Day 2 was simply out of this world, with Ashok (he had taken on the grand role of food guide by now for a bunch of us) introducing me to the famous Padang cuisine. Now, this is not just about taste, but also about the style! In a padang style restaurant, you would be confronted with a mountain of dishes being placed in front of you. Each dish is only a small bowl and you are given a larger plate with some boiled rice. You eat what you want and leave the rest and you’re charged for what you dig into only. It’s a fascinating practice, allowing you to intake the sight and smells of a larger variety while eating what you prefer. The spread included boiled greens including the tasty cassava leaves, chicken, fish, squid, the slow-cooked and really tasty beef redang and dishes with hooves and internal organs as well. Spicy and coconut milk based, padang food hit the sweet spot as far as I was concerned! I was one happy girl that night and a post dinner stroll through the city to spend a few hours in a homely little pub with live music only added to the appeal!
Day 3 was spent on the streets of Surabaya visiting traditional neighbourhoods called kampungs (more on this later). We ended up at ANDA Fit, a well-known establishment that boasts of authentic Javenese cuisine. Here, we were introduced to another defining flavour, the tomato and chilli based penyet that is eaten in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. We had it with the signature tempe, made of fermented soy beans. The gule kambing, or mutton in coconut milk, accompanied by a ginger-based warm drink (wedang jahe) was definitely something to write home about!