Curries from the Spice Islands

Breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel in Jakarta the morning after The Jakarta Post's 25th birthday party and the effects of a few too many "sherbets" were making me feel a little under par (don't you just love parties).

Rows of shiny bain-maries filled with plump sausages, pink bacon, potato roesti and baked beans beckoned. Smiling croissants, glossy Danish pastries and sultry multi-grain breads stared back at me. Sliced fruits, dazzling in their arrangement, tempted me like Eve's apple. How to resist?

But then I spotted the sparkling server of my choice -- golden Indonesian curries of eggs, green beans with tempeh and lontong, a compressed rice cake.

My thoughts drifted off to "curry" and its many incarnations across the archipelago and, in fact, the world. Don't you love how the mere taste of a dish can send you into a global culinary spin? The power of food does this to you, or, at least, to me. It even halted my early morning sms frenzy while my mind floated down the Ganges, through tropical jungles, rice fields and other exotic curry-eating destinations.

Can you imagine a world without curry? Heavens, no! But let's start with the word "curry". It is said to be an Anglicized version of the Tamil word, kari, which is, in fact, a type of vegetable stew that is eaten with rice. The word itself is believed to simply mean "gravy".

Nowadays, in the Western world, it is synonymous with any dish that is simmered in coconut milk and a gutsy curry powder or spice paste.

In Britain, the favorite curry dish is chicken tikka masala. Marks & Spencer sells about 19 tons of chicken tikka masala curry every week and 23 million portions a year are sold in Britain's more than 8,000 Indian restaurants, many of which are located in and around London. Needless to say, Britain is full of curryaholics.

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook famously announced that chicken tikka masala was so popular that it had become "Britain's national dish" thus demoting fish and chips to second place.

Back to the emerald isles of Indonesia. Gulai, kari, kalio and opor are what you might call Indonesian curries (please correct me if I'm wrong).

In Bali, my favorite jackfruit dish, jukut nangka, is affectionately called a curry in English, although it bears no resemblance to a classic curry and does not usually contain coconut milk. In reality, it is more like a stew but "curry" sounds more luscious, don't you agree?

And there's something about a curry that conjures up a dreamy blanket of seductive flavors, like snuggling under a duvet on a cold winter's night, with a chilled champagne, of course, and umm, a few other comfy extras.

There are wet curries and dry curries. Rendang, from West Sumatra, is a perfect example of a slow-cooked dry curry and reigns supreme in the flavor department. You can find rendang standing handsomely in large bowls behind the glass windows of Masakan Padang restaurants across Indonesia. And what a divine dish it is.

I remember in my early days in Bali, a visit to Denpasar was always timed to include an early lunch at the Padang restaurant in Batu Bulan, just as the steaming bowls were pouring forth from the kitchen. Can you imagine my fervor on my first visit watching as plate after plate was piled before me.

Another favorite Indonesian curry is gulai, especially gulai kambing or goat curry. Gulai kambing is the star on the menu of the village "bazaar" events that the Balinese hold to raise money for their temples and so forth. In my family, it goes without saying that a meal at these gatherings must include a bowl of luscious, soupy gulai kambing with rice.

Opor Ayam or white chicken curry is another perennial favorite that I overdose on every time I go to Yogyakarta. In this land of lesehan or street-side cafes, I sit back and relish each mouthful of tender chicken bathed in a gentle coconut milk gravy while serenading street musicians hover around strumming their guitars.

And then there are my favorite Balinese curries that include torch ginger and a touch of long pepper and nutmeg, the queen of sleep.

But what makes a curry so divine? For me, it's the delicate balance of fresh gingers; of galangal, turmeric, ginger and even kencur, followed by the supporting role of coriander seeds, fresh lemongrass, chili, lime leaves and others. Coconut milk adds the finishing touch and turns that family of flavors into pure comfort food.

Indonesian curries are the symbol of a nation; of home-cooking that sums up the integral character of Indonesia, a succinct blend of vitality and sunshine, of simmered flavors born of the Spice Islands. Unity in diversity.

They encapture the majesty of the East in all its finery, from sunburnt yellows to the deepest fragrant browns. So let us rejoice in a cuisine that charms the most jaded spirit that hugs and kisses in the warmest way.

And if you have a favorite curry recipe to share please send it my way. Nothing makes me happier!

Source: Jakarta Post - Thursday, May 08, 2008