Dump old spice and other tips for Indonesian cooking

After 500 years on the global #spice map, Jakarta is one gourmet -friendly city. This post is about how to make the spicy goodness of Indonesia work for you.  

Remember how you turned onto Indonesia? Was it about cooking? Food? Spices? Are we getting warmer?

Indonesian essential oils

Essential oil — Indonesia

We really are getting warmer, ’cause this Indonesian spice and herbal thing has begun to heat up. It used to be you could go for years in Indonesia without anyone making a big deal about spices. Because, after all, we’re talking about the Spice Islands where people demand savory food. But recently you see more restaurants catering to locals as well as expats that invoke the East Indies’ spicy history.  

After all, this is where even the poorest of the poor awake before dawn to spend hours grinding weeds and seeds into a savory base used to spark a flavorful paste to season a sauce which may just be one of the key ingredient of — shall we say — a dumpling . . .  to be elaborated over the course of hours or days, together with other exotic and disparate elements — some fresh, others not,  into a “simple” traditional Indonesian dish like siomay.

And not to miss the value added, in the take-away context, that’s going to come with three to five toppings and sauces, each individually-wrapped in leaves, plastic (and occasionally newsprint or recycled office paper). Depending on whether you ordered fish, fowl or neither, the toppings will range from dried onions and tiny chili peppers (eaten raw, as in Mexico) or shredded coconut, raw cane sugar, etc. Among the most common optional sauces you’ll to choose from a soy-based one, a peanut number, a spicy one — a million more but I forget them and can’t describe them at all in any language, but no reason to chose either, have them all, it’s included. And that’s how we make two-for-a-buck street food around here.

While the glut of fast food and convenience stores  that has accompanied the explosion of middle-class Indonesian consumerism over recent years will surely take its toll on the Indonesian palette sooner or later, for now I see peeps sticking fairly close to their culinary roots  and, I might add, bark, leaves, stalks and stems.

Yet buying spices in Jakarta is perhaps easier written about than done. Fact, is there’s a couple missing links in the supply chain. Women who grew up shopping at a traditional or village market (AKA wet market or pasar tradisional) and producers who used to sell there are now wandering around Carrefour, Ranch Market, and Hero looking for each other. But things are sorting themselves out fast and what I’ve seen over recent years mushrooming options and falling prices.Uh huh

Language and labeling is also a challenge.  Indonesian has many words for spice (rempa-rempabumbu, or hasil bumi) and yet for the most part cooking know-how is coded in regional languages like Sundanese, Javanese, etc. — not Indonesian. So sometimes it’s hard to hunt down spices that are actually here in Indonesia, let alone trying to substitute your way to French, Italian, Mexican or other gourmet greatness while based in Jakarta. It’s possible, but requires patience, as do special spice/herbal applications such as for diet, detox, jamu (traditional medicine), essential oils (minyak astriri), aromatherapy or other purposes.

Be as creative as possible because there’s a lot to (un)learn. Basically, the gist of it is to demand more from the Indonesian spice experience. Just think: if you can get the most essential oils at the mall in Melbourne and the sexiest of  shallots in San Fransisco, then it ought to be that much better here Jak, especially once you factor in prices. Right?

If you want to make this work, do yourself a favor and drop the “gingko is for grandpa” and “hops is for beer” riot upfront.  Hops is a brilliant sleep aid and, while the gingko research is ongoing, so far we know that it works for young and old men and women — at least for sex (get blood flowing several places).

It’s important to know the horticultural, historical background and cultural context for spices — like nutmeg and mace are the same species; black pepper and chili pepper aren’t related; and green/Bell peppers (which Indonesians, Dutch and others call paprika) and chili peppers are related.

And what about “old spice”? Just dump it. Ground nutmeg, ground black pepper, and whole cinnamon bark ,just to name a few, very frequently have funky stuff growing in or on them, or a funky smell, after just a few months of sitting in the spice rack in Jakarta. And sometimes the funky junk is already present when you purchase them at the store. I picked up some Mr. Boemboe dried basil that was infested with tiny beetles the other day and you can often see the little worm folk doing a Swiss cheese number on the nutmeg seeds while they’re still on the shelf at the supermarket.

Here’s some more Indonesian spice advice:

  • Start with the basics and focus on one spice/species (same root) at a time. As you might expect with kitchen science, it’s about building blocks and baby steps. So, learn as much as you can about varieties, sources, quality and uses of one plant.  Some of the most rewarding phytonutrients sources, mood changers and sex pals are roots, shoots, weeds and seeds you already know and love — coffee (biji kopi), tea (daun teh), ginger (jahe), tumeric family (kunyit), chili pepper (cabai), cinnamon (kayu manis), coriander (ketumbar), cloves (cengkeh) and pepper (biji lada) — sorry, for the short list.  That last one, BTW, is (indirectly) how we ended up with the piperizine family of chemicals, including everything from antidepressants to pepper spray weapons.
  •  Get some simple tools like the mashing stones, some mesh wire for drying things, a kitchen scale, etc. Now go buy some cinnamon sticks and make sure your outfit is robust enough to reduce them to a fine powder.
  • Re-task the maid from the ironing board to the kitchen to help with the unlearning process. Why not startw ith the bawang category (garlic and onions belong to this group), then move on to the non-pepper group which includes chili peppers (cabai), black pepper (lada) and green peppers (paprika). (See, even though in English the word pepper suggests a close relationship here, there really isn’t one.) Very soon you’ll remember from Anthropology 101 that food — especially spices — is entirely cultural. So, it’s really important not to say “as far as I know nutmeg is mostly for eggnog”;  or “yea, I think everyone knows that tumeric is good for you.” Ask instead, why the hell were people killing each other over nutmeg and what can tumeric do for you today.
  • Get in touch with your inner wet market. Sadly and despite a fairly solid traditional market lobby and even some well-intended regulations (which aren’t working), the traditional market may be on its last legs in Jakarta. And the situation is mirrored throughout Indonesia. (Yes, indeed — I’m talking about those horrendously freaky, leaky, smelly, dark concrete caverns where the maid buys veggies in the early a.m.)

But not to setres out, since something nearly as funky will surely take it’s place — just wait and see. If you’re near Block M, it’s already in place — that wet market has been relocated into a normal shophouse directly across from Blok M Square where it appears as a lovely “Asian produce” store. I suppose it’s resembles the original, more or less, except not as dark and cleaner and more user friendliness.

  • Jump-start your upstream spice knowledge by growing an herb garden. The only reason Jakarta isn’t a huge hippie magnet is I guess that people can’t imagine a Muslim hippie (actually yuppie, because you pay a pretty premium locally for seedlings, soil, fertilizer etc). But I can tell you what the Indo hippie /yuppie reads and it’s Trubus. Anyway, no need to read. Nothing could be easier than gardening in Jakarta. But have an Indonesian help you with it, if possible, to increase local relevance.
  • Reverse engineer a hot mug of jamu.  Jamu is Indonesian herbal medicine and it’s so universal you may never have heard of it if you live in Indonesia. But people overseas know about Indonesian spice and once they’re get hooked on classics like ginger coffee fortified with love herbs or cajuput oil  (little dab will do for aches and pains), hell with that revenue we may even be able to quit logging off the rainforests around here.
  • Find the local herbals section/shelf of your favorite Jakarta pharmacy (AKA apotik) to see for yourself how it all starts coming together. Yes, there is some risk in shelling out hard-won rupiah on an obscure botanical product from an unknown outfit in Central Java, but mostly just cash you’re gonna lose if it sucks. The  established cosmetic/spa/herbal makers (it’s a growth industry) lobby hard and the local press snoops pretty good on this one, to keep a good thing from going down the drain. There are exceptions, though. I would consume local/unknown essential oils a drop at a time only (build up gradually) and be very suspicious of whether or not cupid has figured out how to spike your pasak bumi (a relatively expensive natural aphrodisiac) with throw-away chemical sildenafil citrate (tell me if you need a ton, it’s also got some curious larger-than-life side effects ; )
  • Go for a little ethnic flavor. Remember, Indonesian is a catch-all, not an ethnicity. Tap centuries of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) wisdom in China town at bespoke, made-while-you-wait herbalist shops behind the electronics market (that spans both sides of the main drag) in Glodok.  Or to to Pasar Baru for a little Indian touch. As for other go-now brick-n-mortal fix, you’ve got tons and growing retail options for spice/herbal/spa products at the mall these days (including Botani at Gandaria City). The grocers and fruiteers are also stocking more exotic natural teas, etc. There are also a couple people who do small scale wholesale and you can email me.

  • Just keep clicking to learn and buy in large quantities.  For instance here, on Nature’s Herb Form, you’ll find just about as much grass & oil info you’d ever need (local analog here if you’re pretty sure you’ve got the next-gen Coca-Cola almost market ready, check Indonetwork, Agromaret or even Kaskus for a wholesale hookup.
  • Make it good, but not too good. Eggnog and beer are pretty good examples. Remember, as a patent medicine, Coke had non-secret ingredients cocaine and kola nut. Now only one of those is still legal and there’s pressure on the other. Then, during prohibition they had to quit putting alcohol in Coke. And now they’re forcing kids to drink it without caffeine some times. As always, however, it’s still flavored with nutmeg.
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Homemade spice dyer

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