Subtly Spicy and Warmly Aromatic
Indonesian food embraces the many culinary influences left by traders who visited the lush tropical and volcanic islands in search of valuable spices.
The frequently visited islands, such as Bali, Java, Lombok, and Sumatra, are part of the fabled Spice-Island archipelago. The traders influenced culture, customs and of course, cuisine. Today, we can enjoy Indonesians fascinating kaleidoscope of tastes and textures that is subtly spicy and warmly aromatic.
Hindus in the first century and Buddhists in the eight century left a legacy of vegetarianism. Islam was brought to the islands by Arab traders in the fifteenth century and this should mean pork is off limits but there are islands such as Bali, where pork is elevated to festival food. The next traders were the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch. In addition, a steady flow of Chinese migrant traders gave another dimension to the richness of Indonesian cuisine. On Madura, an island north of Java, home-cooking is at its best.
During feast days and festivals, food plays a vital part. A buffet-style meal makes sense when serving Indonesian food. Guests put a few spoonfuls of rice in wide-brimmed soup plates, moisten them with one of the soups, usually a sayur, and then put spoonfuls of the dishes they fancy around the edge of the plate. The dish is topped with a few crisp deep-fried onions, a spot of chili sambal and a crisp prawn cracker, to complete the full range of textures and flavors.
Chili Crabs (Kepitang Pedas)
- 2 steamed crabs, about 500g each
- 1/2 inch terasi or 1 tbsp sautéed shrimp paste
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 fresh red chillis or siling labuyo, seeded and sliced
- 1 thumb-size ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1/4 cup canola or sunflower oil
- 1 1/4 cups tomato ketchup
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 2/3 cup water
- Green onion, sliced
- Cucumber chunks, chilled
- Remove the large claws of the crabs. Use thumb to push the body up from the main shell. Discard the stomach sac and “dead men’s fingers” (lungs and any green matter). Cut the body section in half and crack the claws with a hammer or cleaver. Avoid splintering the claws.
- Grind the terasi, garlic, chillis and ginger to a paste in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Heat a wok and add the oil. Stir-fry the spice paste without browning. Stir in the ketchup, sugar and water and mix the sauce well. When just boiling, add the crab pieces and toss until well coated.
- Serve in a large bowl and garnish with green onions. Serve chilled cucumber chunks on the side.