Temples of Borobudur

When I was a kid, we had an Indonesian exchange student live with us for awhile. His name was Radi. He was a skinny, excitable chap with thick glasses who was eager to introduce his American hosts to Indonesian culture. This included ferreting out an Indonesian market and restaurant deep in an Asian pocket of the San Fernando Valley.

Borobudur in San Francisco

My parents were travelers and adventurous eaters. So even in the comparatively dismal dining scene of my childhood neighborhood, ours were regular faces at the nearest Chinese, Japanese and Thai restaurants. But here was something completely new. I’m always amazed at how different one Asian cuisine is from another. It’s not like Southern Mediterranean food, where everything from Greece to Egypt is basically variations on a hummus-bulgar-grilled lamb theme. You might expect Japanese food to resemble Korean food, but the subtle, simple austerity of the former couldn’t be further from the fiery, pickled extravagance of the latter. The curries and garlicky noodles of Thailand couldn’t be more different than the verdant herbal constructs of nearby Vietnam. And so, too, it was with Indonesian.

With Radi as my mentor, I dove headfirst into this new world of tastes. We ate often at the Indonesian restaurant, scooping bites of fragrant noodles and rices onto crisp shrimp chips; we brought home little jars of fermented things and bottles of gooey black sauce from the market, and he taught me to make the Indonesian national rice dish, nasi goreng. I became intimately familiar with dried shredded pork, fried onions from a jar and gray shrimp pastes. And more importantly, I learned what to do with them.

Fast forward to…

Black Friday, 2011. San Francisco. As my family gazed down on Union Square from our hotel window waiting for the annual Christmas tree lighting, and the Occupy Macy’s protesters tried to ruin Christmas, I wound my way through the crowds up Post street toward my favorite Indonesian restaurant, Borobudur. (Named, I expect, for the 9th century Buddhist temple complex on the island of Java.)

The real Borobudur

The usually bustling restaurant was unexpectedly empty, and the owner gazed nervously at me as I snapped photos from outside. He cheered up when I came inside to order a mountain of food to go. By way of a brief restaurant review, next time you are in San Francisco, go here and order everything. Begin with crisp lumpia and chicken and beef satay with peanut sauce. The roti prata — pan-fried layered bread with a curry dipping sauce — may be the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. So good it was, I was tempted to eat the unrefrigerated leftovers four days later, even as the small plastic container of sauce had ballooned up like a baseball with the gasses of microbes. The nasi goreng is excellent, the gado gado salad curiously satisfying. All that before you even get to the entrees. I dare you to try the tripe, I bet it’s good.

I have no idea where that original restaurant and market were. And I’m closer to the Westside anyway… So at home, I often visit the Simpang Asia Indonesian market on National boulevard in Palms. They’ve got everything I need for the home pantry (I’ve come to have a hard time living without kecap manis), and the take-out is delicious. I begin to wonder if Indonesian food is like Thai food — where the best is sublime, and the worst is still pretty darned good.

We lost touch with Radi, although I think of him whenever I get that particular Indonesian bug. Following is my take on chicken satay with peanut sauce and nasi goreng, as taught to me by Radi. Here’s to you, brother, wherever you may be…

*   *   *

Indonesian chicken satay with peanut sauce
serves 4-6

1 large chicken breast (or two halves), cut into 1-inch cubes, 1/2 inch thick
1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. powdered tumeric
1/2 tsp. grated black pepper
1/4 cup grapeseed or peanut oil
bamboo skewers, soaked in water

Mix together all ingredients except chicken (and skewers). Add chicken chunks and marinate for one hour at room temperature.

Skewer five or six piece of chicken lengthwise on each skewer. Heat your grill to high. When it is good and hot, cook the chicken about 2 minutes on each side (as you are using breasts, you do not want to overcook them). Remove from grill and serve immediately with peanut sauce.

Peanut sauce

1/4 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup water
juice of one lime
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 tsp. chopped cilantro
dash of crushed red pepper (optional)

Heat peanut butter and water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring. Add remaining ingredients and continue cooking for a couple minutes, until thickened. (Add an extra tablespoon of water if the sauce seems too thick.) Remove from heat to a small dipping dish.

*   *   *

Nasi goreng
serves 4-6

1 cup long grain white rice
1/4 cup grapeseed or peanut oil
8 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 small white onion, chopped
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tbsp. Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
juice of 1/2 lime
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 tsp. tumeric
2 eggs
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 cup peanuts, chopped
kecap manis

Cook the rice according to the directions — usually 2x water for the amount of rice, cooked for 20 minutes. You can cook the rice the day before, or make this dish when you’ve got leftover rice from something else.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and add ginger. Cook, stirring, for one minute. Add onion and cook for 2 more minutes, until translucent. Add rice, shrimp, soy sauce, fish sauce, ketchup, lime juice and turmeric and cook for about 10 minutes, flipping and stirring occasionally with a spatula.

While the rice is cooking, beat the eggs with the sugar, and pour into a lightly oiled pan on medium heat. Cook for 1 minute, and turn over (like an omelette). Cook for another minute. Remove from heat. When the egg has cooled, roll it up like a rug, and slice crosswise at about 1/4 inch intervals.

Remove rice to a large serving platter, and arrange shrimp on top. (Or plate to individual plates.) Sprinkle shredded egg and peanuts on top, and drizzle with kecap manis, if you’d like.

*Condiment note: If you can get Indonesian shredded dried pork or fried onions, these both make a wonderful condiment sprinkled over the top of the nasi goreng. In addition, if you are able to get dried Indonesian shrimp chips, fry them up in a little oil before serving the nasi goreng, and serve them on a side plate for scooping the rice.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andy
    Dec 20, 2011 @ 00:34:18

    I have no recollection of an Indonesian kid living with us…..had I moved out already or what??


  2. Lisa Gaskin
    Dec 20, 2011 @ 03:01:40

    Exactly what I was thinking….


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