I can’t begin to express how often I’ve heard the phrase, “I’ve never had Indonesian food.” As a kid, it was hard for me to describe Indonesian food and to have people actually understand my description of it. No matter how hard I tried to describe it, it always came back to “is it just like Chinese food?”
I can’t blame others for making the comparison. Chinese food has such a strong presence and identity in the food world, especially in Los Angeles. Admittedly, a lot of Indonesian dishes have Chinese elements in them, so to make a distinction can be difficult at times.
But how can I explain to people what “Indonesian food” really is? Should I tell them about our national dish? Our national dish is “nasi goreng”, by the way, which is Indonesian fried rice. I can only imagine that by telling people that this is our national dish won’t play towards Indonesian food culture’s favor. It’s fried rice! Chinese food has fried rice, and a lot of Americans know fried rice as something inherently Chinese.
Another question I often get is, “how do you describe the flavors of Indonesian cuisine?” What a loaded question! To answer this question, I feel as though there’s no real straight answer. I can only describe the flavors that stand out to me the most: lots of spices, lemon grass, tumeric, tamarind, and of course, peanut sauce! Some of these flavors overlap with a lot of Southeast Asian food. However, I still believe that Indonesian food is comprised of a complex layering of fresh ingredients, spices, and earthy tones. More importantly, Indonesian food to me is spicy!
It’s not the same kind of spice you would get from Chinese peppercorns or Korean gachujang. It’s the kind of spice that plays on the same level of Thai cuisine, with its spicy Thai chilies, mixed with garlic and other sauces. It’s the kind of spice that makes you cry while you eat, and yet enjoy the pain all the while. People who know me, know that I have an intense tolerance for spicy foods– the type of tolerance which takes pleasure in eating raw Thai chilies with a bite of a spring roll, and no milk for comfort.
I think the most difficult thing about explaining Indonesian food to someone who’s never had it before, is the lack of abundance of Indonesian food in Los Angeles. Living in the San Gabriel Valley, Chinese food, Taiwanese food, and Vietnamese food have such a strong presence in numbers. You can drive down Valley Boulevard, and if you tried to eat at a different restaurant every day for a year, I don’t think you’d be able to eat at every restaurant that exist on this one street alone.
Indonesian food is almost non-existent in the Los Angeles area. When I first immigrated to the United States, it was understandable that our numbers were small. It’s been more than 20 years since then, and it pains me to see how the Indonesian community has not grown as much or as rapidly as other Asian communities. There’s only a handful of restaurants that my own family goes to, time to time, and every one of these restaurants are mom and pop stores with a room capacity of 50 people or less.
At one point in time, I thought that the Indonesian community was finally takes strides to make their presence known. When I was in high school, a weekly bazaar in Duarte became extremely popular. It was located behind Duarte Inn, and every Saturday morning my family would go there to eat Indonesian food from different stalls and socialize with different Indonesian families. A large number of Dutch-Indonesians flocked to the bazaar, attracted by the nostalgic flavors of their childhood. However, over the years the bustling bazaar has died down to a whisper.
Every now and then, I’ll go the bazaar to get my favorite Nasi Campur from Lenny’s Satay. The number of visitors to the bazaar dropped from a couple of hundred to a few dozen visitors. It’s really disheartening sometimes to see how the Indonesian food culture presence existed for a short amount of time, and that Indonesians have lost interest in its conception.
So when people ask me where to go for Indonesian food, I name a handful of places, depending on what they’re looking for. I really hope that one day I can talk to someone about Indonesian food and have them actually understand and have experienced for themselves the deliciousness of my culture.