Monday, January 11, 2010

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Bookshelf: Sri Owen's Indonesian Food Adds Fuel to the Tiki Fire

A new book by Sri Owen is a matter for celebration.

~ Alan Davidson
Petites Propos Culinaires

Sri Owen, a one-time BBC broadcaster and now one of the grande dames of Britain’s culinary scene, may not be well known to Americans, but she is a dogged sleuth at the very top of her game. Framing it for the cocktail crowd, she’s Ted Haigh, David Wondrich, and Jeff Berry rolled into one.

She has traveled to far-off villages in Bali, Java, and Sumatra with notepads and a camera. She was hip to Batavia arrack long before American cocktail enthusiasts knew what it was. She has tracked down endangered recipes across social, religious, and linguistic bounds, and presented her findings in a dozen books, various articles, and presentations at scholarly symposia. Her field? Indonesian cookery. Others have written about the foodways of these Pacific islands, but when you want to get right to the source, read no further than Sri Owen’s books.

Of what interest is Indonesian food to American drinkers? Think tiki.

Her latest book, Sri Owen's Indonesian Food, contains a 29-page spread on satay alone. Forget those “Monkeys on a stick” from mid-century tiki bars. A tiki enthusiastic looking for fresh ideas for backyard/basement luaus or a refreshed bar menu would do well to study Owen’s latest book. Here, she presents satays of minced beef, of pork, prawns, sweet potatoes, fish, ox tongue, and tripe along with an entire chapter on sambals (condiments akin to salsas or, more closely, chutneys) for giving them a tropical kick. Ok, maybe your guests won’t cotton to tripe-on-a-bamboo-skewer, but the rest have broad appeal.

In clear, engaging prose, Owen introduces ingredients, techniques, and dishes of the Indonesian archipelago. Recipes for braised beef ribs, tamarind lamb, stuffed wontons, steamed plantains, fish cooked in bamboo segments, grilled catfish, stuffed and poached prawns, and ice creams (of kaffir lime, durian, avocado, and black rice, to name a few) blend familiar and novel tastes and textures. Lumpia—fried spring rolls—will be familiar to tiki enthusiasts, but the book is packed with fresh takes on Pacific islands cookery. Well, fresh to Americans, anyway.

To accompany and enliven the dishes, readers learn how to make a variety of condiments and bumbus—seasoning pastes with exotic spices such as galangal, fresh tumeric, lemongrass, shrimp paste, candlenuts (careful: they’re toxic if eaten raw), and more. A useful glossary explains the ingredients and pronunciation.

One of my favorite recipes—and she’s printed it elsewhere—is for rendang: chucks of beef (water buffalo if you want to stick to the taste of the islands), simmered in spiced coconut milk that permeates the beef until the water evaporates, leaving coconut oil to collect which the cook then uses to fry the chunks in the same pot. Rendang is time-consuming and rich, but delicious, and perfect for heating the kitchen and belly in the ungodly cold weather the rest of the country is having.

Owen applies a similar technique to fried chicken. It’s not the same as the Southern fried chicken so familiar on these shores, but it has become part of our yardbird repertoire. For Ayam Goreng Jawa, Owen cooks chicken in seasoned coconut milk until it absorbs the sauce, then briefly cools and deep-fries it. Imagine the same recipe applied to a batch of chicken wings and served alongside a mai tai, a fogcutter, or a cinnamon-spiced nui nui.

As the Brits might say, it tastes rather more-ish.

Ayam Goreng Jawa
Central Java Special Fried Chicken

One chicken, about 1.5 kg/3.25 lbs), cut into 8 pieces
Peanut oil for deep-frying

For the bumbo (paste)
390ml/14 fl oz coconut milk
6 shallots
1.5 tsp ground coriander
3 candlenuts (or macadamia nuts), chopped
1 tsp fresh galangal, chopped
1 tsp fresh turmeric root, chopped
1 tsp fresh lemongrass, finely chopped
1 tsp sea salt (and more to taste, if necessary)

Using just three tablespoons of the coconut milk, blend all the other ingredients for the bumbu to make a not-too-smooth paste. Put the rest of the coconut milk in a saucepan, and add the paste. Mix thoroughly, add the pieces of chicken, and boil for 45-50 minutes until all sauce has been absorbed by the meat. Allow to cool, then deep-fry the chicken four pieces at a time until golden brown [at 300°F, about ten minutes, a bit longer for breasts].

Notes: We ate with this with sambal ulek, a bright and lively chile paste widely available in Asian grocery stores and easy enough to make at home. If using candlenuts, be aware that they are toxic if eaten raw and must be cooked. Another tiki connection: the oil of candlenuts (so-called because they could be lit for light at night) was sometimes used as a coating for outrigger canoes so often seen suspended from the ceiling of tiki joints.

My notes are for the UK edition of the book published by Pavilion. Interlink has published an American version titled The Indonesian Kitchen: Recipes and Stories. I haven’t read that one, so I can’t comment on its contents. Owen herself, however, writes that the differences are minimal.

Sri Owen (2008)
Sri Owen's Indonesian Food
288 pages, hardback
ISBN: 1862056781
Price: £25.00

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