FEEDING THE NATION Celebrate Eid al-Fitr
Eid al-Fitr, Idul Fitri or Lebaran, a festival marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is the biggest celebration of the year for Indonesian Muslims. As with any other celebration, food plays a very important role. In a country so geographically spread out, it is a time when family members who have returned home for the season gather together and enjoy time-honoured national dishes. This year, Eid al-Fitr falls on June 15 or 16; the date varies because it is based on the lunar calendar and depends on the sighting of the moon.
Indeed, most families plan a big gathering for the special celebration, providing an array of food for a procession of guests that can go on all day long. It is a must for those living away from their parents’ home to mudik, which means pulang kampung, or go back to their birthplace. As families gather, they pay their respects and ask forgiveness from parents and elderly relatives in their home town.
Every year, Idul Fitri is synonymous with massive logistical and travel challenges as millions depart the big cities, especially Jakarta, on every imaginable mode of transport – from planes to boats and trains – with the vast majority braving the journey using their own cars or motorcycles. They leave behind an enormous vacuum, as Jakarta streets empty over the holiday week.
Not surprisingly, since the greatest number of people travel across Java, it is generally accepted that the most important dish for Eid al-Fitr is ketupat, a Javanese favourite. Using a complicated technique, long coconut fronds are arranged in a hollow diamond shape half filled with rice, which is cooked for hours in boiling water until a diamond-shaped cake forms. It is set aside to cool, the fronds are removed and the cake is cut into bite-size cubes.
There is a wonderful philosophical meaning behind this humble rice cake cooked in vibrant yellow coconut fronds. A wise aphorism associates the complications involved in creating ketupat with the challenges and mistakes we overcome in life’s journey. The end of the long woven frond is deliberately left loose, signifying the importance of maintaining our relationships with family, friends and others. Ketupat is commonly served with many other dishes, such as opor ayam and sambal goreng hati.
Opor ayam is a white curry – cooked in coconut milk – easily found all over Java and a particular favourite among the Betawi, the indigenous people of Jakarta. The sauce is based on a white paste, a mixture of garlic, shallots, ginger, coriander seeds, galangal, candlenut seeds, white pepper infused with lemon grass and daun salam, or bay leaves.
Sambal goreng hati, or chicken liver sambal, is considered an essential pleasure at family celebrations. The chicken liver is cut into cubes, fried and often mixed with fried potato cubes and a paste of chilli, garlic and shallots for the sambal. Some people add chopped tomatoes for a different taste.
Rendang, a beef curry dish from Minangkabau, West Sumatra, is another national favourite. The best results are achieved by slow cooking: start with a low to medium heat to retain a succulent texture before turning up the heat to reduce and caramelise this delicious mix of thick coconut and spices into a unique texture. Some prefer to present this dish with a deeper, almost black hue by using dark roasted, finely ground coconut with a touch of tamarind and dried chilli. Either way, it’s quickly eaten!
Semur daging, beef stew, is another popular slow-cooked dish. The key is in the spices–nutmeg, cloves and white pepper, plus garlic and shallots – as well as the important addition of sweet soya sauce. Sometimes, chunky-cut potato and tomato wedges are also added.
Lontong sayur is a compression of rice and vegetables, but do not be fooled into thinking this is a vegetarian dish. Traditionally, it is served with a delicious white curry, chicken liver sambal, telur pindang, or hard-boiled eggs prepared in a special way, and kerupuk shrimp-flavoured crackers, or simple crackers made with rice flour.
Preparing telur pindang hard-boiled eggs famously involves the use of many indigenous ingredients such as turmeric, lime, galangal, guava, lemongrass, fresh ginger, coriander seeds, a little bit of garlic and shallots. Season with salt and a touch of sugar. The skin of the shallots plus one or two black tea bags are added during the boiling process. After the initial hard-boiling of around 10 minutes, you crack the shell and continue to boil the eggs for an extra hour to an hour and a half until the exteriors are dark brown.
If you prefer lighter flavours, there is ayam kodok or frog chicken, served without heavy coconut cream and favoured particularly by those in the Banten, West Java, area around Tanjung Lesung. Marinated overnight with spices and herbs, the chicken is barbecued and served with sambal.
A new version of ayam kodok involves roasting minced chicken with spices, breadcrumbs and lightly beaten eggs, then stuffing the mixture into the whole chicken skin and serving with gravy. It is not unlike the cooking technique for beef roulade, an interesting comparison. And don’t forget siomay, the famous Bandung fish dumpling with a spicy, tangy peanut sauce, and soto, varieties of aromatic chicken or beef soup.
For anyone who is still hungry, or just has a sweet tooth, there are some fine dessertsto be enjoyed. Es doger is coconut ice cream, normally served with finely grated coconut, glutinous black rice and fermented cassava or tape. There are typically chocolate or strawberry puddings, fruit cocktails and plenty of sliced fresh fruit. Some families serve cookies, a Dutch influence in Indonesian cooking, and a feature of my childhood in Manado. These include kastangle, or cheese sticks, and nastar, pineapple cookies in leaf shapes and domes brushed with egg yolk and decorated with whole cloves.
For those who celebrate Eid al-Fitr, it is a precious time for families and friends, and I wish you all a happy, wonderful and prosperous Eid.