Feeding The Nation

Gulai: Spice it up

The popular dish gulai is not merely an Indonesian version of Indian curry: it offers each chef the opportunity to add their own unique characteristics.

Words by Vikaria Lestari

“Here you are,” says the waitress as she presents a bowl of rich, succulent and spicy beef with red and yellow curry-like soup.

I am sitting in a restaurant in Jakarta famed for its traditional Javanese beef curry menu. Looking at the dish served to me with a side of hot steamed rice, I think about the intriguing discovery by archaeologists Arunima Kashyap and Steve Webber that curry has been simmering along in its many forms for some 4,500 years. Amazing. The delicious meal I am about to savour could be the oldest continuously prepared cuisine on the planet!

Curry – in its many forms – is one of the most popular dishes in the world. While originating in India, curry has been introduced to a variety of countries through trade routes and migration, and assimilated wherever it lands to suit the tongues of those who consume it. Indeed, the UK’s favourite dish is chicken tikka masala.

Although there are localised spelling differences, curry’s key ingredients are still the same: ginger, garlic and turmeric. You will find curry going by the name karee raisu in Japan and kaeng kari in Thailand. When you are in Portugal, you will find the locals call it caril or caree. Americans refer to curried chicken, while Indonesians prefer the common name gulai.

A must-try: Sumatran gulai Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, is one of the places synonymous with delicious gulai. Typically known for its spiciness, Sumatran food uses a lot of chillies, resulting in vibrant red and yellow dishes. With thick curry gravy and savoury, spicy-chilli flavours, the traditional gulai of the region comes in many varieties, ranging from the more well-known lamb, beef, poultry and fish, to more unusual kinds made with squid, eggs, various kinds of offal, and even unripe jackfruit and cassava leaves.

One of Padang’s favourite traditional dishes, gulai kepala ikan (fish-head curry) is a must-try for seafood lovers. Slowly cooked, the head of a red snapper is simmered in thick coconut milk and spices, including ruku-ruku leaves (tulkis/holy basil), cumin seeds, asam kandis (yellow mangosteen), red Thai chillies, turmeric, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, bay leaves, turmeric leaves,garlic, Asian red shallots, kaffir lime leaves and lime. Fragrant holy basil leaves are used as a great way to remove any fishy odour.

Sunur Beach, in the coastal city of Pariaman, around 50km from Padang, is a popular place to enjoy the best gulai kepala ikan, locally known as gulai kapalo lauak. The combination of freshly caught fish and homemade ingredients results in a delicious fish curry menu, served by modest restaurants that dot the beachfront. Here, you can eat delicious fish-head curry while enjoying the sand between your toes and the salty ocean breeze, adding an extra sensory appeal.

Sumatran cuisines are also widely known for their use of offal, mostly cooked in gulai style. Adventurous foodies may want to try gulai limpa (calf’s spleen curry), gulai babat (tripe curry) or gulai tambusu usus sapi (beef intestines curry). In preparing gulai tambusu, the intestines are filled with a mixture of spiced chicken eggs and duck eggs as well as thick coconut milk, then slowly stewed to create sausages to add into a simmering curry gravy.

Another Padang favourite is gulai otak (beef brain curry). For some people, the idea of calf’s brain on their plate is off-putting, to put it mildly, but believe me, the smoothness of this dish is really just … heavenly! While rich in omega-3 fatty acids that can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and promote healthy brain function, unfortunately it’s also said to be high in cholesterol. This melt-in-the-mouth gulai otak is normally served with a side dish of steamed rice.

Less adventurous – but a dish you’ll need to go searching for – is the delicious gulai patin masak tempoyak (silver catfish curry with durian fermented sauce) from Jambi province in the central part of Sumatra island. Tempoyak is made of durian flesh that is fermented together with salt and red Thai chillies. It is the abundance of durian trees in the area that promotes such creativity in gulai preparation. After three to four days kept in a tightly sealed box in the fridge, tempoyak will become a creamy,sour sauce with a pungent, unique aroma, ready to add to the gulai gravy.

Tempoyak is also familiar to people in Palembang, Bengkulu, Lampung and Kalimantan. For those who want to taste authentic gulai patin masak tempoyak, Warung Bu Salma in Telainepura, Jambi, is popular for its take on this special dish of the region. A combination of savoury, spicy and sour flavours is typical of gulai patin, in which the hint of sourness comes from the blends of tempoyak.

Javanese smoked-fish delicacies Shifting to Java island, you will find thinner gulai with a more dominant yellow colour compared to its Sumatran counterpart. Sumarno, Executive Chef at Oakwood Hotel & Residence Surabaya, who specialises in Indonesian cuisine, describes some basic characteristics of Javanese-style gulai:

“Instead of taking yellow mangosteen,” he explains, “Javanese prefer to use tamarind. And in comparison to Sumatran gulai, which has a spicier aroma, Javanese gulai tends to be milder due to an absence of cumin and holy basil.”

Along the northern coast of Java and in some parts of southern Central Java, gulai mangut with smoked fish as the main ingredient is easily found. The smoked fish includes stingray, eel-tail, catfish, arius thalassinnus, sea catfish, mackerel, tuna and eel, which are traditionally processed with coconut-shell charcoal to intensify the taste.

Semarang, in Central Java, which is famous for its lumpia (egg rolls with shrimp and bamboo shoot filling), has also become one of the cities popular for gulai mangut. In the same family for three generations, Warung Makan Manyung (arius thalassinus) Bu Fat, situated in West Semarang, is widely known for serving this special dish. Here, you can savour a big fish head that is split into two, along with side dishes of tofu, tempeh and aubergine. Plenty of protein in every spoonful!

With a touch of creativity, traditional gulai can also come with a twist. For instance, replaces coconut milk with sour cream for a salmon course in Padang’s gulai style, creating a thicker curry and impactful savoury and sour flavours. Also adds yellow onions, which is not common in authentic Padang gulai recipes. “It is awesomely delicious,” Executive Chef Sumarno says of his favourite gulai creation.

No matter how you spell it, what main ingredients you use, or what flavour dominates, curry has never failed in its role as a comfort food. It is probably one of the reasons why curry not only has billions of fans around the world, but has also endured for thousands of years.

“Can I take your plate?” asks my waitress. The dish is still fresh in my imagination, as are the great tastes lingering on my tongue. I will come back soon.

Vikaria Lestari

Vikaria Lestari, Javanese by birth, is a writer and translator whose passions are travelling, food and reading. Her hobby, amongst others, is observing the unique characteristics of different cuisines and places, which she shares later in her writing. Her published works include translated novels written by bestselling American authors, as well as travel and lifestyle articles.