Feeding The Nation
Revelling in Rujak
FEEDING THE NATION Revelling in Rujak
Words by Petty Elliott
Rujak is Indonesia’s favourite street-food dish – but it is so much more.
We Indonesians love our rujak. Such emotion is as good a reason for us to share its delicious, refreshing tang and crunch with the world. Viewed by some as a salad dish or snack, it is more accurate to describe rujak as an exotic relative of the crudité family, especially when referring to the classic rujak buah. These fresh raw vegetable and fruit appetisers are brought to life by dipping sauces, blending more vegetables and herbs with ingredients such as mayonnaise, olive oil, mustard, mascarpone, lemon zest and even chilli powder.
The main elements of Indonesian rujak buah are chunky pieces of nearly ripe tropical fruit and vegetables. Why ‘nearly ripe’? Such a condition ensures each element has a fresh, crispy crunch and a sharpness of flavour. Favourite ingredients are papaya, pineapple, mango, water apple, June plum (also known as kedondong, a tropical plum widely available across the region and into Polynesia), cucumber and the jicama, a starchy vegetable likened to both turnips and potatoes and reputedly good for those who want to lose weight, seek to balance their blood sugar or suffer from diabetes. Partnering these ingredients is a thick sauce of ground, deep-fried peanuts, chillies, tamarind and palm sugar with some roasted shrimp paste to create an umami flavour. Actually, I prefer to roast rather than fry the peanuts in order to retain more natural goodness.
Rujak has several variants, forms and even localised spelling differences across Indonesia and the Southeast Asian region. Rujak buah is probably the best known in Indonesia. It is part of many happy memories, indulged in as an enjoyable childhood snack in Manado, North Sulawesi.
Ragil Imam Wibowo, chef and founder of NUSA Indonesian Gastronomy restaurant in Jakarta, is a big fan of a variant of rujak buah originating from the Javanese city of Tasikmalaya, featuring unripe green banana, known as pisang batu, and kecombrang (ginger flower). Bitterness from pisang batu and the floral aroma and distinctive lemony taste of ginger flower temper the explosion of the sweet, sour and spicy sauce with the fruit and vegetables to combine in sheer mouth pleasure. Chef Ragil is drooling just talking about it. Pisang batu and uncooked sweet potatoes, ubi jalar, are the star ingredients in another version known as rujak bebek or beubeuk, which means ‘pounding’. The banana is chopped into small pieces and pounded inside a long wooden cylinder. A similar but slightly thinner sauce is achieved by leaving out the peanuts. Served in small portions in banana leaves, it delivers a spicy-sweet, tangy flavour.
Moving into yet more interesting culinary territory, we find the speciality of Jakarta, known as rujak juhi. The main addition is squid, which is combined with a mixture of yellow noodles, boiled potatoes, salad leaves, blanched cabbage and sliced cucumber. A spicy peanut sauce with garlic, chillies and dried shrimp powder is topped with juhi, floss-like strands of salted dried squid with emping or melinjo nut crackers.
In Surabaya, the capital of East Java, we find rujak gobet. An important part of Javanese culture, rujak gobet is served at the tingkeban or mitoni ceremony to celebrate the 7th month of pregnancy, a symbol of thanksgiving for the safety of the mother and baby. You can also find rujak gobet across the straits in Bali, although the fruits are normally sliced, not grated as in the Surabayan variant.
For the adventurous, there is rujak cingur. There is nothing unusual about chopped long beans, tofu, tempeh, beansprouts or water spinach. Where this dish comes into its own is in the special ingredient of boiled slices of cow’s snout. It is best served with classic rujak sauce combined with a thick sauce of fermented shrimp, known as bumbu petis, accompanied by lontong (compressed rice) and topped with crunchy fried shallots.
Back on Bali, I asked Ayu Gayatri Kresna, co-founder and head chef of Rumah Intaran and Pengalaman Rasa in the island’s north, to share details of her favourite rujak. Her answer is rujak bulung. She recalls enjoying this dish during childhood visits to her grandparents – delighting in the combination of fresh seaweed, freshly grated coconut, chillies and a fish broth known as pindang, which provides a new dimension of extra layers of flavour thanks to the inclusion of lemongrass, chillies, galangal, ginger, tamarind, bay leaves, tomato, a touch of sweet soy, palm sugar and salt.
Staying to the north of Bali, we find Buleleng Regency, a coastal plain bound to the south by steep volcanic slopes, a physically remote environment which has contributed to the development of a unique culture and culinary style. Ayu points to rujak wani as a Buleleng favourite, comprising unripened white mango transformed by a rujak sauce with extra kaffir-lime juice.
“Try rujak es in Sangsit village,” laughs Ayu,for it offers no fruit at all. In fact, it is a cold drink of palm sugar, tamarind, salt and lime juice. No chillies, but plenty of ice. “Tejakula village residents prefer their rujak drink with chopped cucumber and a sprinkle of peanuts,” she adds.
Far in Indonesia’s northwest, in Aceh, rujak U Groh is made of young green coconut husk, which has a soft, creamy texture yet with a touch of bitterness, while the sauce is made of smoky palm sugar, chillies and peanuts with buah batok, a local fruit with a thick, hard skin and small rounds of tangy flesh. “Once again, the deliciousness comes from a spicy, sour and sweet sauce in the middle of a hot day,” notes Chef Ragil. Another Acehnese favourite is rujak mameh, featuring grated local mango (kweni) and mixed fruits, similar to rujak buah with lime juice, chillies and cane sugar instead of palm sugar.
With this much variety, it is certain there are many other local specialities out there for the followers of rujak to discover and revel in. In the meantime, rujak buah is beginning to enjoy wider appeal in modern Indonesian cooking, elegantly presented as a lively starter or appetiser. Rujak is also gaining acceptance as a cocktail or mocktail, served with tropical fruit juice. Perhaps the best is yet to come.
A self-taught Indonesian chef and one of Indonesia’s foremost food writers, Petty Elliott has pioneered the archipelago’s cuisine as it blends with modern influences. Her latest cookbook Jakarta Bites, published in July 2016, explores the capital’s vibrant street-food scene. Jakarta Bites was named the world’s Best Street Food Book at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2017.