Feeding The Nation


Rice: The Soul of Indonesian Cuisine

Words by Fadly Rahman

“You haven’t eaten until you have eaten rice.” So goes the saying closely associated with the eating habits of Indonesians. Despite other staple alternatives such as sago, corn and tubers, rice remains the predominant choice.

The choice of rice as a staple food for daily consumption goes far back into the ancestry of the Indonesian people. The question is, when did Indonesians begin to cultivate rice? Some archaeologists believe that the rice we are familiar with today was first cultivated in China around 5000 bce. Other experts believe that rice came from the Himalayans, while some others think that the variety of rice on the market today is derived from the wild rice categorised as Oryza sativa.

Human migration from China and India, in combination with a favourable landscape and climate, made it possible for rice seeds to be brought over to the country, to be planted, and to evolve into different varieties.

When we think of rice, it is usually white rice that first springs to mind. However, the colour varies depending on the variety. The Pintang Mas Inscription (878 ce) found in Central Java, for example, mentioned wras caturwarna (four-coloured rice), which probably refers to a rice variety that consists of what is known today as white, brown, black and sticky (black and white) rice.

Considering the many varieties of rice, the number of ways in which to cook it are unsurprising. Such techniques include liwet, where the rice is cooked in a special pan on a firewood stove. Another technique is kukus or steaming, where the rice is cooked in a dandang (food steamer). Frying rice is also a common technique, where leftover rice is fried with spices. Lemper is a technique where a combination of sticky rice, peanuts and coconut milk is cooked and wrapped in young coconut leaf. Lastly, the lemang technique involves cooking sticky rice in a bamboo stem rolled in a banana leaf.

Many varieties of cooked rice were mentioned in Serat Centhini, a literary heirloom of the Surakarta Palace in Central Java, which was written between 1814 and 1823. Among the rice selections mentioned are nasi uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk), rames (rice mixed with a variety of side dishes), yellow rice and fried rice.

Rice: A Culinary Legacy

The most commonly known rice dish is nasi uduk. It is a Betawi-style dish that includes rice steamed in coconut milk, bay leaves, orange leaves, galangal and lemongrass, resulting in a fragrant savoury dish. Nasi uduk is served with various side dishes, such as chicken, tofu and tempeh (soybean fritter), and fried egg, as well as vegetables, such as traditional Indonesian salad and sayur asem. Chilli paste, sprinkles of fried garlic and crackers or Indonesian melinjo crackers are usually added to nasi uduk for an additional flavour kick.

Although closely associated with Betawi cuisine, nasi uduk is also found in other regions. The dish is called sego wuduk in Central Java and also featured in the Serat Centhini text as one of the common Javanese dishes. In Sumatra and Malaysia, a variety of nasi uduk called nasi lemak is also found. CNN even featured nasi lemak as one of the most delicious dishes in Malaysia. Despite the different names, nasi uduk is a common dish in Javanese and Malay cuisine.

A close relative of nasi uduk is nasi liwet from Solo. It is a historical rice dish that offers a similar savoury flavour. According to Serat Centhini, nasi liwet originated as a ritual dish when earthquakes hit the island of Java. It subsequently developed into a breakfast dish for the people of Solo. Nasi liwet is cooked using coconut milk, bay leaves and salt. It is served with side dishes such as telur pindang (eggs preserved in spices), ayam areh (chicken mixed with thick coconut milk), tahu and tempeh bacem (tofu and soybean fritter preserved in brown sugar), sambal goreng hati (liver fried in chilli sauce), cooked squash and rambak (cow-skin crackers).

Another variety of savoury rice is yellow rice. True to its name, the rice gets its colour from the use of turmeric. In the past, yellow rice was often used in special events such as cultural and religious celebrations. For celebrations, the yellow rice is usually shaped into a cone (tumpeng) and surrounded by various side dishes, such as fried chicken, sliced fried eggs, sambal goreng ati, potato fritters, dried tempeh, fried noodles, urap (a salad dish mixed with grated coconut) and chilli paste.

Today, however, yellow rice is not always served as tumpeng. It is known among Javanese as an affordable breakfast, and can easily be found at warungs (traditional food stalls) every morning.

Another rice dish is nasi rames. This Javanese dish is known for the various side dishes that come with the rice. In Javanese, rames means ‘combining into one’, so nasi rames involves combining side dishes that contain animal protein and plant protein as an addition to the rice. The animal protein usually comes from chicken or beef and boiled or fried egg. Meanwhile, the plant protein usually comes from stir-fried string beans or fried aubergine as well as fried tofu or stir-fried tempeh.

Fried Rice Going International

Among the different rice dishes, fried rice is probably the most popular. Fried rice can be found all over the world, from street-food stalls to fine-dining restaurants. During the Dutch colonial era in Indonesia, fried rice was one of the favourite dishes of the Europeans.

A Surabaya-born Dutch singer, Wieteke van Dort, even reminisced about Indonesia through her popular song released in 1979, Geef Mij Maar Nasi Goreng (‘Just Give Me Fried Rice’). “Geef mij maar nasi goreng met een gebakken ei” (Just give me fried rice with a sunny-side-up egg) go the playful and cheeky lyrics. The former president of the United States, Barack Obama, who spent some of his childhood in Jakarta (1969–1971), couldn’t forget the delicacy. When Obama visited Indonesia in 2011, one of the dishes he ordered was fried rice.

There is no definitive account of the origin of fried rice. Rumour has it that the dish originated from Chinese cuisine, in order to avoid throwing away leftovers or eating cold food. Rice leftovers were fried using various spices to create a new hot dish and to add flavour. Some say that fried rice is inspired by Hadhrami pilaf and Indian biryani.

Its origin aside, fried rice is the result of the cultural assimilation of foreign cuisine into Indonesia, spreading to various regions in different names and varieties. From Javanese fried rice, Aceh fried rice, goat fried rice (Jakarta), to cakalang fried rice (Manado), the rice dish is favoured by foreigners and locals alike.

New Creations of Rice Cuisine

As Indonesian cuisine has developed, the creativity of rice dishes has developed alongside it, thanks in no small part to the culinary flair of chefs in different regions of the country. Two of the latest rice dish creations currently trending in Indonesian cuisine are the green and purple nasi uduk. Both are the culinary styling of Sukabumi in West Java.

To create a different flavour from the general white rice or yellow turmeric rice, the latest varieties of nasi uduk use natural colouring from plants. Green nasi uduk uses a combination of spinach and a hint of chilli, while the purple variety uses purple yams and beetroot. The side dishes featured with the new creations are largely the same, including fried chicken, tempeh, tofu and sliced fried egg, along with the Sundanese staples of chilli paste and lalap.

Many of the rice dishes inherited from our ancestors remain a staple today, while new creations of rice dishes continue to emerge. Rice is truly an integral part, maybe even the heart, of Indonesian cuisine.

From Colours January 2018

Fadly Rahman

Fadly is a historian and writer with an interest in the history of culinary culture. He has also been a contributor to national and international culinary books as well as national print media. He has published two books through Gramedia Pustaka Utama, Jejak Rasa Nusantara: Sejarah Makanan Indonesia (2016) and Rijsttafel Budaya Kuliner di Indonesia Masa Kolonial 1870–1942 (2011 dan 2016).