Indonesia is a large country which spreads its islands from east to west, north to south, across archipelago. Each island brings different cultures and customs, including regional languages, dialects, and food. Although there are similarities of ingredients or the finished products, there are some kind of differences in the process and cultural aspects.
Jacki Passmore wrote in her book Asia: The Beautiful Cookbook describes Indonesian cuisine as “the heady, haunting aroma of spices, chilies and coconut; the kaleidoscope of bright colours and the overlay of contrasting textures; the myriad flavours to tantalize the palate; the simplicity of a family meal or the beauty and extravagance of a festive spread.” p. 217.
I am very impressed of how western people try to bring the adaptation on Indonesian culinary to the wide world's kitchens as I do believe not many of you have been familiar with. Those who travel a lot to Southeast Asia might know Bali, but it is only one island of cultures out of at least 12,000 islands with each different cultures in Indonesia! It's not enough to explore Indonesia for only a week or so because the diversities are massive. I am an Indonesian and I'm still hungry to taste more other cultures in my own homeland which, other than those I've known, I haven't experienced in my whole life!
I haven't been to Borneo and I envy the famous chef in New York ever has visited the inland people “The Dayak”, stayed with them and experienced their cultures and food! I haven't been to Celebes island, either and I'd love to taste lalampa, freshly made from Minahasan kitchens. I have been mostly in many cities and towns in Java island which I do love Bandung (West Java)--love the climate and food, and I also enjoy Jogjakarta (Central Java)--the historical place where I can sense the powerful ancient kingdoms spreaded invisibly in the air... I do love its cultures, the famous Borobudur and Prambanan temples, the beautiful Keraton dances performed by delicate arms and hands of the Javanese girls, and I could read various Wayang stories million times which I have known by heart by now. Jakarta is the place to admiring the vastness of development and also the greediness of political issues from many corners of the streets to the tallest fancy buildings which each of them is seeking conclusions and solutions.
In West Java, I usually went to Sumedang and Subang, two different climates in one region. Can you believe that? Sumedang tends to be hotter than Subang. Surely, there would still be paddy fields found in some areas in Sumedang, but Ciater's tea plantation is a stunning view! I usually went to Subang to go hiking with my friends on Sundays, walking kilometres away in between the patches of plantations, which then we took a long, long walk to go up to Tangkuban Parahu, one of tourist destinations in West Java. I also loved climbing the Papandayan Mountain, again with a group of friends to enjoy the magnificent sunrise. I missed it! I missed it a lot.
Perhaps, your imagination of Indonesia with its political issues may hold you back from traveling my homeland, but believe me, in its ordinary lives, apart from those fanatic politicians and corruption fames, ordinary people are very hospital and friendly. You can expect people will greet you whenever you go, because you are our tamu (guests). People in Indonesia still keep the term 'guests are the kings, so serve them right' and you can take it for granted. I am supporting Visit Indonesia Year 2008, to send you an invitation to come to Indonesia.
My own hometown, Palembang, is located in South Sumatra. If you have a map of Indonesia, look at the upper left of Java island, you can find Sumatra Island. Palembang has a golden era where the Srivijaya kingdom was reaching the pinnacle of fame and territories. Food wise, Palembang has its specific food called Empek-Empek which is popular nationwide.
Well, yes when I am missing my home-country, I would try my best to cook them in my New Zealand kitchen. Often am frustrated as the ingredients are not always available at times I want it, however there's always something to substitute. These little coconut balls which are stuffed with palm sugar are only some of my favourite sweets I've always come back for more.
Kueh Klepon (Coconut Balls)
Source: Jacki Passmore. Asia: The Beautiful Cookbook. p. 237.
It is much, much better if you can find brown palm sugar. Dark brown sugar is called gula Jawa, literally means Javanese sugar. It is have darker colour than palm sugars from Vietnam or Thailand. The texture is much smoother than dark muscovado sugar although the latest can be used as the substitute.
My late grandmother used to grind the glutinuous rice to be flour using her traditional wooden mortal and pestle made from a log of wood which is shaped like a mortar with a hole in the middle and the pestle is carved to resemble a huge rolling pin. The pestle usually has a little curve in the middle so she could hold the long stick in balance while she's grinding the rice. This stick is very heavy which I believe its weight is used to be able to break, crush and grind the rice. I don't know if this mortal and pestle still is available in the modern kitchen. I just want to see it again. It is a traditional value which many of us don't keep anymore. But, I will keep it if I can find it. It's precious.
1 cup glutinuous (sticky) rice flour,
¾-1 cup thin coconut milk,
½ tsp salt,
24 small cubes of palm sugar or several tablespoons dark brown sugar,
1 cup shredded coconut
(I used a drop of pandan paste to make the balls green and also to enhance the traditional flavour in the balls)
Mix the flour and coconut milk together, adding the salt. The dough should be firm enough to mold without sticking to the fingers. Form into 24 small balls of equal size. Push the poin of a finger into each one to form a hollow and press a piece of the palm sugar (or a scant half teaspoon of brown sugar) into each. Pinch the dough up and around the filling to compltely encase it, ensuring that the edges are firmly sealed together.
Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Drop in about 8 of the balls at a time and simmer until they float to the surface, then cook for a further 1 ½ minutes. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain. When all of the kueh kelepon are cooked, toss them in shredded coconut until thickly and evenly coated. Serve cold. Makes 24.
More on traditional Indonesian Sweets: