Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rice and Spice in Java

If the island of Java has dominated modern Indonesian history, the city of Yogyakarta has, thanks to its former sultan, spent the last 50 years at the heart of Javanese culture. To round off a day spent exploring Yogyakarta’s palace area and shopping for arts and crafts, head to the night markets to indulge in a simple dish that is equally vital to Indonesian life: fried rice.

In a country where most food is fried and everyone eats rice three times a day, it’s perhaps inevitable that nasi goreng – the classic Indonesian snack literally meaning “fried rice” – puts them both together. Precooked rice is stir-fried in smoking-hot oil with chili peppers, shallots, shredded chicken, and dried shrimp, and seasoned with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). It’s served in a neat dome on a plate, topped with strips of omelet or a fried egg, and garnished with slices of crisp cucumber and crunchy puffed shrimp wafers. Add an eye-wateringly spicy blob of chili-pepper sambal as a relish, and you have a meal.
Nobody knows where nasi goreng originated, but while it probably wasn’t in Yogyakarta (usually shortened to “Yogya”), few other places provide a more historic setting for such an intrinsically Indonesian dish. The city – centered around the walled Kraton, the sultan’s palace area at the heart of the old city – was founded in the 1750s by a disgruntled prince from the declining Mataram empire. His new kingdom endured a stormy few decades of family intrigue and colonial warfare before being pummeled into submission by the Dutch, and as Yogya’s military power declined, the city became instead a cultural oasis, promoting the development of arts and crafts – especially batik work and the several forms of Javanese theater.
The Kraton is a cultural masterpiece in itself, though – oddly, given Java’s ostensibly Muslim beliefs – its design reflects the region’s earlier Hindu culture.
The interior palace retains the most grandeur, with beautifully proportioned courtyards, pavilions, and main buildings still attended by traditionally dressed staff and sometimes hosting Javanese dance and wayang kulit shadow-puppet shows. The Taman Sari water palace nearby honors Loro Kidul, the seductive Goddess of the South Seas, with whom Yogya’s sultans have always claimed a special relationship. For a return to earth, Jalan Malioboro – the street running north from the Kraton and originally intended as a triumphal route – now hosts Yogya’s best-known tourist market, where you can buy endless quantities of local crafts. After dark, the businesses gradually close, to be replaced by food stands selling light meals and snacks – and nasi goreng assumes its rightful place, at the heart of life in the old city.

Though largely Muslim, Java is an island of  many faiths. The serene Borobudur Temple, not far from  Yogyakarta, is a relic of an earlier Buddhist kingdom

Nasi goreng knows no social barriers: Indonesians relish their national dish at street stands, in restaurants, and even at banquets

Rice – a Global Staple

Rice is a grass, first cultivated in prehistoric times along China’s Yangtze valley – the Chinese still greet each other by asking, “Have you eaten rice yet?” Today rice is an essential, three-timesa- day fuel for a fifth of the world’s population and is a staple throughout Asia, where brilliant green paddy fields and mountainsides terraced for rice cultivation are part of the scenery from India to China, Japan, and the Philippines, and south through Vietnam to Indonesia. Its uses are endless: after boiling, rice can be fried, roasted, stewed as a porridge, steamed inside lotus or bamboo-leaf packets, wrapped around seafood and rolled up in seaweed, fermented to produce wine, or puffed and served as breakfast cereal.
Raw rice can also be pounded into flour and used for making noodles or cakes.

Best Places to Eat Nasi Goreng

Jalan Malioboro Night Market
The best nasi goreng in Yogya is found in this wonderfully atmospheric market, where small restaurant stands give you the chance to try lesehan dining – sitting on bamboo mats at a low table, rubbing elbows with the locals while mouthwatering food is prepared in front of you.
Aside from nasi goreng, try Yogya and Javanese specialties such as nasi gudeg (steamed rice with curry made from hefty, heavily scented jackfruit); tempeh (slightly sour, fermented soybean cake, usually sliced and fried); nasi langgi (steamed rice served on a banana leaf with a dozen spoonfuls of various curries and sambals); Kalasan chicken, stewed, fried, and flavored with copious garlic; and bakpia pathok (fried mung bean pastries, similar to Chinese mooncakes). For dessert, cendol is a drink of luridly colored jelly noodles in iced, sweetened coconut milk that – despite being served throughout Southeast Asia – locals insist originated in Java. Otherwise, wedang ronde, glutinous rice balls served in ginger syrup, is definitely a Yogya dish.
Jalan Malioboro, Kraton, Yogyakarta; open from dusk daily
Also in Yogyakarta
Also in the Kraton, Bale Raos (+62 274 415 550; moderate) serves excellent nasi goreng, though it specializes in recipes from the Yogyakartan Sultanate, some of them attributed to former rulers themselves. Urip urip gulung is fried catfish stewed in coconut milk flavored with ginger, makrut lime leaves, and lemongrass; while sanggar is, conversely, previously stewed beef cubes grilled on bamboo sticks like a satay.
Also in Java
In Jakarta, Java’s hot, sprawling, chaotic, unwieldy capital, Seribu Rasa (www.; moderate) sets the standard for mid-range restaurants serving regional Indonesian cooking, with stylish wooden decor. The menu includes several takes on nasi goreng: try nasi sayur (fried rice with vegetables) or fried-rice sundah kelapa, a seafood variation named after Jakarta’s harbor area and fish market (where, incidentally, you can still see fleets of old-style wooden fishing boats pulled up at the wharf).
Around the World
BaliBali (; moderate) in London’s West End is a relaxed, friendly place in which to try a host of Indonesian staples, including perfect nasi goreng, gado-gado (a salad with boiled eggs, tempeh, bean sprouts, and mild peanut sauce), plain Indonesian fried chicken, and spicy squid sambal.
A Day in Yogyakarta
Yogya’s Kraton and shopping alone can easily occupy a leisurely day, but you could alternatively set half the day aside for the 60-mile (100-km) round-trip to the incredible Buddhist complex at Borobudur, which predates the city by an entire millennium and was only fully restored during the 1980s.
MORNING : Enter the Kraton area via the square where the sultan once settled public disputes and staged fights between buffaloes and tigers (the buffalo symbolized Java, while locals saw the tiger as representing the oppressive Dutch).
Go on to browse artworks at the Sono Budoyo Museum, the Taman Sari water palace and the Sultan’s palace, where Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim motifs on the Bagsal Kencono pavilion illustrate Indonesia’s complex religious relationships.
AFTERNOON : After lunch, shop for Yogya’s batik, silver, leatherwork, and crafts: Jalan Malioboro is the most obvious destination, but Tirtodipuran Road and Beringharjo market are less touristy – check quality and bargain hard.
EVENING : Return to the Kraton for an evening stroll or take in a performance of Javanese puppetry, theater, or gamelan music.
Yogya’s Adisucipto airport has connections across Indonesia, plus Singapore and Malaysia. City transport includes bus, taxi, and becak (trishaw).
Rumah Boedi Pavilion (moderate) is central (near the train station), modern, and comfortable, with faux-ethnic chic furnishings.
Dusun Jogja Village Inn (moderate) offers mid-range boutique comfort slightly farther from the center.
The Phoenix (expensive) is a luxury modern revamp of a 1918 mansion.
Helpful information in English can be found at

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