Feeding the Nation – Lombok
Lombok is just a 30-minute flight from its neighbour Bali but, much like the straits that separate the two islands and distinguish their flora and wildlife, so too are their cultures distinct. Those differences are certainly felt in the kitchen, and I’m heading to Lombok on a culinary tour to discover the dishes of the island’s Sasak people.
I’m looking forward to a spice-laden cultural meander through back-street kitchens and remote villages, early-morning markets and the ubiquitous food carts set up by roadsides.
It isn’t long after touching down at Praya airport that I’m already enfolded in the aromas of Ampenan’s morning market. The rich aroma of spicy bumbu merah and meat sizzling over charcoal fills the air, and I’m soon tucking into satay pusut, or skewered meat with a spicy coconut flavour. This is a tempting distraction, but I’m really here to find Ibu Sinasah and her legendary satay rembiga before it’s all sold out. She leaves as soon as the last satay stick has gone, and only reopens again at two in the afternoon. This style of satay is named for Rembiga village and is said to be a recipe of the now-defunct royal family of Pejanggik. When I track down Ibu Sinasah’s stall, I find the satay has lovely caramel notes and a sweet-and-sour flavours created from shrimp paste and brown sugar.
Later I head out to the remote village of Bayan on Lombok’s north coast, where another lady with famed cooking skills is expecting me. Ibu Atik’s cooking is so admired that she’s called upon to cater for important local ceremonies, and I’m eager to see how her Sasak dishes are conjured up in her traditional kitchen. As I arrive, I’m recognized from my television appearances and am soon posing for photographs with Ibu Atik and her daughter. As we enter the kitchen, I also meet her husband, who becomes invaluable in assisting me by transcribing the family recipes in his neat, professional teacher’s handwriting.
The atmosphere is chaotic but purposeful, with five ceremonial dishes being made at one time in a fairly small space over hot coals. Ingredients are prepared for one pot, then another. Pastes are mashed, and flames flare. The heady confusion of aromas is tantalizing. Banana shoots are simmering in a curry of coconut milk and turmeric for the typically Lombok dish sayur ares, while curly fern fronds are being prepared for an olah olah salad. This also contains long beans and bean sprouts and, with the addition of chillies and salty shrimp paste, recalls the Thai flavours that I love to serve out of my E&O Jakarta kitchen.
Next, there’s a cooling cucumber urap, another type of salad served warm with shredded coconut and chillies, which makes for a pleasing balance to the palate alongside the creamy curry. A hearty bebalung soup also bubbles away. This is made with tamarind-braised beef ribs whose tender flesh falls off the bone – absolutely mouthwatering. This is the Lombok effect: simple ingredients from a relatively small range of locally grown produce that is carefully combined to create a whole array of delicious flavours.
Ibu Atik’s fifth dish is ebatan salad. This is actually fairly complex, as it requires two spicy pastes made from contrasting sets of ingredients. Rajang paste is usually used for chicken of beef and emphasises galangal, while the deep-red bumbu pelalah is used on fish and combines cassava and bitter gourd. But the influences of both are subtly felt in this salad, which is garnished with shredded coconut, mung beans and a sprinkling of deep-fied shallots.
It’s hard to resist all this festive fare, and I’m rather full – but certainly content – as I head off for a night at Santosa Villas & Resort in Senggigi. The next morning, I sensibly avoid breakfast as I gear up for another browse through Lombok’s local culinary creations. After all, I’m heading to Lesehan Sekarbela warung (a family-run restarurant) in Ampenan for lunch, and reckon I’ll need all the stomach-space available. Indeed, soon I’m tucking into ayam Rajang, a chicken dish cooked in a spicy galangal-scented paste made from candlenut, chillies and a touch of cinnamon, and accompanied by a coconut-based kime kime soup in wich float freen beans, thin slices of beef and chunk of tofu.
I’m already into my second bowl, and sucking on the beef bones when the restaurant owner recommends his sup buntut. How can I refuse? I’m as keen on eating as cooking, and it’s hard to turn down a taste of this sharp, peppery soup, which is lifted by Asian celery and rounded out with garlic. It’s unbelievably good.
I roll out of the warung and head off to my next challenge: finding another little eatery in Puyung village, called Pedaleman. It’s tucked down a rather dark and nameless alley and doesn’t even merit a sign, but its owner Inaq Esun’s reputation – and popular Twitter account – is all that’s needed to get customers flocking to her warung. Inaq Esun started back in the 1950s selling nasi balap puyung in the local market. By the 1970s she had opened her warung, now run by younger family members and still as packed as ever. Nasi balap puyung remains its speciality: a dish in which half the chicken is grilled and stirred through a fiery sauce of chillies, garlic and shrimp paste, while the other half is shredded and shallow-fried in powdered turmeric and coriander. I love the flavours and diverse textures of this dish, which is accompanied by fluffy white rice, crunchy fried soya beans (kedelai) and dry-toasted, shredded coconut. It’s an authentic Lombok dish to be greatly admired.
On my next and final day in Lombok I want to sample another noted chicken dish, ayam taliwang. I first spend the night at Jeeva Klui Resort on Senggigi’s white sands, where private walled bungalows shelter under reed-thatched roofs and are graced with tropical gardens and an infinity pool It’s perfect relaxation before I head off into the bustling streets of Cakranegara and Taliwang Irama. Ayam taliwang is a ubiquitous dish in Lombok that also uses bumbu pelalah paste, but with the suprise addition of ginger, chillies, candlenut, shrimp paste and coconut cream. As if this weren’t enough flavour the chicken is prepared with honey and sweet soy sauce.
I’m certainly more than satisfied with my epicurean exploration of Lombok’s food culture. It’s a cuisine born of necessity, flavoured by tradition, and served so its people eat well and live well. The island is a place where home kithcens become a hub for extended communities, with tiny warungs (or even just food carts) everywhere serving up variations on well-known dishes that are enough to have locals queuing out of the door. Each professes so serve the original and the best, whether it’s ayam plecing or sate bulayak or any number of other dishes. And in Lombok, it seems, that’s no idle claim.