The Bold And The Beautiful: Celebrating The Complex Flavors Of Indonesia

 PHOTO BY VISHNU HOFF

PHOTO BY VISHNU HOFF

by Miranti (Dame Cuchifrita)

Flavor. A term used to describe both the richness and layers of taste encountered in ethnic cuisines and colorful styles. A term often used to describe the otherings of cuisines and cultures. A word that is both revered and feared. In my adjacent world of culinary arts and fashion design, having flavor means going against the grain of the Eurocentric idea of the minimalist aesthetic. Bold flavors mean complex layering of mouth sensations, having multiple notes of salty, sweet, bitter, sour and spicy at the same time. In the realm of style, big bold colorful patterns, crashing down in sweet chaotic harmony suggesting a powerful, look at me, bigger than life presence. A juxtaposition from a sea of the conforming subtly colored uniforms. Flavor is not for the meek. It is not for those seeking grey monastic existence. It is written for those who dare to venture to the world of the unknown. 

 Quail eggs cooked in chili coconut sambal - a take on the traditional Javanese dish by Miranti. Photo by Baju Wijono

Quail eggs cooked in chili coconut sambal - a take on the traditional Javanese dish by Miranti. Photo by Baju Wijono

Flavor is my medium. Flavor is the colorful tube of paints I use on my plates, my metaphoric canvas. My childhood was filled with capturing traditional flavors of where I grew up. Tropical. Provincial. Herbaceous and often putrescent. 

Indonesia the spice archipelago. The string of islands that was once occupied by colonialist Europe that spanned 400 years for one reason only. Spices. 

I grew up tirelessly eating the arrays of tropical fruits and traditional cuisines that span across 18,000 islands with over 300 ethnic groups, each with its own diverse flavor combinations and palates. Naturally, through the beauty of evolution, I strongly believe that your average native Indonesian probably has a heightened sense of taste. Our tastebuds are not satisfied if the salty, sweet, umami, bitter, sour, and spicy notes are not dancing on our tongue simultaneously like a well choreographed ballet repertoire. 

 FRIED WHOLE QUAIL IN TAMARIND, GARLIC AND CORIANDER SERVED WITH SPICY LEMONGRASS SAMBAL. PHOTO BY MIRANTI DAME CUCHIFRITA

FRIED WHOLE QUAIL IN TAMARIND, GARLIC AND CORIANDER SERVED WITH SPICY LEMONGRASS SAMBAL. PHOTO BY MIRANTI DAME CUCHIFRITA

That said, how does one incorporate world flavors in a modern western kitchen?  

For starters, the usage of  herbs and spices, whether in fresh, dried, powdered or paste form, need pre-cooking most of the time before incorporating into a dish. Adding powdered spices into your dish without precooking it will often create a bitter, medicinal flavor. Precooking spices will impart its natural aroma and take out the bitterness whether through sautéing, roasting, or steeping.

Cooking your flavor components in a particular order will help you build a layered flavor profile. So not only is precooking the spices is mandatory, the sequence matters as well. Herbs tend to benefit through steeping in your dish, but spices in seed form or roots require crushing, bruising and then sautéing to impart the best flavors.  In a lot of South and Southeast Asian households, the cook will often precook a medley of spices and herbs to create a spice paste that they can access anytime for future cooking to save time. 

The next time you want to experiment with new spices, try sautéing the spices in butter or olive oil and then add it to your sautéed onion or garlic. You'd be surprised how beautifully subtle but complex the flavor of your dish will become. 

Miranti a.k.a Dame Cuchifrita is an extreme hobbyist in the kitchen, who grew up under her grandmother's tutelage of indigenous Javanese cuisine. A winner of the Food Network's new show Cooks VS Cons Season 1  Episode 2, she managed to show the world  on national TV by breaking boundaries through cooking. She is also a trained fashion designer by profession and an underground nightlife staple performer in NYC for well over a decade.