CROSSCUT ASIA is an online film festival co-hosted by the Japan Foundation Asia Center and the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), which will be held from January 21 to February 3, 2022. As a related project, we will start a series of articles to deepen your interest in Southeast Asian food. The five-part series will focus on the food culture of five countries. The fifth country is the Republic of Indonesia. We were specially invited to the Residence of the Ambassador of Indonesia to talk with the resident chef.
The official residence of the ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia, located in Ikedayama, which has been known as the “Jonan-gozan” since the Edo period (1603-1868), is a majestic Western-style building that stands out from the many other famous buildings in the area. After being welcomed by the ambassador’s wife, Mrs. Nuning Akhmadi, and given a tour of the residence, we went to the kitchen to talk with Mr. Anwar, the ambassador’s personal chef.
Traditional Indonesian textiles, paintings, and objects featuring the Garuda, the national emblem of the Republic of Indonesia, are displayed throughout the official residence. The ambassador’s wife, who is also an expert in textiles, gave us a detailed explanation of the history and attention to detail.
On the day of our interview, Mr. Anwar, the resident chef, prepared for us a traditional Indonesian soup dish called Soto Ayam. Soto Ayam is a soup made by simmering vermicelli with chicken, lemongrass, ginger, galangal (a spice from the ginger family), and lime leaves, then adding garlic, scallions, and celery to taste.
Soto means “soup” and Ayam means “chicken.” The Republic of Indonesia consists of many islands. Each island and each area, such as Java, Bali, Sumatra, etc., has its own unique Soto, and Soto Ayam I made today is a recipe from East Java. Soto from Bandung in West Java, where I was born and raised, uses beef for the broth, and radish and beans are added.
The Republic of Indonesia is made up of more than 13,000 islands. With this diversity in mind, what does Mr. Anwar think of Indonesian cuisine?
It would be difficult to describe it in one word. Indonesians like spicy food so much that they eat chili peppers raw, so you could say that “spicy spices” are the characteristic of Indonesian food, but on the other hand, sweet seasonings such as brown sugar and sugar cane are also widely used. As an island nation, the fishing industry is also thriving, and each island has its own way of preparing fish. I believe that these things that cannot be expressed in a single word, these variations, are what Indonesian cuisine is all about. That is why when I serve meals at the ambassador’s residence, I try to serve as many dishes as possible from as many islands as possible so that people can enjoy them all as “one Indonesian dish.
Soto Ayam was also served with a shrimp cracker called Koya. You can eat it as it is, or dip it in the soup, each person can enjoy it in a different way.
Mr. Anwar said that he has a policy that is important to him when he cooks at the Ambassador’s residence.
As the ambassador’s personal chef, I am in charge of cooking a wide range of meals, from daily meals for the staff working at the ambassador’s residence to dinners for VIP guests. No matter who the guest is, there is no difference in the dishes I prepare. It’s my commitment to listen to their preferences and respond to their requests.
I always serve the best food to everyone. I could sense Mr. Anwar’s confidence and pride in this commitment. I envy the staff members who get to taste his food every day. Now I would like to ask him about the “main dish” in Indonesian cuisine. Nasi Goreng, known as Indonesian fried rice, is famous in Japan.
In Japan, Nasi Goreng is known as Indonesian fried rice. “Other than Nasi Goreng, there is Nasi Kuning, which is rice cooked with turmeric and coconut milk, and Rawon soup, which is beef tail soup with lime and bean sprouts.
I had never heard of Rawon soup before. The pitch-black color of the soup is said to be due to the Kluwek nuts used as seasoning. He told me that despite its appearance, it has a light and refreshing taste that is very addictive.
The ambassador is a big fan of Rawong soup, so I often make it on request.
In addition to these everyday dishes, is there a special menu prepared for occasions such as holidays? I think there are many celebrations held at the ambassador’s residence throughout the year.
In the Republic of Indonesia, most of the people are Muslim. The most important day of the year is Lebaran, the festival that marks the end of the fast, and it is customary to eat Ketupat, a kind of rice cake made by steaming rice in a wrapping made of woven palm leaves, similar to Japanese Chimaki. At the ambassador’s residence, we always make Ketupat during Lebaran, and everyone eats it together.
Mr. Anwar, who has been working as a chef since 1995, started working at the ambassador’s residence about a year ago. He told us that his favorite Japanese dish is Yakitori.
The mortar that Mr. Anwar was using to grind the seasonings when making Soto Ayam, which looked like it was cut out of a large rock, was impressive.
That is a traditional cooking utensil called a Cobek. Nowadays, mixers are widely used in Indonesia, but the aroma of seasonings ground with this mortar is very special, and it is indispensable for my work. No matter how many mixers are developed in the future, I don’t think Cobec will ever disappear.
Cobec is made mainly from natural stones such as granite, andesite, and basalt. The gurgling sound of the Cobek as it is ground, combined with the pronounced aroma, whets the appetite. I wonder if this kind of traditional food culture still exists in Indonesia.
Culture of eating food with hands still remains in Indonesia. A typical example is Padang cuisine, a traditional food culture in Sumatra. Of course, spoons and forks are available for foreign visitors, but if you want to enjoy the real taste of Indonesian food, it is highly recommended to eat with your hands. When doing so, be sure to use your right hand. This is because of the Islamic doctrine that the right hand is the sacred hand and the left hand is the impure hand. As long as you keep this in mind, the local people will surely be happy to see you.
Through our interview with Mr. Anwar, we were able to get a broad glimpse of the country’s food culture, from the meals served at the ambassador’s residence to the traditions of Indonesian cuisine. When the pandemic settles down and I visit the Republic of Indonesia, I would like to use my right hand to enjoy the authentic taste of the country.
Mr. Anwar said, “I don’t think there is a country as rich in seasonings as the Republic of Indonesia. Mr. Anwar said, “I don’t think there is any country as rich in seasonings as the Republic of Indonesia.
Writer: Yohsuke Watanabe（IN FOCUS）