From the Indonesian melting pot

How many times have you dined at a Chinese or Thai restaurant, grabbed some sushi for lunch, or indulged in a spicy Indian curry?

Yet how many people have sampled Indonesian food?

Despite Indonesia being one of Australia’s closest neighbours, we haven’t had the same love affair with its food as with dishes from other Asian countries.

Indonesian is a rich and varied cuisine. Because of the country’s history as a stopover point on trade routes, the flavours and cooking methods are influenced by India, China, Malaysia, the Middle East and the Netherlands.

There are few places in the Illawarra where you can try Indonesian cuisine. Dwipa Kitchen, a mainstay food stall at many events in the region, serves Balinese delights. Raya Thai in Helensburgh serves Indonesian dishes alongside Thai ones.

Raya Thai’s head chef Irwan Ho, who was born in Jakarta, describes Indonesian food as intense and dry, and richer and heavier than Thai or Vietnamese.

‘‘Our food is very similar to Malay food, while Indian uses a lot more spices,’’ she explains.

Regional cuisine does vary between the 18,000 or so islands. But Ho says you can find the Indonesian signature dishes, such as ‘‘gado-gado’’ (a salad) or ‘‘soto’’ (soup) anywhere.

‘‘We are a hot country, but we eat a lot of soup and we eat that with rice – we put the rice inside the soup,’’ she says.

As most Indonesians are Muslim, pork is rarely on the menu – except in Bali, which has a Hindu majority and is famous for its roast pig.

Ho says fish and poultry are the main meats used, but there are also vegetarian dishes using tofu or tempeh.

She says the fruits and vegetables in Indonesian cuisine are similar to those used in other South-East Asian dishes, though the foul-smelling, beanlike ‘‘pete’’ and ‘‘durian’’ fruit do feature.

Ho believes Indonesian has not taken off in Australia because it is heavier and oilier than other Asian cuisines. She modifies some menu options, such as lightening ‘‘beef rendang’’, a traditional dry curry.

Cathy Law, owner of the Little Blowhole Cafe in Kiama, is facing similar challenges while preparing to host an Indonesian dinner at the cafe tonight. She has tried to choose fairly familiar dishes , such as satay and gado-gado.

‘‘It’s really the ultimate fusion food, mainly due to its history and also its size. All those different influences come together and it really suits Australia because we’re a melting-pot too,’’ she says.

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