Tuesday, March 29, 2016

5 Things I Learned from My First Indonesian Meal




It's been a tradition for me to take a vacation in L.A. once a year, and while there, try at least one cuisine my inquisitive palate had never experienced. Of course, I'd love to travel around the world and sample ethnic dishes in their real birthplaces. But to accomplish that, I would have to first carry out some really wicked schemes, such as doing a body swap with Andrew Zimmern, the TV host of Bizarre Foods....or worse, marrying Trump. For now, I'd rather just place my globetrotting dream on the back burner and appease my gastronomic curiosity by paying yearly visits to gorgeous Los Angeles, a city with one of the most diverse food scenes in the country. My L.A. trip this year has come and gone. I flew a plane in Hawthorne, pigged out in Thai Town, took selfies on Venice Beach, suffered a little asthma attack on the Tree of Life trail, and oh yes, I also had my first Indonesian meal at Simpang Asia and learned some interesting lessons from it. 

1. Never dine at a nice restaurant right after witnessing a plane crash - Unfortunately, that's what I did, and it slightly dampened my palate's enthusiasm. Not to imply that I didn't enjoy the food at Simpang. I did. It was good, but it could have been fantastic if I hadn't eaten it in a state of semi-shock. What's worse than a bad lunch is a great lunch not fully appreciated. 

2. Banana leaf can take us all the way to Bali - Appearance-wise, Simpang seems to be nothing but a modern bistro. No bamboo ceiling. No rattan seatings. No Wayang puppets hung on the walls. They could as well serve spaghetti or tacos, and it wouldn't clash with such a neutral ambiance. One tiny detail that gives this eatery a lovely Indonesian touch is their banana-leaf-lined plates. This plating style might not have the same magical impact on other diners, but it definitely worked for me. While eating my Nasi Lemak in L.A., I took a virtual trip to a farmers market in Bali where sarong-clad Balinese enjoyed their banana-wrapped meals under colorful parasols. See, with a piece of banana leaf, delicious Indonesian food, and rampant imaginations, you don't need money for airfare. 

3. If you love Thai, you'd adore Indonesian - The flavor profiles of Thai and Indonesian cuisines are distinctly similar. Lots of bold spices. Intense levels of heat. Out of their extensive menu, I got to try two things. The Nasi Lemak was beautifully composed of fragrant coconut rice, tender curried chicken, hard-boiled egg, red chili paste, and fried baby anchovies that might totally creep out some sheltered Western eaters. The Mantep Padang also came with rice and chicken, but its accompanying sides were more exciting--zesty green chili paste, egg and kale curries, and Sambal beef steak so well-seasoned and spicy it could simultaneously bring smiles and tears. 

4. Es Cendol is a heavenly drink  - I don't usually describe non-alcoholic drinks as heavenly. So when I do, I wholeheartedly mean it. 


To those who have no idea what it is, this beverage might seem unappetizing and borderline poisonous. It looks kind of like some murky milk with dead green worms floating in it. Well, those "worms" are pandan jelly, which doesn't have any taste in itself, but does add texture and a sweet piney aroma of the pandan plant to this drink. And the reason the coconut milk seems "dirty" is because it's sweetened with palm sugar. You drink it with a large straw the same way you drink bubble tea. Take a big sip and your life will feel good (even if it isn't actually good, even if it sucks, even if you've just seen a plane crashing and burning right before your eyes). 

5. It's about damn time for America to embrace Indonesian cuisine - Many Americans eat chow mein and General Tso chicken on a weekly basis. Many also know what Pad Thai and Pad See Ew are. Sushi bars are ubiquitous in most cities. Pho has become so mainstream fewer people now mispronounce it. Even chicken tandori and lamb samosas are no longer that exotic. It's time for Indonesian cuisine, which is just as spectacular as all of the aforementioned, to gain its popularity in this melting pot. 

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