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An archipelago of more than 18,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the most populous nations on earth. The country is rich in biodiversity yet apart from cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), its native produce and unique ingredients elude most of the world.
Here are five Indonesian ingredients you have probably never heard of:
The foraged black nut of the keluak tree (pictured above) is lethal for humans when raw. But given some time and energy- which involves first boiling and then wrapping them in banana leaves and burying in ash for 40 days to release the hydrogen cyanide that makes them poisonous- they become a sought after delicacy in Indonesian, Malaysian and Peranakan cooking. Cooked buah keluak tastes like an intense truffle, with less fungi and more earth. They are used for a variety of dishes: the Toraja people of Sulawesi powder the nut to bake with fish or meat. Contemporary Peranakan chef Malcolm Lee uses it to make an extraordinary ice-cream, which he serves with caramel at his Singapore restaurant Candlenut.
Durian, known to Asians as the king of fruits, emits an odour that for some is the sweetest on the planet, yet for others is worse than rotten onions, turpentine and raw sewage mixed together. Understandably, it’s banned from hotels and public transportation in most Asian countries. Tempoyak takes fresh durian one step closer to both extremities. Removed of its seeds, the flesh is mixed with salt and stored for three to five days at room temperature to ferment and develop probiotics. It can be eaten with plain rice or used for making curry, often with catfish. Sambal Tempoyak is a Sumatran dish that blends the fermented durian with coconut milk and chili.
Sago grubs, the plump white larvae of the sago palm weevil are a delicacy throughout much of Indonesia, especially Borneo and Irian Jaya (West Papua) where sago forms part of the staple diet. Growing up to four centimetres in length, they are often described as creamy when raw and resemble bacon when cooked. Sago grubs are frequently prepared and fried with sago flour, which is the starchy pith extracted from the heart of a sago palm. The beetles only lay eggs in damaged sago palms. These palms can be "farmed" by cutting the palm, laying the trunks flat on the ground, and making holes in the trunks for beetles to enter and lay their eggs in the starchy pith inside.
Fermented ground shrimp paste with salt is found throughout Southeast Asia, from Manado to Chiang Mai. Terasi is Indonesia’s variety and include in a range of dishes, including Sayur Asam (fresh sour vegetable soup), Gado-Gado (blanched salad with peanut sauce) and Rujak (hot and spicy fruit salad). Fluctuating in colour, from soft purple-red to dark brown, the paste’s intensity also depends where it originates from. In Cirebon, a coastal city in West Java, terasi is made from tiny krill called "rebon", which forms the city's name. In Sidoarjo, East Java, it is made from mixing fish, small shrimp and vegetables. The island of Lombok produces a more savory and sweet paste called lengkare. Pungent and sharp, with a distinct smell and taste of rotten fish, it is an acquired taste.
This poor man’s foods of West Java is a fermented cake made from the by-products of several ingredients, including peanut oil residue, coconut press cake (protein residue from extracting coconut milk or cream), leftovers of tofu production and cassava waste. Produced similar to tempeh, it is also consumed in a similar fashion; as a deep fried snack resembling potato chips, or rolled with rice and steamed in a banana leaf (known as buras). The best oncom is said to come from Bandung, as they use whole peanuts instead of leftovers. Meaty and hearty, with a slight almond taste, oncom is said to lower cholesterol when consumed regularly.