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food / travel

Inside Indonesian Kitchens, A Story About The Archipelago

From the rich peanut sauce of gado-gado to the spicy tang of the fried rice nasi goreng, Indonesian cuisine is known for its intense flavors and lavish use of spices.

Preparing gado gado
Preparing gado gado
Nicole Curby

JAKARTA The streets of any Indonesian town or city are filled by the sound and smell of food, often cooked on the spot and sold for less than a dollar a plate.

Rima Sjoekri says she isn't a great cook, not even a good one. She never learned to cook when she was young — and is not the only Indonesian who feels that way. "I feel like my generation is the missing link in Indonesian cooking because we were raised to have a career outside of the home. We were raised to go beyond our kitchen," said Sjoekri.

But it was work that brought Sjoekri back to the kitchen. Other people's kitchens, and a lot of them. She has dedicated herself to recording recipes and secrets from inside kitchens all over Indonesia. She has put them together in an Indonesian cookbook that was recently launched.

"Do you remember, in our past we have probably all heard about grandma cooking with our mother in the kitchen, and she would be telling our mother about how things work in the kitchen, and how things work in the recipes," says Sjoekri. "So this book basically plays that role in today's world, where we live separately from our families earlier than our mothers did."

Indonesia is a vast and diverse country with more than 300 languages and 900 inhabited islands. Each area has its own set of specialties — from gudeg and jackfruit curry in the central Javan town of Jogjakarta to beef rendang in West Sumatra. Food is a crucial part of local culture and identity.

Beef rendang — Photo: Maythee Anegboonlap

Sjoekri says it's geography that determines different flavors and methods of cooking. "When I was researching this book I collected about 1,000 recipes from around Indonesia. And what I found was that on the western side of Indonesia, like Sumatra, Java, we do a lot more boiling, and on the eastern side of Indonesia we do a lot more grilling, and that has to do with the geography," she says. "Because on the western side the fresh water reservoir is a lot more available. And on the eastern side, given the islands are thin, we have more sea water than fresh water and they have no choice but to grill."

The use of spices, or "bumbu," that's common across the archipelago, and that defines Indonesian cooking.

"The artful part of our cooking is in the grinding of many spices together to make various varieties of bumbu. Because I think that this bumbu part is the most authentic part that we can claim to be ours, Indonesian cooking," she sys. "Otherwise we all borrow techniques from elsewhere. Like stir-fry comes from China. Fermentation comes from China also. The curry, the pastes, come from India or Persia. But the blending of spices, or the bumbu, is ours."

It's no coincidence that spices are fundamental to Indonesian cooking. Cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg are native to Indonesia, and they have shaped the history of the place, which was once known as the "Spice Islands." Dutch and Portuguese colonizers fought for domination of Indonesia's islands, exploiting the area and people so that they could sell the lucrative spices to build their empires.

Photo: Abibah Agianda

The flavor of Indonesian food these days owes a lot to colonial-era trade. "You know there is something funny about the spices. Because the spices that are home grown, that are native to here, like cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, especially, those are the three key spices that people were looking for here but they are the ones least used in our recipes." Instead, chilies are widely used in Indonesian food, especially "sambals."

"Chilies are not from here. Chilies came in the 16th century when the Portuguese came. And yet we have adopted it so well," says Sjoekri.

In this steamy, tropical climate, specific combinations of spices are used to preserve food, and to kill bacteria. Take beef rendang for example. When family members leave their villages in West Sumatra to find work in the cities, they would be sent off with beef rendang in a lunch box. Even in the blistering heat, the meaty dish would last them several days as they made their way to the city.

These days it's not uncommon to send beef rending to family by post.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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