Indonesia is the world’s largest island chain and is its fourth most populated nation. As a result, a lot of people are clustered in a lot of far-flung places scattered across many vast islands. The food and culture, therefore, have developed more regionally than nationally. Throughout their history, Indonesians have traded with China, India, Malaysia, and the Middle East, and later with the Portuguese and Spanish. The Dutch colonized Indonesia for two centuries and held major influence for even longer before that. During World War II the archipelago was occupied by the Japanese, and shortly after the war ended the Indonesians finally regained their independence. Each island has been influenced by these cultures to a different degree and is really its own cuisine; many popular dishes in one location are virtually unknown in another.
Indonesia quick facts:
- Capital: Jakarta
- Population: 237,424,363 (2011 census)
- Notable Indonesians: Taco (of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” fame), boxer Chris John
Foods found throughout the region like curries, stir fries, and spring rolls are popular at the Indonesian table as well, but the national dishes are all indigenous in origin. Satay, grilled meat on a stick, is available everywhere from streetside food carts to fancy wedding receptions. Rendang, meat braised in heavily spiced coconut milk, and nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice (recipe follows) have seen their popularity grow to the Netherlands and Suriname, where they were introduced by the Dutch colonists.
Nasi goreng has many subtle differences from the fried rice dishes of its neighbors, but the most obvious one is the addition of kecap manis. Kecap manis is a syrupy-sweet soy sauce made with palm sugar that is used as a sauce ingredient or condiment in countless Indonesian fare. In the United States it can be found in Southeast Asian markets, but can easily be reproduced at home by simply combining equal parts soy sauce and brown sugar, as recommended by Emily of Fuss Free Cooking. Some cooks like to add vegetables, mushrooms, or shrimp to their rice, and nearly everyone likes their nasi goreng topped with a fried egg. Every Indonesian has a favorite nasi goreng preparation, so to be inclusive we erred on the side of simplicity, favoring Saveur editor James Oseland’s version in his book Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia (Amazon affiliate link). Like with most varieties of fried rice, it is not advisable to make nasi goreng out of hot, freshly cooked rice. Fresh rice takes on oil too readily, leaving the dish a hot, greasy mess. We have always made fried rice out of leftover day-old rice, but Sri Owen, author of The Indonesian Kitchen: Recipes and Stories (Amazon affiliate link), warns that day-old rice is “too stale to make a first-rate nasi goreng” and recommends two- to three-hour-old rice, which has had enough time to get cold without getting stale. Not ones to ignore such precise advice, we followed it to the letter.
adapted from Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia by James Oseland
SERVES 2 AS A MAIN COURSE
- 1 cup long-grain white rice
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 2 serrano chilies, cut into pieces
- 1/4 tsp kapǐ, fermented shrimp paste (for more on kapǐ see our recipes for Cambodian amok trei and Burmese mohinga)
- 1 shallot, roughly chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- 1 Tbs brown sugar
- about 2 Tbs homemade kecap manis, made from 1 Tbs soy sauce and 1 Tbs brown sugar
- 4 Tbs vegetable oil for frying
- 2 fried eggs to serve
About three hours before we wanted to start making our nasi goreng, we poured the water over the rice in a saucepan and brought it to a simmer over medium heat. Once simmering, the pot was covered, the heat turned down to low, and the rice was left alone for twenty minutes. The hot, fluffy cooked rice was poured into a Pyrex baking dish and spread out to cool on the counter for about forty-five minutes, then placed in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Later, after the rice had been cooling a couple hours, we began to put together our nasi goreng, starting with a flavoring paste. The chilies, shrimp paste, shallot, garlic, and brown sugar were pulsed in our blender until finely chopped. To bring the mixture together as a more cohesive paste, we added about a one-and-a-half tablespoons of water — just enough to thin the mixture and keep it churning through the blades while the blender was running. The paste was poured into a bowl and kept ready by the stove:
Next we prepared our kecap manis, whisking together the soy sauce and brown sugar until combined:
Surprisingly, that was all the prep work needed, so we were ready to cook some rice! First, we put some oil in one of our trusty cast-iron skillets over medium heat and waited for it to just barely show signs of smoke:
The flavoring paste was then added to the hot oil:
The paste was stirred constantly until it no longer smelled like raw shallots and had darkened considerably, about five minutes:
At this point the rice was added by hand, breaking up the clumps as much as possible before dropping it in:
The smaller clumps were taken care of with the spoon as we stirred and stirred until the rice began to look more uniform and heat through, about three minutes:
Our homemade kecap manis was added and stirred into the rice, and after another couple of minutes the rice was evenly coated with oil and spicy serrano goodness, heated through, and just barely beginning to brown along the edges (the browning part is a no-no to Sri Owen, but we’re nasi goreng rookies so bear with us). Quickly the rice was scooped into a large bowl and set aside while we prepared the eggs.
We put a non-stick skillet over medium heat and added about two or three tablespoons of oil. Once hot, we dropped in the two eggs:
If we were preparing a casual Sunday breakfast we would flip the eggs at the point pictured above, preferring a runny yolk. For nasi goreng this is not the preferred style of fried egg; Indonesians prefer a more firmly cooked egg atop their rice. After another minute, once the whites were just beginning to crisp along the edges:
…we were ready to turn the eggs:
The eggs were left to cook for another minute to firm up the yolk just a bit. Meanwhile, we got our plates of nasi goreng ready, and once the eggs were done they were tastefully laid atop a billowy pillow of rice. Served alongside our sate pusut, our nasi goreng was an impressive presentation:
Flavorful but not burning hot, our nasi goreng certainly activated a lot of different receptors on the tongue. The spicy serrano; savory, salty, and sour soy sauce; sweet sugar; and aromatic shallot and garlic each had its say in the final flavor of the dish with none overpowering it. Topped with a rich fried egg, it is easy to see the popularity both in Indonesia and in anywhere else the dish has been introduced.
We had never before thought of preparing a spicy paste to make fried rice, and the idea has its merits. Much the same as making a Thai curry, a lot of flavor can be distributed evenly over all the tiny grains of rice, giving each grain the proper seasoning and texture. We by no means prepared this perfectly and it came out beautifully; we can only imagine the results of a skilled nasi goreng cook.