The modern concept of fusion food is ‘old news’ on Java, with centuries of inherited and adapted recipes established through trading, colonisation and independence. From east to west across this island of more than 150 million people, distinctive differences emerge in eating preferences.
The eastern city of Surabaya is famous for bold flavours and fiery chillies. To the west, the great city of Jakarta offers incredible variety, impacted by Arabian, South Asian and Chinese influences, among others. Situated between the two, the people of Central Java are renowned for both the sweet – snacks of groundnuts and sugar such as enting-enting gepuk, a type of nougat from Salatiga – and the salty, such as duck eggs from Brebes or lumpia spring rolls with grated bamboo shoots from Semarang.
Any visit to Central Java must include sampling the region’s famous vegetarian stew, gudeg. Traditionally it is never served alone, but is seen as an essential part of a meal. There are several types to try, with variations in key ingredients, texture and taste, from place to place. It is a dish so loved by the citizens of Yogyakarta, they happily refer to their home as Kota Gudeg (Gudeg City). Gudeg comes in dry and wet forms, and in different colours, with the people of Solo preferring a white sauce and a less sweet taste. Yogyakartan aficionados of the dish champion a dryer, sweeter version and a warm red-brown hue.
At the heart of gudeg is jackfruit, or nangka in Indonesian. Gori is young jackfruit in the Javanese dialect. Introduced from India, jackfruit has become a feature of diets across Southeast Asia. It is a giant among fruit, weighing as much as 35kg. Green (unripe) or yellow, the hard, knobbly exterior guards white to yellow flesh and large seeds.
As it ripens, jackfruit flesh becomes a deeper, more vivid yellow, gaining a distinctive fragrance, not at all as overwhelming as that other large hard-skinned fruit, the durian. Ripe, fresh jackfruit is delightful on its own or in drinks, such as es teler, mixed with young coconut, condensed milk and chopped avocado. It goes well sliced up with other fruits in a tropical combination or served with kolak, a dish of banana or sweet potatoes, palm sugar, pandan leaves and coconut soup.
Selective key ingredients make a difference. Young coconut blossom is essential for the gudeg manggar favoured in Yogyakarta, and gudeg rebung uses sliced young bamboo shoots, though neither recipe is well known outside of Java. It is important to parboil both the young coconut blossom and sliced bamboo shoots before cooking with the other ingredients.
Most gudeg recipes use a blend of spices in a white paste. The blend is of shallots, garlic, white pepper, coriander seeds, candlenuts, galangal, nutmeg and daun salam (bay leaves), with palm sugar and coconut milk. Cooking produces a creamy sauce, the essence of the Solo version, while Yogyakartans prefer a longer cooking process to concentrate the mixture through evaporation, resulting in a classic dry-style gudeg. Most top gudeg eateries still use wood fires, which add to the delightful aroma and taste. The special ingredient essential to the distinctive Yogyakarta variant is the leaf of the teak tree, or daun jati, added to ensure the dish’s red-brown finish.
The best gudeg establishments are decades old, invariably family businesses passed down, proudly bearing the name of older-generation ladies of the house as the trustedbrand, such as Gudeg Yu Djum, Bu Pujo, Bu Tjitro, and many more.
Secret recipes are carefully preserved, while décor and ambience take on a more modern style with most gudeg restaurants these days having a website and home delivery. Gudeg is delivered in a clay pot or bamboo woven with banana leaves – eco-friendly and sustainable methods involving no plastic packaging. Dried gudeg will last for over a week without the need for refrigeration.
I could stop there, but as Javan cuisine has evolved in the past, I see more opportunity in the future. Why not enjoy gudeg as a meal in itself, considering interest in vegetarian food is on the rise? Served with rice and tempeh (soya bean cake), tofu and a simple sambal (without shrimp paste), it has great potential at home and abroad. Jackfruit is gaining a stronger following outside Indonesia, with growing interest in its health-giving properties, from antioxidants to claims that it improves digestion and aids weight loss. Some suggest it has a texture similar to meat, so with a little imagination the gudeg burger could become a healthy fast food or an interesting alternative for tacos or with pasta.
If you prefer gudeg in the classic style, there are some great combinations to consider. Serve it with free-range local chicken, fried then simmered with spices and coconut water until tender. Or alongside opor ayam, a chicken curry with turmeric, cooked slowly over a low heat for hours in a delicious infusion of lemongrass, spices and coconut milk. Then there is pindang egg, an egg that is first boiled and shelled then boiled again with a mix of tea, sweet soya sauce, palm sugar, lemongrass, salt and bay leaves. Try tempeh and tofu cooked in tamarind water and spices for a tangy, sweet flavour. Last but not least, gudeg is particularly enjoyable when it is served with sambal krecek, a stew of spicy beef-skin crackers.
Whether served on its own or alongside other dishes and sauces, gudeg can be the heart of any memorable feast, a combination of complementary and contrasting flavours, spicy, tangy and sweet, a true introduction to the rich mystery that is Java