Ask Peter: Indo-Italian
I am an Indonesian who is actually a big fan of Italian cuisine. I wonder if you can guide me on how to create Italian dishes with Indonesian flavours. Which Indonesian/Italian ingredients match well together?
Well, that concept is really what my food is all about — looking at flavours and textures from various cuisines and seeing if they can be mixed to produce something new and intriguing. To get a sense of what I call fusion cuisine, please check out my website or track down a copy of a book I wrote called A Culinary Journey which was renamed in the UK as Fusion — a culinary journey.
When you think about the basics of both cuisines there are of course many similarities — from rice and noodles, or pasta, through to chillies and the love of garlic, salty fish (think ikan bilis — dried baby anchovies vs Italian salted anchovies) and the serving of multi courses rather than the one big main course.
For Italians, risotto is one of the staples of the kitchen but, of course, rice is from Asia, not Europe, and so they owe the use of this lovely seed to the first plantings, around 10,000 years ago, in the Pearl River Valley in China, where I have been and marvelled. In Indonesia you do the most wonderful things with rice – although it is such a vast and populous country, spanning more than 5,000km from the easternmost to the westernmost islands and so, therefore, the variety of everything is enormous, and the variety of rice dishes, likewise.
I spent two months travelling in Indonesia in the mid 80s starting from Bali then heading west through Java and Sumatra before jumping on a ferry and heading to Malaysia. The food was incredible, from the chilli coated foods in Bukittinggi, barely south of the equator in Sumatra, through to suckling pig delicacies in Bali and clove-scented rice on the island of Nias.
In Yogyakarta I recall sitting on woven grass mats on a main street eating the most delicious nasi gudeg (unripe baby jackfruit stewed for many hours with coconut and spices) served in a banana leaf with steamed white rice. One of my good friends is the Sumatran writer Sri Owen. Sri has done more than perhaps anyone else to promote the cuisine of Indonesia and I was lucky enough to celebrate her 80th birthday recently at the Indonesian Embassy in London.
The food was wonderful, beautifully spiced, aromatic and rich, sharp and salty, crunchy and soft. The mix of flavours and textures I find so exciting. But rice was in abundance and it’s obvious it is the preferred carbohydrate in most Asian cuisines.
Noodles and pasta are also loved by both nations, as are fish and vegetables. So I guess for you it’s trying to find what will work as a combination of both kitchens. I’d suggest you always keep fresh ginger and lemongrass handy, garlic of course and anchovies of some sort, and even terasi, a solid form of “fish sauce”, could be used eagerly in both. If you’re making a risotto, then add some chopped ginger and lemongrass to the soffritto and if it’s vegetarian, use shredded bok choy or kai lan instead of spinach.
Make soft polenta and mix in raw corn kernels towards the end then drizzle with oil that’s been warmed gently for 20 minutes with a mixture of dried chillies, julienned ginger and sliced garlic until they begin to turn golden. Make a spaghetti carbonara using rice or vermicelli noodles and chopped tofu in place of spaghetti and just half the parmesan cheese (use both tofu and cheese — you won’t regret it).
Italian cooks will bake a pork shoulder or rolled belly in milk in a covered casserole dish. Do the same thing, but use coconut milk instead, as well as sliced ginger, star anise and cloves and serve with steamed Asian vegetables as well as a tomato chilli salsa and grilled eggplant. To be honest, the variations are endless and will make for some tasty meals.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.