Chilli in Indonesia

mini-img_0016.jpgSome people love them and some hate them but you have to admit, Chilli does give that extra zip to any meal. Chilli in fact is not native to Indonesia contrary to popular belief. Wherever you go throughout the archipelago and devour a meal at a restoran or warung, you are bound to eat food cooked with some degree of chilli in it. It is used in the making of Sambal and certain chilli’s are just too hot and the resulting sambal, fiery!.

My wife, Candika, loves Sambal and the hotter the better. I just look at some of the concoctions and I break out in a sweat!. Sambal trassi comes to mind and I was happy to try this, once, at a warung in Surakarta in Central Java. It was an ugly sight!. Everybody has a cure for killing the fire-in-your-throat after being attacked by chilli’s. I have heard people say bread is good and so is milk, others try water but I prefer a fire extinguisher!. Here is an interesting article by Indonesia’s finest and most popular food writer:

Many regions became known for their abundant use of chilies in their cooking. Two regions most renown for being very attached to chilies are West Sumatra and North Sulawesi, where a ratio of 1:1 was the general rule of thumb, which meant that a kilogram of chili should be used for each kilogram of meat as gastronome and epicurean el supremo Suryatini N. Ganie explains.

Although this is no longer taken literally, a vast amount of chilies are still used in many dishes, like the famous rendang of West Sumatra.

In North Sulawesi they are of the same opinion: A dish is only appetizing when it is hot. The sauce for their typical satay tambulinas (usually made of pork) could send someone not used to heat frantically gulping down a jug of water.

But the popularity of the hot dishes of these two regions, are increasing because, in addition to heat, the chili has many health benefits.

First, if you eat a hot chili, you’ll experience moments of heightened awareness (Rebecca Wood, The New Whole Food Encyclopedia).

It is also a potent digestive stimulator and has antioxidant properties that help preserve and detoxify food. However, consumption of chili is not recommended for those with an inflamed colon or weak stomach.

In Indonesia chili has many cultivators and — depending on the region where they are grown — there are hot chilies, and then there are very hot chilies.

The chili used in cooking are usually the plump red chilies or cabai merah, which are a bit more expensive than the cabai merah keriting or the slim curly chili. The hottest of all is the cabai rawit or “chili paddy” in culinary English.

Some call them tiny chilies. These tiny chilies are used when serving sweet and sour pickles or acar, which are eaten raw or as an accompaniment to fried foods like tofu, that would otherwise be rather bland. Small chilies are found in two colors, red and green.

The green ones are a bit spicier and have a stronger structure.
One of the most popular and unique chili preparations are the sambals, hot and pungent condiments. All over the archipelago there are hundreds of different sambals.

One of the most renown is the sambal trassi made of red chilies, trassi or belachan, and salt which are ground together in a traditional cobek or spice grinder.

After the grinding process, a bit of lime juice is added. In some regions the sambal trassi is given a spoonful of the remaining frying oil.

Well, that was the cabai or chili in the kitchen but the hot pepper has other things to do around the house. It often appears on a sapu lidi — a broom made of a bundle of hard coconut leaf cores used to sweep the garden — when rain clouds are frightening the host.

In the hopes of prevent rain from spoiling a party, the host will adorn a sapu lidi with chilies and place it conspicuously somewhere in the house. The act, a Javanese ethnic’s custom called tolak hujan, is believed to ward of dark clouds and assuage the worried host and hostess.

Suryatini N. Ganie