Sunday, 22 September 2019

Cooking Indonesian With Eleanor Ford

I have spent a number of weeks now cooking from Fire Islands, Recipes from Indonesia by Eleanor Ford and I have taken away so much more than just a full belly and a happy, well fed husband. The book really got me thinking.

It is all too easy these days to get swept up in the idea of "authenticity", that something is less than if not authentic. Today's internet connected world is quick to slam something that isn't exactly how they know of it, not how it is done in their household or their town or by their grandma.

This mentality has seen so many cookbook authors provide what is essentially a disclaimer. Something to put forth to stop the onslaught of hate, to say that whilst this may not be how you know it, it is my version. 

I once saw an epic internet tear down of a Jamie Oliver Paella as it wasn't true to Valencian Paella. Big call in a world filled with hundreds if not thousands of versions of Paella, many good and quite a few tastier than the snail filled Valencian version.

It's a sad day when we can't appreciate someone else's perspective on something, that anything different is cultural appropriation or disrespectful or just plain wrong.

Eleanor's cookbook is a well rounded homage to Indonesian food. She has clearly done the leg work spending many years living and eating in the island archipelago. She covers all the bases from fast street food to the wonderful slow cooked meat braises. Indonesian dishes with various cultural heritages such as Chinese and Dutch.  Food from the Royal Court as well as the Warung (an small family run Indonesian restaurant or cafe) and desserts, glorious fruity, sticky, sweet as can be desserts. 

And yet despite all of this, all the ground work , all the research, all the hours upon hours of cooking and eating with locals she provides a disclaimer. That these recipes may not be truly authentic. That adjustments have been made for availability of ingredients in the western world, that this may not be exactly what you will find in an Indonesian home or Warung and all in order to stop what has become a modern day past time, backlash.

Yet for me as a home cook this is the hallmark of a great cookbook. I own cookbooks that are entirely authentic to the experience within a country and guess can't cook from them. You can't go to the supermarket or even a specialty grocer and grab some long pepper or salam leaves. Omissions and substitutions must be made if the book is to be usable for its intended audience...home cooks in the west. It is a tricky balancing act for cookbook authors and Eleanor has found that balance.

So that is a big tick from me. The recipes here are true to the spirit of Indonesian cuisine yet cookable at home (provided you do have access to an Asian grocery). There isn't anything in this book that I either could not find or Eleanor had not offered a substitute or option for omission.

Eleanor also suggests the use of food processors as well as mortar and pestles in a well balanced combination. To be truly authentic yes you should grind all your bumbu (spice pastes) by hand and whilst I own a volcanic rock mortar and pestle from Bali there are times I do not want to hand grind a whole spice paste by hand and I think suggesting people must always do so becomes a little fanatical, yes I am looking at you David Thompson.

I must also give a shout out to the graphic design on this book, from the cover to the back page this book is abound with rich colours, patterns and deep earthy photography and apologies, my own photography of these dishes as cooked in my home definitely do not live up to those from the book...another reason to buy the book!

The sheer cook-ability, variety of dishes and eat-ability of these recipes kept me coming back to try more. In a long Bungendore winter the wonderful aromats of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, ginger, and garlic with the sweetness of palm sugar and the often tart presence of tamarind was an escape to somewhere far more tropical than my frost covered little town in rural Australia.

I have included here some piccys so you can see some the dishes I cooked as well as some notes on the dish in each caption. I did not find a bad egg among the bunch so if you are going to delve into this cookbook do so with gusto. Cook with love, cook with joy and eat like it's your last meal.

If you would like to read about my own journey in Bali, Indonesia which includes a hair raising bike ride down a volcano you can read that here. Or my suggestions on how to find Balinese food in Bali (you would think that would be easier than it is but the mega-tourism industry in this area tends to cater more for western food options) you can read about that here

Laksa. Page 127. This Indonesian version if Laksa is quite different to a Malaysian Laksa, Much more about the aromats and less about the deep fishy funk of a Malaysian Laksa.

Lamb Shank Red Curry. Page 71. Best curry I have made in quite a while. The lamb cooked on the bone is incredibly tender and I really enjoyed what the evaporated milk brought to the table, not an ingredient I have used in a curry before.

Betawai Spiced Beef. Page 125. Rich and complex and really set off by the tartness of the Chilli-Fried Potato Crunch found on page 183.

Pork Braised in Kecap Manis. Page 61. Sweet, rich ,moist. So many way to describe this tasty dish that really hit the spot.

Roasted Coconut Chicken. Page 57. Indonesian Flavours meets the classic Sunday roast. Genius.
There is a surprising lack of Indonesian cookbooks in the market. Here is my collection if you are interested in learning more on the topic. Sri Owen is a classic voice on the topic whereas Eleanor Ford offers a more contemporary voice to Indonesian cooking. If you want the ultimate experience head to Anika Cooking Class in Bali. The experience could not be faulted and we came away with a number of books of recipes from the two days we spent there.

Originally posted on Sunday, 22 September 2019 by


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