Sunda Kelapa is one of the best restaurants in Jakarta, but you’d sure never guess it by the neighborhood. The ride there took me through a dilapidated stretch of the port section of Batavia, past derelict warehouses, down trash-strewn streets lined with shanties.
Then I turned into a walled compound guarded by attendants in paramilitary garb and began to see why this fish house has fetched rave reviews in dozens of languages in publications all over the world: The sheer variety of seafood offered was amazing.
I had come to Indonesia as a globe-trotting student of barbecue. I wasn’t disappointed. This sprawling country comprised of thousands of islands-and the world’s fourth largest population-is home to some of the most interesting grilling in the world. When most people think of Indonesian grilling, what comes to mind is a tiny kebab called saté. It’s true that the saté is Indonesia’s national snack and there are dozens if not hundreds of different types to choose from. But saté is only part of Indonesia’s barbecue story, as I quickly learned at Sunda Kelapa.
Sunda Kelapa is the brainchild of Sri Rosilowati, a short, stylishly dressed woman from western Java. In 1972 Mrs. Rosilowati opened a fish shack adjacent to the harbor to feed the crews of the wooden freighters from the island of Sulawesi.
Mrs. Rosilowati’s concept was simple: Serve impeccably fresh fish, grilled simply over charcoal, in clean, unpretentious surroundings. it was a winning formula, to say the least! Today Mrs. Rosilowati and her daughter Suripah preside over 120 employees and two cavernous dining rooms that must seat 500.
The warehouse-sized kitchen is an immaculate jumble of blazing grills, stainless-steel work tables, and plastic barrels filled with Indonesian seafood with unfamiliar names-baronangs (rabbit fish), ikan grapu (a sort of grouper), and gourame (a large flat fish that reminds me of pompano), to list a few. The grills are stoked with Indonesia’s favorite fuel, coconut shell charcoal, and young boys fan the grills with rattan flags to make the embers glow. Sunlight filters through the slat walls and ceiling, illuminating the smoke rising from the grills. The overall effect is less that of a restaurant kitchen than of cooking over a campfire in the woods.
What fascinates me most about Sunda Kelapa are the techniques used by the grill cooks. If you’ve ever tried to grill a whole fish, you know how it has a tendency to burn on the outside, remain raw on the inside, and generally dry out during the grilling. Sunda Kelapa uses three popular Indonesian techniques to obtain perfectly cooked fish every time: brine marinating, double basting, and grill-roasting on banana leaves.
The marinade-called a bumboo-is a tangy mixture of lime juice, water, and brine-strength quantities of salt. The fish is slashed to the bone to allow the mixture (and heat) to penetrate the flesh. The brine both moisturizes and slightly cures the fish. The marinating time is brief and most of the bumboo drips into the coals.
To further moisturize the fish,it is basted as it grills with the bumboo and also with a mixture of melted butter flavored generously with garlic, shallots, and turmeric.
To cook the fish through without burning it, the cook sears it on one side directly over the fire, then inverts it onto a rectangle of banana leaf to finish cooking. The banana leaf shields the fish from the flames, preventing it from drying out and over cooking.
Sunda Kelapa serves its grilled fish with a lalapan, a plate of herbs and raw vegetables that include lemon balm, parsley, basil, sliced cucumber, tomato and cabbage wedges, and boiled long beans. You’ll also get bowls of achar (a sort of mango and shallot pickle) and chobal, a painfully hot relish made from chiles, shallots, and shrimp paste, named for the small black stone mortar in which these ingredients are traditionally pounded and served. I’ve included recipes for all these in this book now fire up the grill and enjoy. Oh, and to be like the locals, eat the fish with your fingers!
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