I was a student in the United Kingdom when I learned how to eat spice. Not when I was living in Bangkok or at a Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai.
In the dead of winter, I got out of my dormitory room to cycle out into the cold, to do what everyone else was doing
—get a lot of frozen, prepackaged meals and zap them in the microwave as the days went by.
They were bland, flavorless and as wretched as you’d expect ready-to-eat meals to be. But I had a secret: a packet of bird’s eye chilli, a Thai variety not unlike our siling labuyo. I would pop one into my mouth with every bite of shepherd’s pie, toad-in-the-hole or bangers and mash that I was shovelling down my gullet.
Spice is the variety of life.
I recall this fondly because my body has, of late, decided that it would stop processing spicy food. My taste for it remains unchanged, though, so I’m fine eating it. But my stomach reacts violently and repels it—both northward and southward. I have had to put an indefinite hiatus on some of my favorite things to cook, like tarka dal and la zi ji (also known as Chonqing Chicken).
I am hoping this interlude is a temporary one, the way some people become allergic to shrimp or chocolate for a few months, even in adulthood, and then miraculously go back to normal, the way Norma Desmond would briefly tire of a lover.
It was with some trepidation that I decided to check out Restoran Garuda, a new Indonesian restaurant that has opened near the embassy. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Indonesian Embassy. But the audacity of opening near it gives the restaurant an extra fillip of credibility. Surely one wouldn’t dare to open an inauthentic restaurant within spitting, or hitting, distance of the ambassador’s office?
I actually don’t know much about Indonesian food. I’ve been to Bali, but that’s like people saying they understand Pinoy food because they spent a few nights in Boracay.
I’ve been invited to dine at Sri Owen’s home in Wimbledon, where she burnt a hole in my mouth. I have her book, but that’s about it.
Like many Filipinos, I’ve procrastinated on learning to cook Indonesian food because it seemed too similar to our own cuisines.
The food at Garuda is searingly, blindingly hot, and in a different way from what we’re used to. Sichuan food is hot, but it’s “mala” or numbingly hot—using a combination of dried chillies, fresh chillies and Sichuan peppercorns to anesthetize your taste buds.
Thai food uses a combination of rehydrated dried chillies and fresh chillies to make the curry past es. Indian food generally uses dried chilli powder. Bicolano food uses fresh green chillies and red labuyo. All of them are spicy—but in subtly different ways.
No mild versions
So I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that Garuda’s beef rendang hit me. And to the restaurant’s credit, it courteously refuses to turn down the heat
—you can’t order a mild version, but it’s one of the best beef rendang dishes I’ve ever had.
The rest of the meal was excellent as well: martabak, which is like a savory baklava filled with minced chicken (it probably has the same origins as baklava; mutabbaq is Arabic for “folded,” and versions of it exist in Saudi Arabia and India); gado-gado, a welcome relief from the spice; black pepper prawns (udang lada hidam), a surprisingly mild dish which I’m told is a staple of Indonesian household food.
I also had satay, the only slightly disappointing dish—
the beef felt tenderized and mushy.
For dessert I had the Indonesian version of halo-halo, es campur, and a pandan cake.
That was all I could take without sending my stomach into rebellion. But the table beside us was having a mouth-watering nasi goreng rendang. And lovers of spice will definitely want to try the homemade balado with the protein of their choice.
There’s so much to come back for. If you think that Indonesian food is like Filipino food with a bit more spice, you owe it to yourself to visit Garuda. If you have the palate and stomach for heat, you definitely should go.
Sri Owen’s book reminds me that this barely scratches the surface of the vastness of Indonesian food that I’m completely ignorant about: its various regional cuisines, with Indian, Chinese, Dutch, Thai, Malay and, ahem, Philippine influences.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I know more about the regional specialities of France than those of Indonesia. This lacuna must be swiftly corrected, and until I can get myself there, working my way through the menus of this and other well-reviewed Indonesian restaurants sounds like a pleasant first step. —CONTRIBUTED
Restoran Garuda, 166 Salcedo St., Legazpi Village, Makati City. Call 8243440.