Jakarta. Indonesia is not only famous for its spices but has long been one of the centers of the world's spice trade. Banda Islands — the original "Spice Islands" — near Maluku were the only source of nutmeg and mace until the 19th century.
In its heyday, nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold in Europe's biggest spice markets.
First the Portuguese, then the Spanish, the English and then the Dutch all sent their trading ships to Indonesia to buy up spices they could not get in their home countries — and then later their warships to colonize the country and monopolize the spice trade.
Back then, spices were valued not only for their aromatic flavor but also as natural preservatives in those pre-refrigerator days and as a wonder drug for a variety of ailments, from an upset stomach (clove) to diabetes (cinnamon).
Though these early spice traders — and later their colonizers brethren — took more from Indonesia than they gave, all of them left a very important legacy that continues to influence the local culture to this day: their cuisines.
As a result, Indonesian culinary traditions are a mishmash of Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian and European influences — a truly multicultural cuisine with a history stretching back to the 16th century.
Since Javanese make up the largest ethnic group in the country — more than 95.2 million of them, or 40 percent of Indonesia's total population according to a 2010 census — their cuisine is also one of the most popular.
Everywhere you go in the archipelago, more often than not you can find a warteg. An acronym of "warung Tegal," or a "stall from Tegal" — a small city in Central Java, warteg serves rice with a variety of Javanese dishes and serves them fast and cheap. It's Indonesia's original fast food outlet.
According to foodie and Indonesian culinary expert Santhi Serad, the Javanese — just by the sheer number of them — still dominate the country's food scene, spreading their gospels from Aceh to Papua.
A typically Javanese dish that can be found everywhere from warung or street stall to fancy restaurants is tongseng, a meat stew (usually goat) cooked with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), coconut milk, shredded cabbage and tomatoes.
The dish's origins can be traced back to Boyolali in Central Java. Its name is derived from the Javanese word osengan, or stir frying. The seng part is also onomatopoeic, akin to the sounds of metal spatula hitting an iron wok.
The base of the sweet and savory stew is a ground mixture of spices including garlic, shallots, black pepper, ginger, coriander, galangal, bay leaves, star anise, cloves, nutmeg and lemongrass.
Originally, tongseng uses goat meat with the fatty bits and sometimes offals left in. But many restaurants now also serve the dish with lean chicken or beef.
Tongseng is often thought of as a combination of satay and gulai (Indonesian curry). If you can't make up your mind to order satay or gulai, order tongseng instead.
Santhi said tongseng started to appear in Java between the 18th and 19th century.
"That was the period when Arab and Indian migrants started coming in droves to Indonesia, bringing with them their favorite goat and lamb dishes. The locals developed a taste for them and there are now several Javanese dishes, including tongseng, that clearly show Arab and Indian influences."
Many people, perhaps refusing to have to make up their mind between satay or gulai, prefer to have their tongseng with a side dish of goat satay. Santhi said the best tongseng is made with meat that has been grilled on satay skewers.
Restaurant owner and East Jakarta tongseng and satay legend Pak Senen Riyanto said both dishes complement each other perfectly.
"It's not just about the combo of different flavors, but also the practicality. In most cases, tongseng sellers use the meat from the satay to cook their tongseng. It adds more flavor and smokiness to the dish."
Pak Senen said tongseng is usually cooked on a traditional charcoal stove that makes the dish even smokier and richer in flavor.
Adaptations and Influences
Satay itself is believed to be a local adaptation of Middle Eastern and Indian dishes like kebab.
Unlike in Jakarta, satay in Central Java is not served with a peanut sauce but a sweet soy sauce with chopped chilies, shallots and diced tomatoes in it.
In contrast with many dishes from other regions in Indonesia, food from Central Java tends to be sweet since it uses palm sugar and sweet soy sauce very liberally.
"This sweetness can be traced back to the influence of sugar factories in Central Java that proliferated in the 19th century," Santhi said.
Another staple ingredient for the tongseng is coconut milk. According to Santhi, this is an influence from Southern Indian dishes.
Though you can now find tongseng almost everywhere in Indonesia, the best street stalls selling this rich dish — both in flavor and history — can be found in Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya.