I first met Anida Spratt, a young Javanese mother, at the Charlotte World Parade & Festival at Independence Park. She offered me klepon, an Indonesian dessert made of sticky rice flour balls and pandan leaf extract, the native plant that lends a vibrant green to a multitude of cooking applications in Indonesia. The balls were covered in finely shredded coconut, much like a truffle. In my most polite and gracious manner, surrounded by a trio of Indonesian women, I bit into half of it.
Hear me out, eaters. If you ever have the pleasure of eating klepon, eat it whole. Before I knew it, palm sugar syrup exploded from the other half of the golf ball sized treat landing squarely on the face of one of the women in the group. It was like the scene from Carrie at prom, only the woman was doused in amber colored palm syrup. In proper fashion, I apologized profusely and then invited myself to dinner.
Ken and Anida Spratt live near Steele Creek with their smart as a whip son, Ethan, 3, who promptly gave me a geography lesson in the living room. Crawling over a large map on the living room floor, Ethan pointed out the massive archipelago of islands (over 17,000) in Southeast Asia that make up the country of Indonesia. Anida hails from Central Java, one of several distinct regions on the island. Ken, originally from Florida and an island boy at heart, was working in Indonesia and looking for good surf. Instead, he found his wife (who happened to know all the good surf spots).
“The Indonesian culture is full of good people,” says Ken. “Their family values are like they used to be here. Families stay together and live close. They have less, but it’s always enough.”
The Javanese culture is a mixture of many cultures and religions, mostly living in harmony. The food reflects the hodge podge of political, cultural and religious influences over the centuries, particularly the influences that trade has on the region.
While waiting for guests to arrive, Anida poured me a glass of Dawet, a refreshingly sweet beverage. Ken says dawet is street drink, usually sold in plastic baggies filled with ice and served with a plastic straw. Dawet is made with palm sugar and coconut milk and green gelatinous capsules of rice flour mixed with pandan leaves which are scooped on top with ice. The result is a sweetly addictive drink that I returned to many times over the course of the evening.
In Anida’s modest kitchen was an astounding array of colorful dishes and platters, spread countertop to countertop complete with typed signs describing each dish reminiscent of a school presentation. Most impressive was the tumpeng, a large platter filled with seven types of food surrounding a tall cone of yellow rice. Tumpeng is a celebratory dish honoring birthdays, anniversaries and special ceremonies. The conical rice in the center is a symbol of the volcanoes that populate the islands. Historically, ancient Indonesians revered volcanoes and mountains as the dwelling places of gods. The rice mimics the “holy mountain” and the seven foods stand for something called “pitulungan” which translates roughly to the phrase “seven wishes”.
According to Anida, the platter is a wish for those eating the dish to always have God’s help and for people to help each other live in balance, much like the composition of the tumpeng which boasts seafood, vegetables and meat. There is a whole roast chicken (usually with the head on), seafood cakes on lemongrass stalks, cabbage and long beans, spicy beef rendang, fried tempeh (Anida’s homemade) cooked in palm sugar, shredded eggs, potato cakes and the yellow rice.
Two types of soup and their condiments occupied the stovetop. Bakso, an Indonesian meatball soup and Soto Kebo, buffalo yellow soup. Soto Kebo comes from the city of Kudus on the eastern side of Java. Traditionally made with buffalo, Soto Kebo is a soup made with respect to the resident Hindu population who did not eat beef. One of the dinner guests, another Indonesian woman squealed when she saw the pot of Bakso. For her, having only been in the states for eight months, it was a welcome reminder of home. Bakso can be found on every street corner in a “warung” which means small restaurant.
Our plates overflowed and still there was more- cabbage and shrimp fritters, fried spring rolls or lumpia, and onde-onde, sesame rice balls filled with red bean paste. For dessert, there was a beautiful layered spice cake called Lapis Legit, a product of the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. There was kolak pisang, a dessert soup with palm sugar, coconut milk and jackfruit and es teler, a cooling drink made with avocado, jackfruit, coconut and condensed milk.
The talk at the table turned to the tropical beauty of Indonesia and the laid back lifestyle where family is savored and less is more. Ken wistfully recalls the surf and the tropical breezes. Anida longs for a home with a view of the ocean. They hope to one day return to the place that is home in their hearts. For now, they are content to share the beauty of Indonesia through my favorite love language- food.