A NATION'S cuisine is so connected to a sense of place, there's inherent difficulty in its reproduction on foreign shores. So the word "authentic" is bandied about as a kind of promise; as if three syllables could guarantee the homeland is preserved in the kitchen—a culinary embassy. I don't give much weight to claims of authenticity. Honestly, how the hell would I know? But while eating at Taste of Jakarta, I had the distinct impression that thousands of islands had been condensed into one small green-hued dining room on SW Jefferson.
Maybe it was the photomural of a pristine beach. Maybe it was the thatched roof covering the register. Maybe it was the nasi goreng—a massive pile of fried rice heaped on a paper plate with shredded fried chicken, hardboiled egg, and little fried shallots. Yes, that's it. Sweet soy sauce, infusing fluffy fried rice, balances deeply succulent chicken. Thin sliced shallots crunch lightly with every other bite, adding earthy onion tones. A squirt of paste-like chili sauce brings fire and garlic. Then it's over, and I'm left blinking at an empty plate like I've been staring into the tropical sun.
This is Indonesia, then, brought to my table next as nasi padang. Like a string of islands, spicy beef curry, young jackfruit curry, and spicy hardboiled egg ring a bun-shaped mound of white rice topped with those fine shallots. The tender beef, reminiscent of pot roast, is lifted with slightly bitter tones of fresh kaffir lime. The jackfruit, its texture like steamed artichoke, offers subtle sweetness and a curry heat that sits insistently at the back of the throat.
There is much playing between savory, sweet depth and freshness in this food. The nasi kuning is one example—a platter of fried goodness presented again with the dish's constituents arranged around a mound of rice. Here the rice has been cooked in a bath spiced with turmeric, which turns it yellow. The turmeric brightens the flavor of the starch, pairing well with fried tempeh, fried chicken, and fried tofu. The fried tofu is just that, and blank on the palate. But the chicken is outstanding, besting most with its crisp skin and ultra tender meat. The trend continues with the tempeh; worlds away from hippie potluck fare, it's slightly nutty with a delicate sweet aroma and flavor. Taken as a whole, the rice, chicken, tempeh, and bits of fresh cucumber and tomato commingle to create a rolling flood of flavor. The menu goes on like this, and suddenly all I want is to be stranded on these little food islands, surrounded by a sea of rich coconut broth.
There are adventures to be found here. Add tripe and Jakarta-style beef to the broth and you have the heroic nasi soto Jakarta, which you won't soon forget. Tripe lovers will rejoice at the huge chunks of tender honeycomb. (Anyone outside the faithful fold should go without—it's an acquired taste.) Also, many dishes come with tapioca crackers—little fried puffs seasoned with garlic—so similar to pork rinds you'll wish you had a bagful in your pantry.
Don't be fooled by the paper plates, plastic containers, and cutlery at Taste of Jakarta. They are completely irrelevant. You are exploring a nation in this food, and it's best to travel light.