Christmas in Southeast Asia feels weird to me. It’s like, I know it’s there. I know it’s happening. I should be feeling something, right? That holiday cheer and goodwill towards men and all that. Maybe somewhere out there, Santa’s on an ojek, delivering joy to all the good girls and boys. I dunno, it somehow rings hollow to me.
This might be because I’m a chef, and therefore officially a cynical bastard about the holidays. If you cook food for a living, you’re probably going to spend Christmas Eve running a dinner service and Christmas Day cooking somebody’s breakfast.
So what do you do with this weird, kinda-holiday? You get properly hammered.
But besides getting sauced, I’ve found one other way to get into the holiday spirit in Jakarta, which is taking my favorite Christmas dishes and injecting them with some some serious Indonesian cheer. Think roast beef with rendang gravy, mamey sapote mash, and a salak chutney. To make that happen, here’s what you’re going to be looking for at the pasar:
A PROPER PROTEIN
Alright, so we’re going to start with the hard part first. Finding a good piece of beef for a Christmas roast at the pasar can be a bit dodgy and a lot spendy. You want something is red and vibrant, but it shouldn’t be a shockingly bright red unless it’s been freshly cut. It should smell slightly sweet. If it looks off to you in any way, move along. If you’re not finding anything you like, find yourself a proper butcher or a specialty grocery.
A note on protein: treat it with respect. It died so that you could have a meal. Don’t kill it twice.
RENDANG GRAVY MAKES LIFE WORTH LIVING
You can’t do a proper roast without gravy, but this is definitely a place where you can use local flavors to change things up. Bumbu Rendang — get it at the pasar or better yet, just grab a baggy of it from your local nasi padang guy. He’s better at it than you and I are, so work smart and not hard.
Using the drippings from your protein to give the gravy depth of flavor and whip up your gravy just like you would any other. Rendang bumbu can be an unpredictable beast, so add as much or as little as you want, and make sure to taste it along the way.
TRUE MAN, SAPOTE
You can’t go wrong with local buncis sauteed in garlic or baby potatoes braised in olive oil — but that’s a bit simple, isn’t it?
Have a look around for a mamey sapote. Like the jackfruit we talked about in the last column, mamey sapote isn’t much of a looker and doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
Unlike the jackfruit, mamey sapote don’t need a lot of coddling in preparation. You don’t even need to cook it, just peel and strain. They taste like a cross between a Dr. Pepper soda and palm sugar, and they have a texture kind of like a pumpkin.
RIDE THE SNAKE (FRUIT)
You need that final kick of a good chutney to top off a roast dinner, which means that it’s time to break out the salak. While some chutneys can be a bit sweet, the salak balances nicely and gives a good bite. Round out the flavor with two other local fruit: belimbing wuluh (or blilimbi) and starfruit. The bilimbi gives you a bit of acidity and the starfruit gives a bit of a sweet top note.
We don’t have enough room here to do justice to a full chutney preparation, but it’s basically just fruit, sugar, and vinegar.
BRING ON THE BOOZE
If you’re me, you’re drinking mulled wine. If not, you’re drinking champagne or whiskey or whatever you have handy. Leave some out for Santa maybe. Anybody working on Christmas should not have do so sober.
Anyway, that’s it. Have a think, get stuck in, have a good time.
About Chef Blake Thornley
Chef Blake Thornley is the head chef at Kemang’s own Queens Head. Before that, he was the executive chef at the award-winning Mosaic in Bali. He wants you to have as much fun cooking as he is — which is quite a lot.