“Hey, that looks like something I scooped out of my sink trap,” quipped one of the Pratt girls as gado-gado ($6.50) arrived. But the moment she transferred a little onto her plate and took a tentative taste, her face lit up and she grabbed the platter back. This composed salad is eminently more cosmetic at other restaurants—a colorful pile of Western vegetables cut and stacked like cordwood, timidly dressed with a sauce like melted peanut butter. By contrast, the gado-gado before us was an amorphous brown heap shingled with irregular crackers. Called krupau emping, these buff-colored crisps are made from the sliced and pounded nuts of the melinjo tree. Excavating further, we discovered Asian vegetables like the pondweed convolvulus (a/k/a kangkong, ong choi, water spinach), mung bean sprouts, and fibrous long beans, trimmed from their usual foot-long span into manageable pieces. What’s more, the dressing had a wonderful flavor that was salty and fishy and peanuty at once, with inky palm syrup seeping at the edges. What a welter of flavors and textures!
Newcomer Upi Jaya is New York’s fifth Indonesian restaurant, and the one that hints at the broad culinary sweep of the archipelago, whose 13,000 islands extend 3,000 miles from Malaysia to Australia. While the food at the other Indonesian spots mainly originates on Java, which has three distinct cuisines of its own, the proprietor of Upi Jaya is quick to point out he’s from Padang, a city of 792,000 in western Sumatra. Described by one tour guide as “very hot and very wet,” it’s a short hop from Singapore. Padang is famous for water buffalo, which is used to create its most famous dish, padang rendang. Using beef instead, Upi Jaya’s rendition (small $12.50, large $23.50) is a revelation, a deceptively small heap of beef chunks dabbed with nearly black sauce, radiating the fragrance of sweet spices. Paradoxically, long cooking has made the meat denser and chewier, rather than more tender.
Another Padang signature is a unique form of satay, inspired by the shish kebab, which was carried eastward by the spread of Islam. While the familiar peanut-dabbed satay found in Thai and Malaysian restaurants is available at Upi Jaya, the Padang style ($7.50) features four miniature cow-tongue kebabs mounted on wobbly blocks of rice cake. The assemblage is sluiced with a light pellucid gravy, which the menu charmingly refers to as “the chef’s special and well fit sauce.” No peanuts anywhere. From southern Sumatra comes pempek, a tapered cylinder of fish mousse stuffed with egg yolk, sliced and served in a sweet dark soup, with clear vermicelli laid on top like an unsuccessful comb-over.
Javanese cuisine gets its due too. Famous for its creamy tofu, the west Java city of Sumedang is credited with the appetizer of fried bean curd, sided with small green chiles. From central Java comes a curry of young jackfruit ($5.50). “It tastes like meat,” another of the Pratt girls exclaimed. While food from the western islands often does contain meat, as one travels further east in the archipelago, seafood dominates. Ikan pepes ($19) features a prize red snapper wrapped in a banana leaf with chiles, shallots, and basil, typical of the cooking of the eastern, spider-shaped island of Sulawesi. You won’t be surprised to hear that the taste and presentation of the snapper seems almost Polynesian.