Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Javanese Soul Food

Nasi ambeng is a traditional Javanese rice dish. I consider it as my soul food, as I am being mainly of Javanese blood. I loved it when my late father came back from a kenduri with a pack of nasi ambeng in his hand and I made it a point to buy it at the local pasar malam whenever I go balik kampung.

So what is nasi ambeng consists of? Nowadays commercially-available nasi ambeng has a number of side dishes (lauk) to choose from, somehow spoiling its authenticity, but I consider the 'true' nasi ambeng consiting of these:
- steamed rice
- fried noodle or fried vermicelli
- ayam masak kicap (chicken in soy sauce)
- sambal goreng* (most of the time replaced with stir fried green beans, suhun, tempeh and tofu)
- salted fish (any dried fish will do but usually 'ikan bulu ayam' (as it resembles chicken feathers)
- serunding kelapa
- fried tempeh (usually none as tempeh is already a key ingredient in sambal goreng and/or fried green beans)
*mixture of beef liver (which I gladly put aside), prawns (also set aside), glass vermicelli (suhun), tofu, tempeh, coconut milk and spices (sometimes with potato added)

Looks just like your slightly above-average nasi campur right? The final stuff to make it great is banana leaf. As many have known, banana leaves impart subtle flavor to dishes. In this case, the whole shebang is served on a banana leaf.....hmm yummy!

As mentioned before nasi ambeng is now commercially available but back in the 80s (and even earlier) it was the staple of Javanese households holding a kenduri. However the rice is not served in plates but in large, round trays which served 4 per tray. Traditionally, the guests however just ate a bit, and after dividing the rice and its dishes into 4 equal parts, proceeded to pack them inside the banana leaves, to be brought home so that the guests' families can also have a taste. But more usually, at least in my neighbourhood, separately packed nasi ambeng were given to the guests, known as nasi berkat @ bontrot. This Javanese tradition (adapted by the rest of the Malay community) helps foster closer ties in the neighbourhood - whilst the head of the household is invited to a kenduri, the rest of the family is not forgotten. 

There is another, not really noticeable function of the said practice, which is now probably negated by the commercialisation of nasi ambeng. By bringing back berkat@bontrot, the wives of the guests can be certain their husbands really went to a kenduri instead of using the kenduri as the cover for their extra-marital activities!

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