Friday, October 2, 2009

Flight of the Garuda

While the Vietnamese population here established a strong foothold and continues to thrive, other newcomers have not been so lucky.   For a while, we had a really great Indonesian restaurant on Kapiolani Blvd., across the street from McCully Shopping Center.  It was simply called, Bali Indonesia Restaurant.   Although I say really great, my very limited exposure to Indonesian food is probably not a good indicator of authenticity.   What was best about it was, for a while, we had the opportunity to try yet another varied and different Southeast Asian cuisine.    In Hawaii, we are so used to Vietnamese cuisine, and Thai cuisine, and even have our fair share of Indian cuisine.   But here was something that was totally different and exotic.

Just walking around Bali Indonesia was a sensory feast.   Probably the most prominent and enticing roadside beacon for a restaurant (except for maybe the crab atop Tamashiro's Market), the pair of bicycle rickshaws sitting on the lawn outside immediately told you there was something different about the place.    When you walked in, the walls were lined with shadow puppet figurines and scary Indonesian masks.   You would instantly recognize those masks, with their bulging eyes, the long furry mustaches, the huge teeth, and the wicked protruding tongues.   They were at once beautiful, colorful, and scary.   They were so unlike the much more simple, monocolor lacquer Japanese tengu masks, or the painted porcelain oval  Chinese opera masks, that we are more familiar with.  Probably the most striking art piece though, was the beautiful garuda statue behind the cash register.   This mythical giant bird of prey (sworn enemy of the naga serpents) is a symbol of Indonesia, the same way that Americans idolize the bald eagle.   I distinctly remember the colorful and majestic feathers on the garuda's spread wings, the most magnificent garuda statue I had ever seen.   Again, exotic, unfamilar, and enchantingly beautiful, that I wish I knew more about.

What was the most interesting to me though, was how just by tasting their food you could see the evolution, the progression from region to region.    I remember how many of their dishes made strong use of coconut milk, yet the spices were different from Thai curries, making the flavor totally different.    I remember they had a very, fall part, tender beef stew in coconut milk, but again it tasted nothing like the similar Indian vindaloo.  They served what they called "stink beans", but it was nothing like eating Chinese dow gok (or long beans).  Just like when we first tasted Vietnamese food, it was exotic, yet familiar.  Unfortunately, while Vietnamese food ultimately became familiar in and of itself, the Indonesian food just wasn't persistent or pervasive enough to have the same effect.   Thus it remains exotic and mysterous.

Tracing the progression and evolution of flavors around the globe isn't actually limited to just cuisine.   When I took ethnomusicology at U.H., it was great seeing how the Chinese gu jung evolved into the Japanese koto. Or how the Chinese yeong cum evolved into the middle eastern hammered dulcimer.   Incidentally, U.H. boasts having one of the only full Indonesian gamelan orchestras outside of Indonesia itself.

You also can trace the progression of chess as it travels and evolves around the world.   Originally in India known as Chaturanga, chess moved westward and became Arabian shatranj and eventually becomes what we know as English chess.   It also moved eastward and became Chinese jerng kei (or Xiang Qi in Mandarin).  From there it moves south and becomes Thai makruk, and also moves north to become Korean jianggi, and eventually Japanese shogi.  Although all based on the same game, each game has different pieces and different rules.   You can totally see how things changed as it traveled.  Pieces were added or taken away.  Rules were changed here and there.   When it hit Christendom, the elephants were taken away and bishops were added which were much more powerful.   In China, cannons (a Chinese invention) became the most unique piece.   Chinese and Korean have all the same pieces but different rules.   Japanese chess is the most complex, with some pieces that can ONLY go forward (can you say kamikaze?!). 

Just like music and chess, you could totally trace the evolution of certain dishes at Bali Indonesia.   Something that started as Chinese, added Thai or Indian influence, and of course local Indonesian influence to become the final dish.   It was something that I saw a lot of in their cuisine.   Exotic, yet familiar.   My biggest regret is that they weren't able to stick around longer, so that I could get to know these dishes a little better.   When Bali Indonesia closed, we lost a fantastic window into another cuisine, another culture, that we could've made part of our ohana. 

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