The World's Fourth-Largest Country Has Amazing Cuisine—but Chances Are, You've Never Tried It

This Boston pop-up serves a healthy portion of Indonesian culture alongside its sweat-inducing cuisine.

(Photo: Steve Holt)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

On a warm late-summer Wednesday, in a restaurant on a typically urban East Boston street, Retno Pratiwi and Peter Gelling carry an exquisite—and enormous—platter of food past a roomful of waiting eaters. Smartphone cameras fly up as the platter—the centerpiece of which is a gorgeous, foot-high pyramid of yellow rice, surrounded by a handful of other carefully spiced dishes—is placed on a counter in the middle of the room.

After waiting a few moments for the eager diners to snap their last photos, Pratiwi, the feast’s artist and cofounder of Kaki Lima, speaks.

“This is a dinner, served family style, that in Indonesia is to celebrate life,” she says. “Whatever you want to celebrate tonight with your friends or new friends, do that.”

With Indonesian pop music playing through speakers overhead and the sun setting outside, the 30 or so in attendance line up to scoop traditional Indonesian street food onto their plates. There’s kentang dan udang balado, cubed potatoes in a chili sauce; ayam goreng lengkuas, fried chicken marinated in galangal, coriander, and turmeric; and kering tempe pedas manis, a crispy tempeh dish that is sweet and spicy. The first diner in line is understandably hesitant to disturb the perfect rice pyramid, seasoned with turmeric and lemongrass, but the beautiful platter is soon dispersed and appreciated for the way it tastes too.

Tonight’s dinner is one of several pop-up events husband-and-wife team Pratiwi and Gelling have put on in recent months. Pratiwi, who was born and raised in Jakarta, is the creative force behind Kaki Lima. Informally trained in her mother’s kitchen growing up, she started her formal culinary education studying French cuisine in Indonesia and finished at the Cambridge School for Culinary Arts in Massachusetts. She’d met Gelling, a journalist, while he was a New York Times correspondent in Indonesia. They share a love of Indonesian cuisine, which they say is underrepresented in the United States—a reality the two discovered when they moved back to Boston.

“It was very hard to find Indonesian food anywhere,” Gelling recalls. “There were a few restaurants in New York, some in California, and then there’s a Thai restaurant on every corner, Vietnamese sandwich places all over the place, several Malaysian places around Boston. We couldn’t figure out why Indonesian food has never broken through in America. It’s the fourth-largest country in the world.” (population-wise) It also is home to the worl's largest Muslim population, which can be difficult to remember when our collective understanding of the religion has more to do with American foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa than with anything else.

The lack of Indonesian restaurants in the United States may have something to do with the small immigrant population—less than 100,000 Indonesians—in the country. But Pratiwi has another idea.

“It’s a lot of work” to cook her country's food, she says with a laugh. There are also the ingredients that, without the presence of an Indonesian community in Boston, can be hard to come by. She and Gelling travel to New York City to find certain ingredients and grow herbs in their small East Boston apartment. While they may be hard to track down, these herbs and spices, which she grinds in a stone mortar and pestle, provide an opportunity for Pratiwi to teach her customers about the homeland she loves.

“When I explain about the spice, I can explain where it’s from, what sort of typical Indonesian cuisine this is from, and what the area is like,” she says. “The conversations can go on and on.”

The pop-up dinners—all of which have sold out just days after being announced—are a dry run for the couple's long-term goal: Boston’s first brick-and-mortar Indonesian restaurant.

If the satisfaction of tonight’s customers are any indication, Kaki Lima should find fast success.

“I was going in eyes open, just looking to learn something about a new cuisine,” said one diner, reflecting on the evening afterward. “It felt like we were all celebrating a meal and probably our collective love of food.”

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