For all his life, Chef Tobie Puttock assumed that Indonesian cuisine is similar to Thai cuisine. Only six months ago did Puttock realised his grave misconception.
“I must be forgiven. Like 99% of my fellow Australians, I have only been to one part of Indon-esia – good ol’ Bali,” said Puttock, slightly embarrassed about his mistake. “And even then, that was ages ago.”
For years, Puttock didn’t have a single clue as to what the rest of Indonesia – only fifth largest country in the world – has to offer geographically, historically and more important, gastronomically.
But what better way to learn about a country than through its local cuisine? That is exactly how Puttock tackled the great big Indonesia.
Along for the ride was Chef Darren Robertson, and together they travelled to the remote corners of Indonesia, going on an amazing journey captured on camera for the Asian Food Channel original series Wonderful Indonesia Flavours.
Puttock had previously worked in the kitchens of Caffe e Cucina, in Australia before moving to Hotel Florence in Italy, and eventually River Cafe in the United Kingdom where he befriended Chef Jamie Oliver. Puttock even co-hosted Jamie’s Kitchen – Australia in 2006. So he’s no stranger to hosting a cooking series. Puttock also has published three Italian cookbooks.
Robertson is no newbie to the food scene either. He moved to Australia from Britain in 2001 to work with Tetsuya Wakuda of Tetsuya’s in Sydney, where he stayed for eight years.
In 2010, Robertson started the underground dining experience The Table Sessions, a guerrilla dining organisation that runs pop-up dinners, before opening the Three Blue Ducks in Sydney.
“When you run a restaurant, you’re attuned to the business side of it and sometimes don’t get the opportunity to cook. Doing this show is my way to return to what I love – cooking,” said Puttock at the Wonderful Indonesia Flavours promotional event in Singapore.
Puttock is so serious about re-igniting his love for cooking that he even let go of his Italian restaurant Termini after running it for about 15 years.
“I want to focus on more life experiences that allows me to cook and learn about food. Wonderful Indonesia Flavours is one such experience,” he said.
Puttock and Robertson’s culinary quest took them to eight destinations around Indonesia – Tomohon, Solo, Makassar, Batam, Malang, Bandung, Banyuwangi and Raja Ampat.
At each venue, the chefs were exposed to the local culture and food. From exploring organic farms and traditional markets in Tomohon where they were introduced to the simplicity of Minahasa cuisine, to immersing themselves with the traditions of Osing people in Banyuwangi, to unravelling the intricacies of Solo’s Dutch and Javanese inspired culture, the chefs had a crash course on what Indonesia has to offer.
“I had been to parts of Indonesia, so I have a very basic grasp of its cuisine, but food as a subject is so vast, so you never stop learning,” said Robertson.
The chefs emerged not only familiar with the taste of the food, but also the preparation that went into making them. At the end of each episode, they retreated to the kitchen to recreate dishes that were inspired by their travels.
“I had never made any Indonesian food before, so it was such an honour to be in Indonesia and learn from the locals. I find it disrespectful to turn something that has been eaten in a certain way by many people for so many years upside down, so I tried to stay fairly close to the traditional version of a particular dish,” said Puttock.
The other chef, however, exercised a little more creative freedom in the kitchen.
“I gave each dish a little twist but tried to stay true to the essence of each recipe. I had fun with them, and they were tasty, so that’ll do for me,” added Robertson.
But of course, they also had help in the form of chef Rinrin Marinka, an Indonesian chef who joined them in their pursuit to learn about the country’s various cuisines. Rinrin fell in love with cooking at a young age and after putting her studies in Visual Communication on hold, she moved to study French cuisine and pâtiserrie at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu, Sydney. Her first cookbook titled Fantastic Cooking features 30 recipes that were inspired by international and Indonesian culinary influences.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about Indonesian food is that it is difficult to prepare or very spicy. I wanted to show Tobie and Darren, and also the viewers, that Indonesian food has many delicious variations, and that it is not complicated to make despite using many ingredients.”
For eight weeks, Rinrin followed the chefs as they learned Indonesia’s cultural diversity and intricate culinary traditions. In the end, she was surprised at how much she got to learn about Indonesia’s cuisine herself.
“My views towards my country is even more positive now. I’ve experienced and visited regions of Indonesia that I haven’t before. There are many different cultures and traditions that exist in Indonesia, and there is a story behind every dish we serve. I am proud to show them that through this television series.”
If anything, Puttock has seen it for himself.
“After working on this show, I have learned that Indonesian food consists of really clean and defined flavours,” he said. “I especially love the attachment the Indonesians have to their dishes and the pride that is taken in preparing them. There is a real history attached, and to an outsider, that is very evident.”
Wonderful Indonesia Flavours premieres on Jan 29 at 8.40pm on Travel Channel (HyppTV Ch 621).
500g white fish fillets or mussels
4 red chillies, sliced
4 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
3cm galangal, sliced
3cm turmeric, sliced
600ml coconut milk
2 tomatoes, sliced
salt and sugar, to taste
fried shallot crisps and basil, for garnishing
For sambal (pound together)
1 large red chilli, sliced
2 tbsp chilli powder
30g fresh ginger, sliced
a handful of local basil leaves
1 bunch of coriander
5 cherry tomatoes
Heat enough oil in a wok on medium heat until hot. Saute red chillies, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and turmeric until fragrant. Wet the spices with a little water, followed by coconut milk.
Add white fish or mussels and tomatoes, and simmer for about 7 minutes. Season with salt and sugar. Turn off the heat when broth comes to a boil.
Serve warm with steamed rice and sambal, garnished with fried shallots and basil.