JAKARTA : When “Indonesian food” is mentioned, most foreigners would probably think of ubiquitous staples like nasi goreng and nasi padang.
But Indonesian cuisine is extremely diverse, thanks to the country’s geographical expanse and over 600 ethnic groups, said celebrity chef Renatta Moeloek.
On a food tour in Europe a few years ago, where she ran pop-up in local restaurants in Spain, Belgium and Slovakia, she served naniura (pickled raw fish from North Sumatera), gehu (stuffed tofu) and opor ayam (chicken in coconut milk) to her guests.
“They were all very interested, many were amazed and surprised. They didn’t know that Indonesian dishes are so diverse because all they knew were nasi goreng, rendang, mie goreng and sate,” she recounted.
Many even wanted to have the recipes, the 26-year-old told CNA.
Moeloek, who became a household name for her role as MasterChef Indonesia judge, acknowledged that Indonesian cuisine is not as well-known as other Asian cuisines. Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese food, for instance, are widely accepted in the western countries.
“But Indonesian food is still trying to reach that level,” she said.
In order for Indonesian cuisine to attain global fame, Indonesians first must take the initiative to learn about their local food and appreciate them, she opined.
Moeloek is using her newfound fame to introduce different types of Indonesian dishes to people. When she hosts post-up events, she makes it a point to serve mainly Indonesian food such as naniura and gohu tuna (raw tuna salad).
She noted that more Indonesians start to show an interest in the local cuisine, which gives her hope that Indonesian food can one day gain the recognition it deserves.
INDONESIANS SHOULD KNOW AND ENJOY LOCAL FOOD: MOELOEK
Moeloek noted that in general, Indonesians do not know much about their local dishes.
“I live in Jakarta, which is on Java island. So if someone asks about Indonesian food, what we know is Javanese food, Padang or Sundanese (food) such as ayam goreng, tempe, sambal, while in fact, we have so much more,” she said.
For instance, there are Manadonese food, cuisine from Maluku and cooking of the Batak ethnic groups, which all have different cooking techniques.
Moeloek recalled when she was studying at culinary and hospitality school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France, many Indonesians remarked how lucky she was to get to savour foie gras while her fellow countrymen ate tempe (fermented soybean).
“But they don’t know how expensive tempe is in France… They don’t know that those who like to eat healthy food, vegans in France, find it very expensive and hard to get. It’s far more expensive than foie gras,” she said.
Therefore, efforts to introduce Indonesian cuisine to the outside world have to start with Indonesians knowing and enjoying their own food.
“Why do we need to introduce Indonesian cuisine to foreigners if Indonesians themselves don’t really know their local cuisine well enough?” she said.
While at it, Moeloek also wants to challenge the perception that Indonesian food is unhealthy. As a chef, she is health conscious but she has observed that healthy eating is not yet widely adopted in Indonesia.
“It is very easy to turn Indonesian food into healthy food because we use many spices.
“Garlic, shallots, chillies, galangal, turmeric… how many calories are there? Barely any.”
Instead of deep-frying, food ingredients can be grilled in the oven, she said. Seasonings can be reduced to cut down on sugar and sodium intake as well.
MOELOEK’S SHOT TO FAME
Moeloek’s passion for food began when she was young. She had always loved cooking and baking, and often gave homemade cookies to friends at school and invited them home to try her cooking.
When she finished high school, she decided to continue her studies at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
After an intensive eight-month study and seven months of internship, Moeloek returned to Indonesia in 2015 to sort out her working visa as she had an opportunity to work in New Zealand.
While waiting for her visa to be issued, Moeloek freelanced as a private dining chef in Jakarta and over time she amassed many clients, ranging from embassy officials to high-end hotels and restaurants.
She then decided to let go of the job opportunity in New Zealand and remained in Indonesia.
In 2018, she joined MasterChef Indonesia as one of its judges and that was when she stole the hearts of Indonesians with her confident demeanour and shot to fame. She has since been with the show for three seasons.
“I am still learning. The thing is, I’m usually not too comfortable being in front of the camera. For example, when there is a cooking demo, not everyone can be comfortable with having to cook in front of the camera because usually, we work in the kitchen.
“But since MasterChef is a reality show, there are cameras on the sides but we don’t need to see the camera at all, everything is real. So for me, it’s still okay. In fact, it’s fun to meet Indonesians who have a passion for cooking, so it’s a new experience.”
In addition to running a private dining restaurant in South Jakarta, Moeloek also established her delivery food business specialised in Indonesian food. She is also involved in two other business ventures that focus on eating balanced nutritious food.
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, many food and beverages businesses have been hit hard. Moeloek applauded professional chefs who are willing to try something new and step out of their comfort zone.
“I now see many chefs who previously only wanted to work in hotels and fine dining moving over to comfort food, takeaways or online delivery business.
“I think there is a positive side to this because at the end of the day, if professional chefs can work on simple and affordable food for many people, why not?
“The competition (in the industry) will then get better,” she said.