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Every two weeks, frequent traveler and cookbook author Yasmin Khan takes us to a different locale by way of a cookbook that captures its essence. This week, she consults Sri Owen's The Rice Book to give us a recipe for nasi goreng, the Indonesian fried rice that's also gained icon-status in Holland and Suriname. (The term literally translates to "fried rice.") Unsurprisingly, this tangy dish, a perfect use for leftover rice, is extremely popular.
As a frequent (and often hungry) traveler, my most vivid travel memories come from the food I have enjoyed in far-flung corners of the globe. I remember the joy that comes from biting into a sun-kissed fuzzy peach freshly plucked from a tree in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain; or the dizzying confusion of getting lost in the pulsating spice markets of Jerusalem, following my nose until I find a meter-tall pyramid of za’atar on display. The heady scent of galangal, lemongrass, and ginger hits me sharply as I recall that sip of tom yam soup on the side streets of Bangkok.
But when I’m home, curled up on my sofa with a cup of coffee and my favorite woolen blanket, I turn to cookbooks. Cuisine can provide an enticing entry point to better understanding the world around us, and as a human rights campaigner and food writer, I’ve often turned to a country’s food culture to teach me about its history, geography, agriculture, economy, spiritual beliefs, and gender relations. Journeying to the kitchen, book in hand, to prepare an unfamiliar meal with newly-discovered ingredients becomes an adventure itself (as is going out of your way to a specialized grocery store, if needed, to source them).
One of my favorite travel-minded cookbooks takes us to the hot and humid islands of Indonesia. First published in 1993, The Rice Book by Sri Owen is a veritable encyclopedia on this humble grain, drawing heavily on the writer’s Indonesian heritage to chronicle the provenance, horticulture, history, and myth associated rice across the world. Since I come from a family of rice farmers, it’s an ingredient close to my heart.
Owen visited a dozen rice-growing countries for her research and the stories she weaves together in the book reflect a personal fascination with the art of growing rice, a process she describes as embodying “traces of magic.” Her writing transports you to the lime green rice paddies of Java, where you can hear birds circling above the fields, as farmers gather in front of their oceans of grain that seemingly stretch to the horizon. As well as containing rice recipes from every continent, the book is filled with countless myths and stories of the rituals that farming communities embark on to pay homage to the spirits, deities, and goddesses commonly associated with rice growing. These stories add to the book’s sense of mystical enchantment and take you on a journey through the spiritual and cultural beliefs of Indonesia and India, the Philippines, and Japan.
By threading together stories of rice cultivation across so many diverse countries, Owen demonstrates the collective wisdom that humans have gathered about cultivating this special grain. So it seemed fitting to choose a recipe from the book that has also crossed many borders. Nasi goreng is a classic Indonesian breakfast dish of fried rice. It has also become a staple food in Holland and Suriname after being introduced there by Dutch colonists.
As with all recipes that travel well, the cook that receives a recipe inevitably adapts it. In that vein, here is my version of nasi goreng. I use brown basmati rice, but you can use any variety of long grain rice; just be sure that the cooked rice is completely cold before you start, as rice that is still hot will go soggy and oily if you start frying it. (As such, it is a perfect way to use up leftover rice.) Feel free to substitute with any seasonal vegetables of your choice. What gives the dish its uniquely Indonesian flavor is the addition of fermented shrimp paste, which adds a deep pungent aroma, and kecap manis, a sweetened soy sauce. You can find both in Asian grocery stores or online.
I hope nasi goreng brings a trace of magic to your dining table.
For the Dish
- 1 1/2 cups brown basmati rice, cooked according to packet instructions plus 1/2 tsp of salt (cooled)
- Canola oil
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 3 shallots, finely sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 1 red chile, deseeded and finely diced
- 1.5 tablespoons kecap manis
- 1 teaspoon fermented shrimp paste
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons concentrated tomato paste
- 2 medium carrots, diced into small pieces
- 3 cups Tuscan kale (or green cabbage), finely sliced
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- Salt and black pepper
- 4 eggs
- Finely chopped fresh cilantro
- Lime wedges
- Sambal oelek (or other hot chile sauce)
Are you a nasi goreng fan? Tell us about your adventures with it in the comments!