Words by Andre Fois
For the smorgasbord of dishes found in Indonesian cuisine, it is a little known secret that the modest bumbu, in all its variants, is the bedrock of such flavourful fare.
*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice & Aromatics’ issue
You might have heard of this term thrown about by connoisseurs of Indonesian cuisine: bumbu. Translating to ‘flavour’ or ‘seasoning’, bumbu is the central pillar of Indonesia’s epicurean landscape and is not to be confused with rempah meaning ‘spices’. Getting a type of bumbu correct is hardly as simple as following a recipe from an Indonesian chef or off the Internet.
Arini, a domestic worker working in Singapore, fondly recalls learning how to prepare different kinds of bumbu in her mother’s kitchen. “I was taught to make the bumbu of popular local dishes, which mostly require turmeric, lemongrass, candlenut and so on,” describes the native of Indramayu, a city in West Java that is steeped in history. She shares that Indonesia’s famous dishes like soto ayam and mie goreng are beloved across all of the archipelago’s islands, but the recipes for their bumbu vary from region to region.
“Good chefs mix their own bumbu and don’t rely on instant mixes,” remarks Arini, who opts for grinding spices with a pestle and mortar to make her own, instead of turning to a blender.
Endowing Indonesian cuisine with its irreplicable, nuanced complexity and filling the hearts of its diners, the herbs and spices that go into bumbu have also charted the course of world history for thousands of years.
The Spice War
The Srivijaya empire spanning the 7th and 12th century was a Buddhist kingdom with trade ties to the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East. The trade routes propelled the spread of Malay culture across Borneo, Java and Sumatra, while Arab merchants brought about the gradual conversion of the Austronesian natives to Islam.
It was only later in the 1500s that the Spanish and Portuguese (collectively known as ‘the Iberians’) came to know about the riches of the Maluku Islands in the eastern Indonesian archipelago. Spices they had never seen before such as cloves, nutmeg and mace grew in abundance, and the Iberians became infatuated.
The Dutch were so enamoured that they took over the Iberians’ trading posts by force and made over 2,000 voyages, eventually establishing a colony for the megacorporation, Dutch East India Company. They transported an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of Indonesian spices to Europe, where the cargo was purportedly sold for 300 times their cost.
Indonesia’s colonial masters were so adamant about controlling the spice trade that they tried to restrict locals from selling spices to other traders from the likes of Arabia, Britain, India, and Java. Attempts to monopolise what they knew as the ‘Spice Islands’ resulted in a genocide of 15,000 Bandanese and as the English and Dutch fought for control, many members from both sides were tortured and killed. After copious bloodshed, treaties drawn up between both sides saw the English taking Malaya and the Dutch taking Indonesia.
Backbone of the cuisine
One of the positive outcomes, however, was the prevalence of the use of these spices across cuisines in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. But there are a few cooking techniques or seasoning that showcase the aromas and flavours of these spices the way bumbu does.
Bumbu is difficult to explain like the way most indigenous cooking is difficult to pen down. It’s a blend of spices that form the base of various dishes ranging from soup, curry, gravy, barbecue seasoning or dipping sauce. The ingredients are pounded into a paste then usually stir-fried in oil to release their aroma. Made by an experienced chef, bumbu can be considered a priceless gift. For some dishes, this seasoning mixture is added during cooking but removed before serving.
“The lifeblood of bumbu is shallots, garlic and chilli, but it also taps on a series of different spices from across the archipelago,” explains chef Park of Pagi Sore, an Indonesian restaurant located in Singapore’s downtown business district. An acclaimed bastion of Indonesian cooking, Pagi Sore is owned by Park and his family.
“Most bumbu recipes use similar ingredients, but can yield vastly different results. Take for example rendang and gulai — these two sauces both require almost identical sets of ingredients, but they taste totally different,” he says.
“The sauce of rendang uses less turmeric and more galangal, also known as blue ginger, while the curry of gulai needs more turmeric and less galangal. The techniques involved are different too. Ayam gulai (curry chicken cooked in bumbu gulai) can be prepared in less than half an hour, while it takes me two and a half hours to stew my style of rendang, which uses Angus beef,” he elaborates. Using a lower grade of beef, however, can require up to three hours to break down the meat and infuse it completely with flavour as Park recalls seeing his Indonesian mother do.