UW News Lab

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world, and the Seattle area boasts somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 immigrants from there. However, in the entire Puget Sound area, there is only one Indonesian restaurant – Indo Café near Northgate mall.

Owner Andry Sander considers it his job to introduce people to the country he was raised in and the food he grew up eating.

“There are basically three things most people know about Indonesia,” Sander says. “It’s the most populous Muslim country in the world, there’s a lot of poverty, and there are problems with terrorism.”

Recent bombings in Bali and Jakarta have seriously affected Indonesia’s image in the rest of the world.

“But being the only Indonesian restaurant in Seattle gives us the opportunity to act as ambassadors,” says Sander.

Although the restaurant has been around since December 2004, Sander has only been playing the ambassador role since last spring. He is a University of Washington graduate who worked as a freelance photographer for five years before pulling a career “180.” Not wanting to see the only Indonesian restaurant in the area shut down, Sander and his wife bought the struggling business when the original owner decided to move back to Indonesia. The interior was redone and a number of new dishes added to the menu to reflect the wide variety of flavors found in Indonesian cooking.

With Indonesia’s history as a spice exporter and major trading route, its food combines indigenous ingredients and techniques with influences from Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese cuisines.

In addition to this diverse mix of outside cultures, the country is composed of more than 17,500 islands with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups. This makes it difficult to specify one type of food as Indonesian. So Indo Café focuses on food from three of the larger islands in the archipelago – Java, Sumatra and Sulawasi.

Javanese food, according to Sander, tends to be sweeter while Sumatran cooking is on the spicier side. As for the Sulawasi food, it’s difficult to categorize save for the uniqueness of dishes like Empek-Empek Palambang. One of just a few Sulawasi-style offerings on the menu, it’s a hard-boiled egg inside a handmade fish cake with noodles and black vinegar sauce.

A few staple ingredients show up in a number of Indonesian dishes and they are well-represented on the Indo Café menu. Galangal is a rhizome related to ginger but with its own distinct taste. While mildly toxic if eaten raw, “kemiri,” candlenut, or “kukui” as it is known in Hawai’i, is somewhat similar to the macadamia nut. It is often used as a thickening agent, but only after it’s cooked to remove the toxins. Like the candlenut, Indonesian bay leaf has similar relatives used in cooking elsewhere throughout the world, but with a different flavor than its Indian and Mediterranean counterparts.
Then there is “sambal,” Indonesia’s ubiquitous, spicy condiment made from peppers. Indo Café makes its own “sambal terasi,” adding shrimp paste to the chili. It’s delicious and unique, but use it with caution on your first try because it’s definitely hot.

If you do go overboard on the “sambal,” use the “marquisa,” or passionfruit juice, to take the edge off. In Indonesia, it’s often served as a breakfast drink but is a sweet accompaniment for lunch or dinner, too.

The “risole” is a tasty and interesting cross-cultural appetizer. It’s a fusion of Dutch and Indonesian elements – a deep fried, breaded egg roll filled with chicken ragout with a sweet dipping sauce.

When it comes to entrees, the “nasi kuning” is a good way to sample many different Indonesian flavors and ingredients in one dish. There’s Javanese-style fried chicken marinated with candlenut, a hard-boiled egg covered in “sambal balado,” a crunchy fried anchovy and peanut mix on the side, all accompanied by yellow rice. Sweet from the coconut milk used to cook it, the color comes from turmeric, a spice from India often used in curries.

The menu is full of dishes like this, the product of thousands of years of cultural interaction and culinary experimentation. Don’t be intimidated by names you may have never heard before — the menu is heavy on photos (all taken by Sander) with detailed explanations of each different item.

To cook up this wide variety of concoctions, Indo Café has three chefs. The executive chef is Javanese, while the two sous chefs are Sumatran. Sander, who is of Chinese descent himself, says that racial and religious tensions and inequality are a big problem in Indonesia.

But in America, and at the restaurant, these differences tend to be ignored.

Instead, the focus is on helping people back in Indonesia, by donating money to World Harvest, and by acting as the primary sponsor for the One Indonesia campaign while providing a taste of home for some and a new experience for others.

Sander estimates that the customer mix is about 50 percent Indonesian. So, while he enjoys introducing the food to people that have never had it before, he also takes it as a positive sign when Indonesians come in because that means they think the food is good, too. And that’s a sure sign for those of us who haven’t yet been to Bali that Indo Café is a good introduction to Indonesia right here in the Pacific Northwest.

Indo Café is located at 543 N.E. Northgate Way #J, Seattle, 98125. Phone: (206) 361-0699.

BEN GARRISON is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory..

Previous articleNam June Paik: The Father of New Media Art
Next articleSeeing Stories: The jewelry of Ron Ho