JAKARTA, Indonesia — "Indonesians like to eat with their fingers," said our hostess, Suzanne Suwanda. "They think that the food tastes better if they can feel it, get the texture of it, feel how warm it is."
We were sitting in the Satay House Senayan restaurant in Jakarta. As in most of the city's restaurants, spoons are available on request, but we followed local custom and ate with our fingers.
Suwanda, an American who lived in Indonesia for two years while studying gamelan music and Balinese dance, was our guide through the delicacies of Indonesian cuisine. "The visual aspect is also very important," she said. "All the dishes must be arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way."
As if to demonstrate Suwanda's statement, the waiter came to the table with beautifully decorated platters of beef, chicken and lamb satay. Perhaps the most famous of Indonesian dishes, satay is meat skewered on wooden sticks and cooked over hot coals. Here it was served with a spicy peanut sauce, as well as a Celebes-style (Sulawesi) sauce of sweet soy and onions.
The other two most popular Indonesian dishes are nasi goreng --fried rice with beef, chicken, shrimp and vegetables--and bakmi goreng --fried noodles served with vegetables and chopped beef, chicken or shrimp. While much of Indonesian food is very spicy, these two dishes are usually mild enough for the most sensitive of stomachs and are available everywhere.
A soto ayam soup was also served (with spoons). Pieces of chicken and scallions enhanced the spicy concoction, which was served with light, crisp shrimp wafers.
As we prepared to order the next course, Suwanda demonstrated the correct hand motion for summoning the waiter. Hold the right hand up, with fingers pointing down and motion toward you. It is considered rude to motion with the palm up or to signal with the left hand. Mas (elder brother) is the polite term for waiter and mbak (elder sister) for waitress, but never call out loudly from across the room. Indonesians put great stock in simple formalities.
Next came the vegetable dishes-- gado-gado and pecel . Both include salad greens, cucumber and other raw vegetables served with peanut sauce. Gado-gado is the Javanese version and includes bean curd and emping seed chips. In pecel , the Sundanese treatment of the dish, the peanut sauce is much spicier. We also had lontong , cooked rice rolled in banana leaves, cut into slices and served cold.
To put out the fire of the spicier dishes, we drank el kopior and es kelapa muda , cold drinks with fresh coconut shavings ( es kelapa muda is slightly sweeter). We also tried es apokat , a sweet, thick avocado drink. Green sands shandy is another popular drink, a sort of ginger beer with 1% alcohol.
The entire meal, including a tea served with whole leaves, cost about $5 per person. Satay House is a chain of four restaurants in Jakarta. We ate at the one on Kebon Sirih, but all have a reputation for good food and high standards of cleanliness.
Jakarta abounds with warungs , street stalls that display wide varieties of delectable-looking foods, but they are not safe for the average Westerner to try. Fortunately, the Jakarta Mandarin Hotel offers a weekly chance to sample these dishes in comfort. Every Friday afternoon the hotel serves street-stall food on its Pelangi Terrace.
The hotel's Indonesian chefs prepare such delicacies as semur daging , braised beef in coconut milk and soy sauce, served with large cloves; krengsengan ayam , braised chicken in curry sauce with kemangi leaves; ikan bakar rica , charcoal-grilled fish with ground chiles; serundeng , small, round patties of fried grated coconut and peanuts, and sambal ulek , unbelievably hot ground chiles.
For dessert there's es cendol , rice flour dumplings in sweetened coconut milk; pisang goreng , banana fritters, and dadar gulung , sweetened grated coconut wrapped in green pancakes.
The Jakarta Inter-Continental serves Indonesian specialties in each of its restaurants. In the Toba Rotisserie, dishes include ayam tuturuga , chicken and potato cubes served with lemon grass and tumeric, and gagape , beef medallions sauteed in coconut milk and served with candlenut sauce.
In the casual Bogor Brasserie, traditional bakmi goreng and nasi goreng are available, as well as a dish from East Java-- kari braw ijaya , chicken in spicy coconut sauce. And in the Nelayan Seafood restaurant there's udang besar masak tausi , fresh lobster sauteed in a black bean sauce, and bawal tim jamur , steamed pomfret with mushrooms, onions and green peppers.