Indonesia reminds me of literary travesties like Eat, Pray, Love, Obama’s half-sister, and towering Buddha temples embedded in dense Javan jungles. But ask me about the food, and my mind draws a blank. To appreciate Indonesian cuisine requires an understanding of its geography and historical past, a rich mélange of influences from the Netherlands (it was a Dutch colony for 300+ years), India, the Middle East, China, and Europe. From gulai (curry) to tempeh, the massive variations in Indonesian cuisine reflect the 6,000+ islands that constitute the world’s largest archipelagic state.
Googling “Indonesian restaurant in Chicago” produces one consistent hit: Rickshaw Republic. Since opening in early 2013, Rickshaw Republic has received numerous accolades for its authentic flavors and humble family origins. Business manager Oscar Setiawan and his family emigrated from Indonesia in 1994, and the name Rickshaw Republic stems from their earlier days in Indonesia, where rickshaw drivers would park in front of their house located in an alley. “Our concept is street food, comfort food,” Oscar says, “It’s home-cooking you get from mom.”
And Mom Elice Sobli actually cooks. When I arrive at the restaurant for a late family lunch, she’s busy frying krupuk (prawn crackers) and marinating chicken in sambal (spicy chili sauce) while brother Emil plates chicken sate skewers onto a bright green banana leaf. Oscar casually mans the front counter while Father Tommy Setiawan plays with his granddaughter, a spritely little thing with an apparent aversion to my Nikon. I snap a few pictures of Rickshaw’s intricate interior before the family gathers at the table for a delicious meal consisting of nasi rames (Jakarta mixed rice plate), gado gado (vegetable and tofu salad with peanut dressing), ayam penyet (smashed fried chicken), chicken sate, and pisang goreng (fried banana).
Elice tells me that Indonesian cuisine fundamentally revolves around spices: coriander, turmeric, spicy chills, peppers, cumin, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic. Coconut milk and peanuts are also common ingredients, and rice goes with everything. “Because Indonesia has thousands of islands, the method of cooking and taste is very different,” Tommy says, “For example, beef rendang is a national dish—you can find it everywhere, but some regions are spicier, some sweeter, some creamier. For gado gado, some places uses watercress while we use lettuce.”
When the restaurant first opened, the Setiawans avoided targeting a specific demographic, especially the almost non-existent Indonesian population in Chicago. Although the menu showcases Indonesia’s diverse cuisine, Rickshaw still largely appeals to an American palette. Emil says:
“We don’t change the ingredients; we adjust it to an American level. We can’t just cater to Asian community, especially in Lincoln Park.”
He tells me that because Americans prefer “safe” food choices (e.g. boneless chicken and neatly-fileted fish), they must portray, describe, and serve the ingredients carefully. For instance, although Indonesians don’t eat multiple courses, the menu is divided into sections because “Westerners are used to an appetizer, main dish, and dessert.” Also, Indonesians typically eat with spoons and hands, a practice that many Americans probably consider barbaric.
Still, the Setiawans strive to preserve some traditional aspects of Indonesian dining. Tommy says, “Diners criticize our food. They ask, ‘Why do you serve ice-cold noodles?’ But if you want to experience authentic Indonesian food, noodles are cold. People that sell on carts cook in the morning and sell in the afternoon, so the food becomes room temperature. Also Indonesia is hot—no one wants to eat hot things.” Therefore, Indonesian food is traditionally served at room-temperature, except for soup.
Not that I can criticize the food. The spices are intoxicatingly complex, complementing one another without overwhelming the food’s overall profile. I was actually surprised by how well the different Asian flavors melded together–just when I thought a dish tasted distinctly Thai, I got a hint of Chinese or Indian. Although each dish proved quite delicious (at room temperature, no less), I found the nasi ramesparticularly scrumptious: the chewy tempeh strips (which is apparently more of a dessert in Indonesia), spicy green bean pickles, coconut-infused chicken, and fragrant white rice produced one of the best flavor and textural combinations I’ve ever tasted.
“We put 1000% of ourselves into the restaurant. We’re not cooking Asian fusion or pretending to be Indonesian. Everything we cook is what we’ve eaten for the last 20 years—it’s authentic,” Oscar says. However, diners may find it reassuring that some foods regularly consumed by the Setiawans in Indonesia will never make it onto the menu, including cow brain curry and goat testicle soup.
Dining with the Setiawans conjures up fond childhood memories at my Thai godmother’s alteration center, a tiny shop filled with with Buddha ornaments and metal Singer machines. Her sisters and grandchildren often stopped by for lunch with som tum (payapa salad) and yen ta fo (pink noodle soup), and we’d eat family-style in the outdoor patio. This classic portrait highlights the importance of food and conversation in Asian culture.
And like most Asian households, there’s a lot of tough love. Tommy, a retired medical professor with a PhD, ran a tight household. Having spent half his life in Indonesia, Oscar says:
“We were very strict on our bedtime and study-time, and we were used to that. At 6pm, we had dinner. Study, then sleep. In America, you have people who are out until midnight, which was a shock.”
But such level of discipline isn’t particularly unique among Asian parents, who hold very high standards for their children (as severely exemplified by Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother). “Everyone’s very competitive, even the parents. They want their children to be better than the others, but at the end of the day, they want the best for us,” Emil says.
In any case, I sense more appreciation than resentment from the Setiawan brothers. “The most important thing [I learned] from my dad is discipline. When he does something, he does it with precision. You have to be disciplined and to the point. That’s what I create here in my restaurant,” Oscar tells me. From his mother, Oscar learned not to compromise quality. For instance, Elice places banana leaves on all their dishes, even though they’re expensive, inedible, and generally unimpressionable to the average diner. “In Indonesia, food is always put on banana leaves because it’s cheap and so sauces and liquids don’t soak through. The banana leaf is symbolic so it’s put on the dishes,” Oscar says.
I ask the family how Indonesia has changed since they left nearly two decades ago. “There are still shanty towns in Jakarta; people live in non-brick houses with wood they find in forests or clay. In Indonesia, a middle class doesn’t exist—either you’re rich or you’re poor,” Oscar says. But during return visits every couple of years or so, he finds that conditions are improving as businesses bloom and globalization becomes more apparent in what people wear, do, and eat. But will the street food culture disappear as the country modernizes, I ask? The Setiawans shake their heads. “In Indonesia, there are a lot of street peddlers and food stalls. What you see in [the US], multiply that by 100. When you stop at a stoplight, you’ll see at least one street vendor,” Emil says.
Not likely, it seems. And that’s good because there’s something magical and nostalgic about street food, and if I can even eat a glimmer of the real thing in Chicago, I’ll be perfectly content.