I tend to deal in superlatives: the best band of all time (Beatles), the best 80s movie (KK1), the best passenger airline (Singapore). Cuisine is harder for me. But one thing that I know is that I’m willing to admit that as a national cuisine, “Indonesian” food is not my very favorite. Part of this is the fact that I don’t think that you can speak of “Indonesian” food as a unified cuisine. North Sulawesi food is entirely different from Central Java, which is different than West Java, which is again different from West Sumatran. (As a general point, I don’t think that any country’s cuisine works this way: Tuscan is not Sicilian, Burgundian is not Alsatian or Nicoise, etc.) I’m comfortable admitting that however much I like Indonesian food, there is no regional cuisine in Indonesia that I would really like to spend the rest of my life eating. This point notwithstanding, I would make the case that there are individual Indonesian dishes that would stand up well to any other individual dish in the world. I had one of the best exemplars of these dishes for lunch yesterday.
1. Take a live gurame fish. (I have no idea what kind of fish a “gurame” is)
2. Gut it and scale it
3. Rub it lightly with a paste made of salt, pepper, lime, and a little bit of mashed garlic
4. Drop the entire thing into a big vat of extremely hot coconut oil
5. Take out in 1 minute, put on a plate
6. Serve with sweet soy sauce mixed with Thai bird chiles chilies and chopped shallots, garnished with sliced cucumbers
That’s it. The entire process should take no more than 3 minutes from fish tank to plate. Done correctly, you can eat the entire thing, fins and bones and all. The meat is sweet and the skin is crispy and the bones are crunchy, and there is very little grease because you only cook the fish until it’s just barely done. This would stand up well to any dish you can find. Other dishes that I’ve been eating that are equally world class are sop buntut (oxtail soup with Christmas spices), coto Makassar (beef offal soup), gado-gado (composed salad with peanut sauce), sate (satay), rendang (super-rich curry), Javanese fried chicken, ayam/ikan rica-rica (fish or chicken with a garlicky and peppery sauce), and pergedel kentang (potato fritters).
As a matter of principle, though, let me state for the record that my vote for the best regional cuisine in the world is Central Vietnamese. You get rich soups and lots of raw vegetables (as salads and spring rolls), along with stews, noodles, and baguettes. The thing that really wins me over is the mix between rich foods and sparse raw foods. The also-rans in this contest are three cuisines that are tied for second: Tuscan, Provencal, and Western Turkish/Lebanese/Israeli. The tier after that is Alsatian, Roman, Basque, Southern Spanish, Oaxacan, North Sulawesi, Southern Indian, Japanese, and Cantonese. Don’t agree with me? Let’s fight about it.
You’ll note that there’s only one Indonesian regional cuisine here. North Sulawesi makes a great exemplar of the best things about Indonesian food (and essentially, the food stretching from Bangladesh to Tahiti along the coast): fried and grilled fish of the type I described above, rich curries with lots of coconut milk, tropical fruits, fried chicken, and even pork bone soup because there are lots of Christians. Part of what is convenient about being in big Indonesian cities is that you don’t have to just eat the local Indonesian cuisine, but rather can mix all the different kinds of regional cuisines, all done perfectly.
As a matter of further dispute, if we were to go by national borders, the best national cuisine in the world is Malaysian. You get all of Indonesian food, plus Chinese and Southern Indian, Pakistani, and Portuguese, and the mixtures of each of these create new options.