Why Hasn’t Indonesian Food Caught On in the US?

A post at Food Republic asks why Indonesian food hasn’t caught on in the U.S. The proposed answer is a tautology.

It’s going to take a little exposure and popularity. It’s going to take perspective from chefs and restaurants to draw that mass appeal…someone is going to figure out that these things are tasty as fuck and make a killing slinging it. They just need the audience for it.

Not much of an answer to explain the lack of interest with reference to the lack of an audience.

I’ve thought a lot about why Indonesian food is so unpopular in the US, and I have two actual answers. The first is obvious to anyone who thinks about food culture: there are not very many Indonesian Americans. You can see the numbers here. The big players in the Asian American food universe are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Vietnamese. There are lots of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Vietnamese Americans.

Numbers like this are obviously part of any explanation. If there were hundreds of Indonesian restaurants catering to Indonesian Americans hungry for a taste of home, you’d see the emergence of an Americanized version of Indonesian food. It would probably look a lot like rijsttaffel, the Dutch equivalent which remains popular there.

But this explanation on its own has two problems. One is Filipino food, which has nowhere near the pull in the Asian American food scene that Chinese or Indian food does even though the numbers for Filipino Americans bury every group but Chinese Americans. The other is Thai food, which is immensely popular with relatively small numbers.

So what else might be going on? I reluctantly submit that a broader problem is that many Indonesian dishes are not that tasty, and few of the tasty ones are truly novel to the American palate.

Focus on the second part of that sentence first. Many Indonesian dishes involve flavors that U.S. consumers already associate with another Southeast Asian cuisine. Primarily Thai (for coconut-based curries) and Indian cuisines (for grilled and spiced things). Yes, opor ayam is not massaman curry, but to a first approximation…not that different, especially if it were cooked in an Americanized version using common American ingredients. Lumpia? Egg rolls. Bakso? Pho bo vien. Sate? Satay. Sad thing is, some of these non-Indonesian approximations are generally better than the Indonesian ones. I’d choose a bowl of pho bo vien over bakso any day of the week, and I am an inveterate bakso hound (my insults of Bakmi GM notwithstanding).

This leads me to a second point, which is that a good number of Indonesian dishes that haven’t been borrowed aren’t really that tasty. Classic dishes like gudeg come to mind. Or you can think of the unsalted steamed papaya leaves or oily-fish-simmered-in-oily-sauce from Padang-style food. These are foods that would be relatively inexpensive to prepare en masse, but aren’t attractive to the Western palate. One bit of evidence that would be consistent with my argument is the observation that Indonesian and Filipino cuisines share the same general flavors and ingredients, and Filipino food has never really taken off in the US. either. JMP, who grew up in LA with a Filipina American best friend, remembers nothing aside from a pig roast at a birthday party.

We can turn to the Netherlands to probe my claim further—this is where you’d look to find delicious Indonesian food for the Western market. If you google “indonesian restaurant amsterdam” here is the top-rated result: Restaurant Blauw, with a homepage that makes the colonial encounter very obvious. Here’s the dinner menu (PDF). Looks fine, yes, but nothing jumps out at me as sounding delectable or even that interesting. Sure, I’d definitely try one of the rijsttaffels. But with mains in the €20+ range, they better be delicious.

If I’m right, then no matter how much I love Indonesian food, it’s a non-starter in the US without a much larger Indonesian American population and some distinctly different flavors and dishes that appeal to the US palate. Remember that the dishes that imported Chinese food to the US mass market were made by immigrants living in the US cooking for the US palate. Chop suey and General Tso’s chicken, not stinky tofu or hundred pepper chicken, brought Chinese flavors to the US. Teriyaki and tempura, not sushi, were the first Japanese flavors to make it in the US. Chicken tikka masala is yet another example.

So, let’s say you want to be the chef who brings Indonesian food to the US mass market. What should you do? The answer is to find those unique dishes that do appeal to the US market, and focus on those. Here is my list.

  • Rendang. The Food Republic article is right about that. But real rendang is not the same as cooking lamb in coconut milk. You’ve got to get your kitchen dirty to make it special.
  • Coto makassar. Sufficiently different from pho that no one will get confused. Can be tamed for Western palates by omitting lungs and kidneys and by pureeing the liver.
  • Tempe mendoan. Tempe is challenging for some Westerners, but fortunately, you can fry the heck out of it.
  • Dendeng. The market for this is limitless.
  • Gado-gado. But it has to be made street-food style, not civilized-restaurant style as in that picture.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

But that’s probably enough. What an aspiring restauranteur needs is a signature Indonesian American dish that looks familiar to a Westerner but is clearly Indonesian, something like banh mi or Korean tacos. Something that sells well out of a food truck. I’ve devoted way too much time to thinking about this, and here is my idea.

The Indonesian Sandwich
Start with sweet and fluffy Indonesian-style bread. A Portuguese sweet roll will do nicely here. Open it up and hollow out the middle. Into the middle dump a big scoop of rendang, cooked long enough that the meat is basically shredded. Add to that two slices of Edam (yes really), a handful of deep fried shallots, and some fresh scallions. Add a dollop of pecel sauce and top with lettuce, tomato, a squirt of Sriracha to make it taste legible.

You’d eat that, and you’d know instantly that it’s not Thai or Indian or anything else familiar. You can mix it up—switch out ayam kluwak for the rendang, Gouda for the Edam, some slices of tempe mendoan for the vegans. This is how you can make Indonesian food popular, by taking Indonesian flavors and showing how they work with the American palate.

UPDATE

Some additions of classic and distinctive Indonesian dishes that I neglected above.

I will say that only the first one, rawon, is a strong argument in favor of Indonesian food. I love oseng-oseng, perkedel, sayur asem, and other dishes like these, but they are not particularly compelling dishes. The world’s best sayur asem is not that great; tasty yes, but you’d never build a restaurant around it.

Posted in Food and Drink, Indonesia, Recipes
8 comments on “Why Hasn’t Indonesian Food Caught On in the US?
  1. Kevin Fogg says:

    I agree and disagree with many things in this post (gudeg is not my fave, but how can you not love Padang-style fish?), but you have also missed one other important explanation: There is no such thing as Indonesian food. Indonesian food does not exist. Instead, you have at least 20 different distinct styles of cuisine, each with a highlight or two. I mean, in what self-respecting restaurant in Jakarta would you find rendang, ayam taliwang, coto makassar, and rica-rica on the menu? What chef can approximate, much less master, the various different Indonesian cuisines enough to then tweak them appropriately for the American market?

    Also, let me say that rendang is already attempting to take off in the UK, to the point where M&S has pre-prepared, canned rendang. (http://www.britishonlinesupermarket.com/british-store/marks-and-spencer-beef-rendang-400g.html) Sadly, most of the versions here are filtered through Malaysian variants, and are horrible.

  2. Julie Chernov Hwang says:

    A few hypotheses to present. I think Indonesian fish renditions (fried and grilled) would be popular with Americans. The problem I’ve seen at Indonesian restaurants from SF to DC is that they’re usually using frozen fish and no delicious marinades for grilling so everything comes out as a pale representation of the original. Oftentimes, I’ve found Indonesian food dumbed down for American palates, much as Korean food was a decade ago. Bad Indonesian food=bad Indonesian food. Finally, Indonesian food is not healthy. You can find healthier foods in Thai, Japanese, Burmese, Vietnamese alternatives. That might explain why Indonesian restaurants don’t survive when they have to compete with Thai/Japanese/Vietnamese alternatives on the same street or in the same neighborhood. With pale representations of the original yummy dishes, dumbed down spices, and unhealthy results, Americans are choosing other Asian alternatives.

    Completely agree: Gado2 would be a must but it has to be kaki5 style.

  3. theofsmart says:

    Even in one’s favorite cuisine, there are going to be a few dishes that aren’t favorites. I think it is simply lack of exposure. In the states, I’ve had numerous Thai friends but never met any Indonesians. Plus the few Indonesian restaurants that I’ve seen in the US were a bit pricey — and I think it can be hard to get people to commit to an expensive rijsttafel when they haven’t tried the food. I’ve wondered whether people would be more willing to try Indonesian restaurants offering a buffet — and then they can learn what they like. Besides rijsttafel (and FEBO!), my first exposures were through friend’s ceremonial meals — wedding and post death feasts, where I was overwhelmed by the great number of delicious dishes (it helped that one of my friends was a chef). But most Americans don’t have Indonesian friends cooking for them.

  4. I would opt to have the grilled chicken with Balinese chilli in a Subway style sandwich. The soto ayam with its slightly tangy yet aromatic scent of lemongrass could tickle my senses more than sayur asem. I try, albeit only one, Indonesian restaurant here in Seattle and it is so bland; seems like they really afraid to offend the Americans! Unlike the Thais and the Vietnamese pho. My personal note as an Indonesian, pho is waaaaay better than bakso. Period.

  5. Chris Miller says:

    I just have to speak up for nasi gudeg. To all of you naysayers, you must not have tried Bu Yati’s, kitty-corner from the southeast corner of the outer wall of the Mangkunegaran palace, in Solo. I really wish I knew how she gets it so smokey. It’s like good ribs. The gudeg I’ve had in Jogja has left me cold (and that’s going out with a local), but Bu Yati’s is heaven! I went two evenings in a row on my recent trip!! But of course, to each their own.

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