Thursday, September 23, 2010

Manadonese: vivid flavors and tongue-scorching spiciness

With its vivid flavors and tongue-scorching spiciness, Manadonese cuisine might be the new Thai — if only the world knew about it. Good luck with that: tiny Manado city, on the northern tip of Indonesia's Sulawesi island, is unlikely to produce an international diaspora of restaurateurs anytime soon.
But there is one metropolis where the fare needs no introduction: Jakarta. Options for Manadonese food abound in the capital city. At Chamoe-Chamoe, tel: (62-21) 720 8294, one sip of kuah asam — a sour soup with tasty salmon and hints of lime, basil and lemongrass — instantly reveals a formidable competitor to Thailand's tom yum.

For an even better all-around introduction to the full spectrum of the cuisine, head straight to South Jakarta's Beautika, tel: (62-21) 722 6683, the city's must-try Manadonese joint. Brace for chaos if you go on a typical weekend afternoon: regulars crowd around metal buffet counters indicating what they want delivered to their tables. Grab a waiter and start pointing.
The key ingredient in Manadonese cooking is chili, which dominates the sambals and marinades (like rica-rica, in which it's ground with ginger and lime). The fiery must-try dishes include pepes (spicy chicken or fish cooked in banana leaves), cakalang saos (smoked pieces of skipjack tuna smeared with a searing red sambal) and ayam ternate (a dark red chicken with plenty of burn and a hint of palm sugar). The tude daun pepaya mixes smoothly flavored fish with bitter papaya leaves, while the sayur acar — carrots, green chili, cucumbers, shallots and bengkuang fruit all pickled in a vinegar yellowed with ground turmeric — offers plenty of bite. If you want relief from spice, go for the mellow ayam kecap or chicken in sweet soy sauce. Expect to gorge for less than $10 a head.
Beautika's decor is unremarkable — simple wood furniture, plastic gray silverware containers — and the dining spaces are a little cramped. (A section upstairs feels roomier but gets hot at times.) No matter. As you take one last bite of savory grilled marlin and wipe the perspiration from your brow, you'll see your satisfaction reflected in others' faces — and know you won't be the first to return for more spicy punishment.

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