Compared to some of our Southeast Asian neighbours, Indonesian cuisine is still a relative mystery to most foreigners.
While it’s true that nasi goreng and rendang have, in recent years, been elevated to the international limelight via lists like CNN’s 50 Most Delicious Foods in the World, the majority of Indonesia’s dishes remain undiscovered.
The truth is, Indonesian culinary culture – just like its sprawling archipelagic land mass and the hundreds of ethnic tribes that inhabit it – is rich, diverse and often surprising.
Kaum, Katamama’s latest sister outlet, located on the second floor of Potato Head Beach Club, strives to reveal the culinary enigma of Indonesia to the world. The restaurant’s name, which means “tribe” in Indonesian, offers a clue to its concept of reawakening interest in the archipelago’s indigenous cooking methods, tribal recipes and lesser-known ingredients.
Kaum Bali, which follows the opening of Kaum Hong Kong last year, is the result of extensive travel, exploration and research across the country. From the ancient Bali Aga villages here to the remote valley of the Toraja tribe in Sulawesi, Kaum’s culinary collective travelled into the homes and villages of remote communities, collecting a portfolio of exotic ingredients and traditional recipes – knowledge which forms the basis of Kaum’s menus.
Lisa Virgiano, Kaum’s Brand Director, recalls one of the most inspiring moments of the team’s adventure:
“We got a chance to visit local fishermen in the Wakatobi islands in Southeast Sulawesi, to learn the wisdom of the sea from a parika (sea shaman). I learned about the correlation between the fishing technique and the taste of the fish by joining a spear hunting session with the Bajo tribe, commonly known as the sea gypsies. These fisherman went free diving to hunt the fish without the help of an oxygen mask.
I felt a deep connection with the sustainable ways of these ethnic tribes, especially when I helped to create sustainable fish traps near the seashore using only bamboo and natural materials, under the guidance of a parika.
These tribes still practice their sustainable, traditional methods, although they are dying traditions. At Kaum, we want to deliver a strong message to the public about their existence and role as front liners in defending our maritime biodiversity”.
Here in Bali, the Kaum team works with a whole network of responsible, small-scale producers, including the farmers of Jatiluwih, who still cultivate their heirloom rice the original and natural way, paying homage to ancient Balinese agricultural and belief systems. Amed’s precious few remaining sea salt farmers and Singaraja’s traditional lapciong (Balinese sausage) makers are also among the local producers that Kaum works with.
According to Lisa Virgiano though, Indonesia is losing thousands of farmers every year:
“Farming is dying in my formerly rich country, but I never lose hope. Farmers and other food producers should be respected for their hard work, especially if we continue to work with them hand in hand, creating a link between producers and consumers, encouraging consumers to know where their food comes from and how much effort has gone into producing it. Our philosophy at Kaum is really simple; using local produce means we pay respect to the nature of Indonesia, to the concept of ‘taste of origin,’ and to the people who produce it”.
Kaum’s menu features small plates, sharing plates and sides, all described and presented with attention. You will notice plenty of unfamiliar ingredients like stinky beans, moringa leaves, snake gourd, andaliman spices and torch ginger flower.
Kaum’s Gohu Ikan Tuna, listed under small plates, is Indonesia’s answer to ceviche; fresh chunks of tuna are marinated in coconut oil, fresh kalamansi juice, mint, pomelo, and chilli and served with kenari nuts and ginseng leaves.
“(Gohu is) from the eastern islands of Indonesia … each island has a different version but basically it’s freshly caught fish with a bit of lime juice. We twist it a bit to make it more elaborate with coconut oil, kalamansi and so on,” explains Kaum’s Executive Chef Antoine Audran, a man who makes a point of visiting the traditional market in every place he visits.
Aceh in North Sumatra is represented through Kaum’s Gulai Udang Aceh, a warming, semi spicy curry with prawns, okra and plantain.
“I first discovered it when I was staying with friends in Aceh,” explains Chef Antoine. “I like Aceh as a province. I love the Indian and Arabic influence in their cooking. They use different spices, not chilli. It’s one of the few regions that uses curry leaves and this dish has a combination of so many spices”.
Balinese dishes like Ayam Betutu Klungkung (slowly roasted free-range baby chicken filled with mixed Balinese spices and wrapped in banana leaves) are listed in the sharing plates. Kaum’s version takes three to four hours to roast and the “betutu” spice mix of shallots, garlic, turmeric, ginger, galangal and chilli is manually ground in a mortar and pestle for an authentic taste.
Vegetarian dishes include Gado Gado Kaum, a dish of free-range egg, tempeh and blanched vegetables tossed in peanut sauce, which is believed to have originated in Jakarta and is one of the capital’s most ubiquitous street foods today.
Sambals – fiery chilli relishes – complete every meal in Indonesia and these also vary from region to region. The Kaum kitchen offers five variations, including a spicy yet fragrant sambal rica rica from North Sulawesi, and an earthy sambal kluwek, made with black nuts from Kalimantan.
The decor is heavily influenced by traditional motifs and patterns too. Sculptures by contemporary Indonesian artists are displayed in the entrance hall, including abstract pieces which reflect social issues relevant to Indonesia. Concrete wall panels are stamped with motifs from traditional Torajan wood carvings. Known as Pa’sura, or “the writing,” these hand carved patterns which are deeply imbued with meaning for the Torajan tribe of South Sulawesi. Tableware also reflects the craftsmanship of Indonesia with bespoke ceramic tableware by Gaya and coasters and placemats made from the hand-woven textiles of Tana Toraja. Several tables for four surround a single long communal wooden table, designed to encourage guests to eat in the traditional family-style manner of Indonesia’s tribes.
Indonesians are full of pride when it comes to their food culture, and a visit to Kaum will reveal how deep and sometimes surprising that culture is. Book a table with Gina or Carina, Katamama’s cultural concierges, or online here.
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