Whenever I find myself wondering why the restaurant industry in a polyethnic city such as ours doesn’t serve a particular population—where are all the Maltese eating anyway?—I’m usually forgetting about the caterers.
Even if a particular group has no restaurant to call its own (sorry, Cambodians), if there’s any significant ethnic population at all, there’s someone cooking for its weddings, birthdays, funerals, festivals, and holidays. Chicago had an Indonesian restaurant some time ago, August Moon, but since then the closest we’ve gotten was Chinatown’s Malaysian Penang, which closed after a fire last year (though it’s currently rebuilding, and there’s still a branch in Arlington Heights).
But there are the caterers.
Last month, on the second and final afternoon of the Custer’s Last Stand arts festival in Evanston, Chris and Jane Reed had run out of chicken and pork satay, the peanut-sauced meat skewers common all over southeast Asia. But they were still doing a brisk business in stewy beef rendang over yellow rice and coconut curried tempeh—an Indonesian staple long before it became a meat substitute for texture-starved vegetarians. For a little more than a year the mother-and-son team have taken their catering business, the Rice Table, to street and music festivals and tastings. Chris, 26, is a Kendall College grad, but it was Jane who brought the recipes to Skokie, via Amsterdam, from her native city of Bandung in West Java.
The dishes I just mentioned are probably some of the more familiar Indonesian foods in the U.S., but the Reeds have a repertoire of hundreds more. Frequently at private events they’ll prepare the more elaborate feast known as a rijstaffel, or rice table, a presentation of many varied dishes that’s a remnant of Dutch colonization (and seems to be available on pretty much every block in Amsterdam).
Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation, spread over thousands of islands that are each home to their own regional cuisines, with influences as broadly varied as Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arab in addition to Dutch. But according the Indonesian consulate, there are only about 500 to 600 Indonesians living in the Chicago area, so the shortage of restaurants is no surprise.
Muhammed Rukli, who daylights as a finance administrator at the consulate, has operated another Indonesian catering business on the north side with his family for the last ten years. But late last month he opened a permanent restaurant in Rogers Park, naming it Angin Mamiri, after a song about the arrival of a gentle breeze. The tune is originally from his native South Sulawesi, which his family left for Jakarta when he was five. He arrived here in 1983, when the consulate opened.
Rukli’s wife, Ida, who does the cooking, is a member of the community’s Dharma Wanita, a group of women associated with the consulate who come to together to cook and share recipes from their native regions. But the menu at the restaurant doesn’t seem too hung up on regional specificity, with the exception of coto makassar, a South Sulawesian beef tripe soup.
It’s an interesting bowl, the base of which is peanut sauce mixed with the milky water that’s been used to soak rice. It might strike some as surprisingly mild for coming from a crucible of the spice trade, but what brings it alive are the garnishes—a squirt of fresh lime, a sprinkling of fried garlic chips, and a liberal dose of sambal, a spicy condiment that comes in many varieties. This one is made in-house from whole soybeans, chile, and tomato. The coto makassar is served with buras, sections of compressed rice steamed in banana leaf and fragrant with coconut milk.
Lontong, a similar rice preparation made without coconut milk, is just right for sopping up the peanut sauce that accompanies the Ruklis’ satays (chicken, beef, and lamb) and their salads, among them gado gado, a vibrant, carefully arranged composition of green beans, boiled eggs, carrots, sprouts, cucumber, and watercress; and ketoprak Jakarta, featuring rice noodles, bean sprouts, and cabbage drizzled with a thick, sweet soy sauce called kecap mani.
There are representations of popular noodle and rice dishes (notably the fried-noodle dish mie goreng and the fried-rice dish nasi goreng, both Chinese influenced) and popular dry curries such as the yellow chicken curry, ayam opor, and the aforementioned beef rendang, which simmers in Ida’s kitchen all day.
There are a lot of less familiar items to explore too. The appetizer section is full of interesting stuffed and fried bites, including martabak telor, beef, onion, and egg tightly wrapped in a pocket of crispy dough; jalangkote, chicken puffs stuffed with noodles, celery, and carrot; and siomay bandung, wedges of cabbage-wrapped tofu stuffed with potato and fish paste and dressed with peanut sauce and kecap mani. A number of other options—potato or corn fritters, tempeh and vegetable preparations, spicy eggs—show up in daily specials.
Near the back of the counter Ida lays out individually portioned zip baggies filled with snacks, like the crispy deep-fried peanut- or dried-anchovy-studded wafers called rempeyek, often eaten with meals like a side of french fries, or a container of sweet pineapple-jelly-filled cookies called nastar, which are are baked with a savory pinch of cheddar cheese on top (you can thank the Dutch for that touch). Cool coconut-milk-based desserts are flavored with jackfruit and avocado.
The Ruklis aren’t unlike many ambitious new restaurateurs who get their start as caterers: enough customers told them they should open a spot that they eventually decided to give it a go. Rukli says he looked downtown for space but opted for this small storefront in an outlying neighborhood to get started. It had already housed Filipino and Thai restaurants that hadn’t made it, so with the relative scarcity of Indonesians here, the family will have to rely on the active interest of people who have a healthy curiosity about an underrepresented cuisine. v
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