By Tejal Rao
- July 5, 2016
BOSTON — Close to Logan International Airport, in a green corner of East Boston, passers-by slow down to catch the drifting smells from Retno Pratiwi’s kitchen. The air is sweet with fresh lemongrass and galangal, with garlic cloves and candlenuts browning slowly in coconut oil.
It is nearly the end of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, during which Muslims around the world fast daily, from sunup to sundown. Ms. Pratiwi, 31, zooms through her kitchen in flip-flops, back and forth between her flat stone mortar and electric stove, putting together an elaborate Indonesian-style feast — the kind her mother used to prepare on special occasions such as Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that signifies the end of Ramadan.
This year, Eid al-Fitr (also called Idul Fitri in Indonesia) begins on Wednesday and can last several days, depending on where it’s celebrated.
As with most holidays, there are as many ways to celebrate it as there are families. Many will give generously to charity, exchange gifts and visit relatives. Children will say their prayers in new outfits. And across the world, whether with biryani, borek or sugar-dusted sweets, millions will feast.
Ms. Pratiwi is the chef behind the pop-up restaurant Kaki Lima, which she runs with her husband, Peter Gelling, 37. She cooks the food she loves to eat — the food she grew up eating in Indonesia — which is why there’s a pot of semur betawi resting on the back of the stove.
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Slabs of beef are stewed for hours with aromatics and the sweet Indonesian soy sauce called kecap manis. The semur is made the way Ms. Pratiwi’s grandmother and mother taught her to make it, though Ms. Pratiwi braises the beef more gently, in the oven, until it’s very tender and glistening all over with a dark, mellow sauce.
Ms. Pratiwi works on a batch of fresh sambal — a delicious Indonesian hot sauce that packs heat and flavor in equal parts — momentarily prickling the air when the purée of bird’s-eye chiles starts to simmer and releases steam. But some of the work is already done: In a cupboard full of colorful mismatched plateware, she has been fermenting black rice in a jar for four days, transforming it into a floral, fruity dessert she will serve over ice cubes.
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Though Ms. Pratiwi was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, like many from the country she and her extended family traveled to their home village for holidays like Idul Fitri. Big celebrations called for luxurious meals with meat and seafood, so a few families in her village, Pandeglang, West Java, might go in on a buffalo and split the meat.
Still, the leftovers when Ms. Pratiwi’s mother cooked would be substantial. “My whole family came over, and we ate this food for days,” Ms. Pratiwi said.https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/uri/embeddedinteractive/e5cdd695-b8ea-5a57-a91f-09dd75d92960?
She had been helping her mother and grandmother in the kitchen since she was a child, and started to cook professionally after she moved to the United States in 2010, signing up for work as a private chef through Kitchensurfing. Her remarkable Indonesian cooking soon developed a cult following of Dutch expats, Indonesian college students, fellow cooks and regular old food nerds.
At Kaki Lima, named for Indonesia’s street-food stalls, Ms. Pratiwi and Mr. Gelling (an editor at the public-radio program PRI’s The World and a former contributor to The New York Times) are champions of Indonesian culture, obsessing over the details and authenticity of their food. Two years ago, they traveled to Indonesia on a research trip, to spend time with home cooks on islands all over the country and document recipes.
“Do you like stinky beans?” Ms. Pratiwi asked, turning out a can of slippery petai beans into a spitting-hot pool of coconut oil. “I couldn’t get fresh ones, but these are fine.”
Recreating the taste of home is never easy, and when it comes to the recipes Ms. Pratiwi likes to make, finding the right ingredients can be half the challenge. Fresh lemongrass and galangal, which are essential to building Indonesian flavors, are not always available in American supermarkets. Salam leaves, a type of Indonesian bay leaf, can be tricky to find, and despite the name, Ms. Pratiwi said they were absolutely not interchangeable with bay leaves.
“If you can’t find them,” she said, “leave them out.”
Likewise, there is no replacement for kaempferia galanga root, a shockingly bright, almost antiseptic-smelling rhizome that awakens the base for opor ayam — chicken simmered in coconut milk, with knots of lemongrass and bashed ginger, which Ms. Pratiwi’s family always eats on special occasions. Recently, a friend traveling from the Netherlands smuggled some in for Ms. Pratiwi, but the chef usually hydrates a dry version she can get at her local Chinese grocery store.
“We go to New York to get the really hard-to-find ingredients, like candlenuts,” said Ms. Pratiwi, referring to the oily macadamia-like nut. “And sometimes we just order stuff on Amazon.”
In western Massachusetts, Mr. Gelling found a turmeric grower selling the roots and discarding the leaves that Ms. Pratiwi needed, but the source didn’t last long. Though the couple tended to their own lime plants in the back garden, as Kaki Lima grew more popular and catered to groups of up to 100 diners, they found that their plants couldn’t keep up with demand.
Ms. Pratiwi and Mr. Gelling have set up Kaki Lima in an Australian pie shop in the Boston Shipyard, a Thai restaurant in Austin, Tex., and a modern Asian restaurant in Portland, Me. Next year, they plan to get out of the pop-up game and open a full-time restaurant here.
Back in her home kitchen, as the bright red oil begins to draw away from the sambal, Ms. Pratiwi adds raw shrimp and potatoes that Mr. Gelling cooked earlier, according to her specifications. By this time, the chicken is tender, and the candlenuts have done their work of thickening the sauce in the opor ayam.
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Everything is served at once with sliced ketupat, the firm, sticky rice cake traditionally wrapped in coconut leaves and boiled in water. But Ms. Pratiwi couldn’t find coconut leaves. “So I used a plastic baggie and sealed it with a candle flame,” she says, holding it up.
“But is it going to be enough rice?” Mr. Gelling asks. “I’m worried it’s not going to be enough rice.”
It’s enough. It’s more than enough. Later, after their friends have gone back for seconds, thirds and possibly fourths, Ms. Pratiwi gives everyone quart containers so that they can pack up some extra food to take home.
She cooked the rice in a makeshift bag, but this meal will feed everyone again tomorrow, just as it used to in Pandeglang, when Ms. Pratiwi went home to feast with her family.