Discovering Indonesia’s Hidden Gems

Dining experience in Nusa Gastronomy is similar to watching Christopher Nolan’s movie: you enjoy the ride and feel smarter, even though you don’ really understand what’s going on.

Admit it, although you enjoyed Inception (2010), you can’t really understand the concept of stealing secrets from people’s sub consciousness as discussed in the movie in screening. And then after watching it for the next time, things started to make sense and would give you the, “Aha!” moment It also happened in Nolan’s movies such as Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017).

If you watched those movies, approximately, that’s how we felt after dining in Nusa Gastronomy. There are so many unfamiliar Indonesian food names such as sambal tempoyak, nilomang lamb, pelawan mushroom. Nusa showed us that the heritage of Indonesian culinary is more than just rendang and nasi goreng. We have many legendary local dishes that haven’t been properly exposed, even in the national stage. Nusa exhibits those kinds of foods along with the story behind them. Here, they call it “an edible story of Indonesia.”

At least there are two common things we encounter in Indonesia themed restaurants. The first one is sticking too firmly to tradition that it taste and look boring, not suitable to wider range of palate, meanwhile the second one is stepping too far with the modern cooking technique and ignoring the original taste of the dish. That’s one thing we admire from Chef Ragil Imam Wibowo, the Chef Founder, to apply contemporary cooking technique and presentation while sticking to the initial taste of the traditional dish.

Idealistic Project
Unlike other young chefs who’s usually got the fame from a fine dining restaurant, and then open other restaurant with different concept, Chef Ragil deliberately build the other commercial business to make Nusa, his latest idealistic project. “Restaurant like Nusa needs more time to breathe, it has to be based on reputation, you can’t magically make it crowded. I realized that the concept is not for everyone, especially for those who can’t appreciate food because we have much longer dining time, it might frustrate them (laugh),” said Ragil.

Therefore, Chef Ragil and his team built the backbone from the other commercially supporting businesses, through restaurants such as Warung Pasta, Locarasa and Segarra (Ancol). Until finally Chef Ragil felt that it’s time for him to open his own fine dining Indonesian restaurant.

“Now all eyes are seeing Indonesia because some world class restaurants such as El Celler de Can Roca and Noma were here. Noma even sent a full R&D team to investigate tempeh in Yogyakarta. Now it’s just a matter of how Indonesian chefs make it as added value, I don’t want us just to became spectators in our own show,” he explained.

With his background in French and Italian cuisine, Chef Ragil admitted his obsession on Indonesian food. “At the end, we’re Indonesians, if we don’t develop our own cuisine, what will we bring for the world? French dishes? You’ll be laughing stock for the French because we’re not French natives. If not us, then who care? Shall we wait until expatriate chef develop Indonesian food?”

Nusa is planning 3 phases development. In the first one, Nusa recreates the traditional recipes in contemporary presentation. For the next step, Nusa will combine food from various regions into one dish. For example, Bebek TImbungan from Bali is actually working very well when combined with Central Java’s Sayur Megono . In the final phase, Chef Ragil will reinterpret a new dish inspired by regional dishes without having to name it using their original inspiration. At the time, Nusa has already explored the second phase.

In-Depth Research
It’s difficult to name favorite menu in Nusa Gastronomy as the theme changes every 2-3 months. “For the last season, we exposed the Indonesian sea food. In November, we display the most favorite menus for the last year. Meanwhile, we have an ongoing research for our Christmas season to make it different than our previous season, Manadonese food. Ied season is much easier because Indonesian has many traditional Eid’s local dishes, but Christmas is a bit tricky. We need to find elders who love talking about food, and it’s not an easy task,” said Chef Ragil.

On the research procedure, Ragil said that is’s very simple. “If we have a Manadonese friend, I’ll ask, ‘can your mom cook Manadonese food? Can I talk to her?’ Concidentally, our GM is an Ambonese, of course I ask about the traditional Ambonese dishes for Christmas, does anybody still have the recipe?” he asked.

One of the example of the exploration is the dish called Ayam Lempah Kulat Pelawan from Bangka. Ragil oftens eat at a restaurant that belongs to a Bangkanese woman. When he asked for unique Bangkanese dishes aside from seafood, she mentioned Lempah Pelawan, however, she also said that the Pelawan mushroom is rare.

“It’s a mushroom that grows on Pelawan tree, but the mushroom has to grow in inseparable cycle of weather. On the day before it grows, there should be lightning and drizzling rain. It might sounds mystical, but we’re talking about science here. When there was lightning, we have many mineral, particle, and negative ion up there; they can only be brought to the earth with drizzling rain. If the rain was too hard, the particles will be swept away by the water. And then, the sun should shine brightly for the next day. After listening to the story, I went for research to Bangka to see the type of tree, the mushroom, and the recipe. It’s a very unique, it’s a bit like rendang but it exhibits different cooking method. The mushroom is only available on April – September, if the season was good, I might buy it for Rp 2.000.000/kg. But if it’s a tough season, the price might reach Rp 4.000.000,” explained Ragil. From the concept and rarity, the mushroom is similar to truffle, however, Hong Kong people know it as “thunder mushroom.”

Among many Indonesian dishes, there’s one that captivate Ragil, gudeg. “That’s the most unique food, because until today, no one the real story behind gudeg. How did we come up with 2 days cooking technique? The elders in Yogyakarta always said that that’s what their parents taught. When I haven’t got what I want, I think that’s the most unique moment. When I understand, perhaps it’s time for me to move on to other dishes,” he said.

On the other hand, Chef Ragil is also open to modern cooking method to be applied on Nusa dishes. In Ayam Lempah Kulat Pelawan, the chicken is cooked using sous vide technique in 60o C water bath for 6 hours. For the Ikan Kuah Kuning, Chef Ragil used the fermented wood fish, shredded dried tuna that is very similar to katsuobushi. “In Nusa, the cooking technique doesn’t have to originate from Indonesia, any techniques in culinary world can be used to enrich the Indonesian food,” said Chef Ragil.

If Nusa is trying to recreate the traditional taste of Indonesian dish with unpredictable contemporary presentation, perhaps Klepon is the most representative dish. The shape resembles the traditional klepon, but you might wonder why the texture is hard. When you slice it, you’ll realize that it was a white chocolate shell that covers the pandan mousse and brown sugar syrup, along with sorghum sponge cake, coconut gelat, and coconut water jelly. Taste-wise, it has the convincing traditional klepon aroma, even though it comes in different texture and sensation. We’re quite relieved to find an Indonesian fine dining restaurant that emphasizes its identity on the familiar traditional taste, not just another dish with modern presentation in much smaller portion, along with some edible flowers.

Of course, excessive compliment will make this review sounds like an advertorial. However, if we have to mention the pro and con of this place, the answer is the same: the fine dining concept. On the positive side, the concept allows Chef Ragil to go wild on exploration and presenting the menu from his research without being burdened on the food costing. But on the other hand, we feel that it’s a pity if the fine dining concept prevents more people to enjoy local dishes on this level. Fortunately, Nusa is open for lunch and teatime with ala carte menu. In addition, in the near future Chef Ragil will document the recipes from his research in digital format.

Dining in Nusa Gastronomy was an unforgettable moment. It’s a comination of familiar feelings and surprises that provoke curiousity. In the beginning, we stated that you’ll feel smarter after the dinner in Nusa, in addition, you will also feel much prouder on the richness of Indonesian culinary.