Lisa Siregar & Tasa Nugraza Barley
In many ways, nasi goreng is Indonesia. It is the unofficial national dish, but it is much more than a simple plate of fried rice. Nasi goreng is always changing, filled with different ingredients and flavors, much like the country itself.
At its most basic, nasi goreng, which has Chinese roots, is steamed rice mixed with a dash of soy sauce and chili, cooked with oil in a frying pan.
Simple to prepare, nasi goreng’s popularity stretches all the way back to the colonial era when a Dutch singer, Witeeke Van Dort, wrote what may have been the first song dedicated to extolling the virtues of the dish.
“Geef Mij Maar Nasi Goreng,” which translates as “Just Give Me Nasi Goreng,” has since become a popular part of nasi goreng lore.
With lyrics like “Just give me nasi goreng with fried eggs … with chili, crackers and a glass of beer to go along with,” the song captured the love affair with the dish that continues to this day.
Street food vendors — whose cheap but filling nasi goreng has played a big part in establishing the dish as the people’s food — are responsible for many of the dish’s variations.
Grilled fish, mounds of crackers and a variety of vegetables are normally added.
Whether these vendors have come up with their own take on nasi goreng as a form of culinary creativity, out of necessity because of the availability and price of ingredients, or both, is another discussion altogether.
It seems that when it comes to nasi goreng, anything is possible. One of the most popular local variants is nasi gila, which can be found in many warungs.
Gila, of course, means crazy, and this dish, which normally sells for Rp 15,000 to Rp 20,000 ($1.70 to $2.30), certainly lives up to its name.
First made popular in 2004-05, it is a chaotic combination of rice and different types of meat — chicken, lamb, questionable sausages — thrown together with only the slightest consideration for aesthetics.
Other Jakarta nasi goreng variations have even reached something akin to cult status.
The most popular ones, such as nasi goreng ganja — so named because of its alleged addictive quality — and nasi goreng kambing are either overhyped or actually good, depending on where you get them.
Jalan Sabang in Central Jakarta is a well-known area for street food.
Many vendors who sell nasi goreng have no qualms about promoting their wares.
“This is very delicious,” said Marwoto, one of the vendors, pointing to his nasi goreng mix of sliced chicken, beef, meatballs, scrambled eggs, sausages, vegetables and rice.
The mawud nasi goreng sold by vendors on Jalan Haji Lebar in Meruya, West Jakarta, is another lethal version — at least in name.
Mawud is a play on the word maut, meaning lethal or the hour of death.
Alas, there is nothing particularly menacing about the mawud nasi goreng, which consists of fried rice mixed with a handful of Chinese fried noodles and meatballs.
Perhaps its name merely refers to the insane amount of oil and sugar, which could certainly be considered detrimental to one’s health.
Those eager to test their limits will surely find a stern exam in the massive amount of chili that is sometimes added to nasi goreng.
Consider a particular variation called nasi goreng ijo, which gets its name from the word hijau, or green — a reference to the rather large amount of green chilies used to flavor the dish.
This is available at the upscale Pastis restaurant, located at the Kuningan Suites, and costs a pricey Rp 45,000.
The concoction comes in two cones and is topped with scrambled eggs and crackers, making it a feast for the eyes.
This particular dish, however, is not as spicy as its name implies.
Gimmicks aside, some versions of nasi goreng have amassed devotees for good reason.
Nasi goreng buntut, or oxtail fried rice, which is found at Nasi Goreng Kemang restaurant, is one such dish.
At a very reasonable Rp 23,500, the oxtail is a juicier and more tender alternative to other kinds of meat traditionally used in fried rice.
The dish comes with a portion of fried oxtail and a small bowl of oxtail soup, which are also Indonesian favorites.
Without a doubt, however, one of the most popular versions is nasi goreng kambing, which can be found at the Nasi Goreng Kambing Kebon Sirih stall along Jalan Kebon Sirih Raya.
One of the oldest nasi goreng stalls in the city, it has a kambing version for Rp 20,000 a plate.
The founder, Haji Nein, started the business in 1958.
Every night, especially on weekends, the stall is filled with nasi goreng lovers of all ages.
Compared to the usual nasi goreng, this version has a rich taste of herbs, giving it a Middle Eastern flavor.
The fried rice comes with big, juicy chunks of goat meat.
Even though the nasi goreng is pre-cooked in large batches at the stall, it is still delicious.
“I can’t think of any other goat fried rice that’s as delicious as Kebon Sirih fried rice,” said Romy, a government employee who is a regular at the stall.
For those whose taste-buds or cholesterol levels prevent them from eating goat, the stall also offers other versions such as nasi goreng ayam.
Over the years, nasi goreng has made its way into mall food courts.
Panda XO serves up a choice of fried rice dishes at Plaza Semanggi mall, including nasi goreng rawit ijo, or green chili fried rice.
The dish comes cabe rawit ijo (green bird’s eye chili), as well as daun jeruk (lime leaves) and some sliced chicken.
This version uses less soy sauce than usual, and while the green chillies are not visible, the spicy sting hits after the first bite.
The dish comes with crackers and a small bag of chili sauce, which tastes sour and looks like it’s days old.
For every palate, someone has invented the perfect nasi goreng.
The only problem is finding the right match made in culinary heaven.