Special Feature and Recipe | Paula Wolfert on Indonesian Cuisine

In 1971, an American woman sought out traditional Indonesian recipes while living in New York City. She printed out the instructions with photos included, packed them into boxes with corresponding ingredients, and mailed the packages to intrepid American households willing to recreate them.

“Impossible!” I thought.

Who was this woman?

Paula Wolfert.

I was given a nudge by my mentor, Chef Dana Cree Salls, to look into her work. After she heard Paula speak at a James Beard Awards ceremony a few years back, Dana was reminded of her words when she saw a photo of taken of me — squatting and eye-level with a heated wok, with an ibu showing me how to cook a fading tribal recipe in rural Indonesia. It was clear she thought the parallels were striking. “Collecting the stories about the food the women prepared — kneeling, stooping, listening,” she recalled Paula saying.

Paula Wolfert, as I have come to discover, is a legendary chef and cookbook author who (at first) unwittingly established herself as an expert of Moroccan cuisine and, later on, expanded her depth of food knowledge into Southwest France and countries along the Mediterranean.

But before she published her first cookbook, during a time of financial uncertainty, Paula picked up a job to run an (now-defunct) epicurean program called International Home Dining.

The program consisted of a party box — a package filled with items that subscribers would need to throw a cultural dinner party. It included illustrated recipes, album of local music, printed invitations, newsletter, cooking schedule, ingredients and equipment — and Paula was in charge of it all.

Indonesia was her fifth box — the previous ones had been from countries such as France, China and Greece. She knew nothing about Indonesian cuisine, but she parsed through her network and an Asian art museum referred her to a batik importer, Ibu Mintari Soeharjo. She invited Paula to an Indonesian community center in Queens, New York, where she watched women preparing for a wedding feast.

“There, she found a dozen Javanese women sitting on the floor grinding spice pastes called bumbus on wide, shallow stone mortars (cobeks) with right-angled pestles. The room was filled with the powerful scents of herbs and spices she’d never experienced before: tamarind, shrimp paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves. She was seized by a deep curiosity but didn’t stand in a corner with a notepad observing. Instead she got down on the floor and persuaded someone to show her how to use a cobek to make some of the bumbus herself.”¹

“‘I was interested in doing it the way they do it so I could feel it, so I could understand it!’ she said. ‘I wanted to breathe in what they were doing.'”²

In a testament to Paula’s fastidious nature to make her audience understand Indonesian cuisine, she included a step-by-step process for making coconut milk, and her recipes had subscribers making kecap manis and sambal oelek from scratch. In all my time in Indonesia, I have never seen kecap manis come out of anything other than an ABC bottle. And it surprised me still that in 1971, Paula was able to work with a specialty supplier in New York City and Ibu Soeharjo to directly source fresh kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass stalks and daun salam to add to the party box.

It is 2019, and I have never seen daun salam anywhere in the United States.

Looking over her recipes, it tickled me to see Paula using Bahasa Indonesian words, like laos, santan, wajan, daun sere, and kacang kemiri. It was clear that her exacting standards meant subscribers would learn about these cuisines in their entirety; absolutely no dumbing down. No trying to make the tastes more palatable for a Western audience, no substitutes acceptable, nothing other than what the real dishes would taste like.

She is a woman after my own heart.

Paula wrote in her newsletter for the Indonesian party box, “Indonesians have used their treasure chest of spices to refine their cuisine to one of the most delicious, interesting, albeit least known cuisines in the world.”³

I would say that 50 years later, Indonesian cuisine is still one of the least known in the world. Far too many of the recipes I see published now are overgeneralized for a country that stretches across 17,000 islands over 5,000 kilometers, such as nasi or mie goreng. Paula would certainly not be making excuses to accommodate the palates of Westerners with watered-down recipes. I imagine she would pummel them with authenticity until it stuck.

In the spirit of Paula’s “‘fiercely authentic, exhausting enthusiastic and not one bit condescending'”4 mail-order cooking adventures, the following is the ketjap5 manis recipe from her Indonesian party box in 1971. This is Indonesian cuisine.

kecap manis recipe card

¹ Emily Kaiser Thelin, Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life, (New York, Hachette Book Group, 2017), 67.

² Ibid., 67.

³ Ibid., 59.

4 Ibid., 64.

5 “Ketjap” is the Javanese dialect equivalent to “Kecap” (Bahasa Indonesian).

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