Two weeks ago, I attended an event to celebrate Singapore’s 47th birthday that fell on August 9th.
By some strange turn of events, I was roped in to lead a few songs in the requisite sing-a-long sessions. We sang popular folk songs like “Burung Kakak Tua,” “Di Tanjung Katong,” and “Bengawan Solo,” all of which are popular across Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
While obvious to Indonesians (the Solo River runs through Central and Eastern Java), ownership of “Bengawan Solo” has always been disputed. To dispel all doubts, I did a quick Wikipidea search to reveal that the song was written in 1940 by Indonesian Gesang Martohartono. So there!
I grew up listening to this song in the traditional kroncong style, a popular folk style with Portuguese influences, that my parents played over and over and over again. To me, it sounds like a wailing cat in heat. However, when I looked it up on YouTube recently I found some more contemporary renditions.
Sung by Dutch-Indonesian Anneke Gronloh, this one has the distinctive uptempo beat of 1960’s tunes.
And I am in love with this jazzy version by Japanese songstress Lisa Ono.
Regrettably, I don’t focus on my Indonesian heritage often enough but it so happens Indonesia’s National Day (Hari Merdeka) is coming up on August 17. This year, Indonesia celebrates 67 years of independence from the Dutch who colonized them for 350 years.
So for this week’s post, I decided to spotlight a simple Indonesian dish that slips into the summer lineup effortlessly, its main ingredients comprising eggplant, tomatoes, and red bell pepper. Terong belado, or spicy eggplant, is usually eaten hot with rice. But for those who abhor eating hot foods in hot weather, I don’t see why you can’t eat it cold or at room temperature as a side (like antipasti!) for grilled meat or as a sandwich filling.
In fact, the basic tomato-red pepper sauce is oh-so versatile. To make this dish with egg, called telor belado, fry whole hard-cooked eggs and toss them in the same sauce. Other ideas: drape the sauce over grilled meats, or stir it into potato salad.
If you’re still unsure about this beautiful dish redolent with the floral notes of kaffir lime leaves and the sassy sweetness of sun-ripened tomatoes, think of it as a ratatouille with a touch of the tropics.
Indonesian Spicy Eggplant (Terong Belado)
What luck! A glossy purple eggplant and a rainbow pint of cherry tomatoes miraculously appeared in my vegetable box this week. My mum prefers the long, slender Chinese eggplants as she thinks the western eggplant has skin that’s tough as leather. But I know better, she’s just used to them. Ah … we’re all creatures of habit.
Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
1 large Western eggplant, or 3 Chinese eggplants
2 cloves garlic
2 Asian shallots, roughly chopped (1/3 cup)
1 large red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or 1 large tomato, chopped
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 teaspoon sambal oelek, or to taste
2 kaffir lime leaves
1 small white or yellow onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Cut the eggplant into 3- by-3/4-inch strips. Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half. Cut each half into 3 horizontal layers. Keep them stacked and slice down the vertical into 4 strips. Cut the strips into half crosswise.
Swirl 2 tablespoons of oil into a large skillet or wok. When the oil shimmers, add the eggplant and sauté until the skin wrinkles and the flesh turns translucent and browns, about 5 to 6 minutes. Or do as my mum does and steam it. (You can cover the eggplant with damp paper towels and microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes.) Remove to a plate and set aside.
In a small food processor, pulse the garlic, shallots, bell pepper, and tomatoes briefly until they form a paste that looks like oatmeal. It will be a little watery but you want confetti sized bits to remain. We’re not making gazpacho here!
In the same skillet or wok, swirl in the last tablespoon of oil, and heat over high heat. When it shimmers, add the paste, sambal, and lime leaves. Fry until you can smell the red pepper and lime leaves, 4 to 5 minutes, and most of the juices have evaporated. Reduce the heat to medium, mix in the chopped onion, and simmer briefly. Add the salt and sugar and taste. The balance of flavors depends on how sweet your pepper and tomatoes are. Adjust if necessary.
Simmer for another 2 minutes until the onion is cooked but still crunchy. Add the eggplant strips and let them roll around in the sauce until well coated.
Serve hot with rice as part of a multi-course meal, or let cool to room temperature.