The Dish: Gado-Gado
August 29, 2008
In Bahasa Indonesia, the word gado-gado means potpourri or medley. That’s a fitting description of this dish, a mixed-vegetable salad with a nutty dressing that is served in various incarnations all over Indonesia.
In Jakarta, where it’s known as gado-gado Betawi, the dish is made with cooked vegetables and bean curd or tempeh (nutty-flavored fermented soybean cakes) tossed in a spicy sauce of roasted nuts, chilies, shrimp paste and lime or tamarind juice. The morning-to-nighttime staple is always served with something crunchy — prawn crackers or crisps made from melinjo, the hard fruit of a tropical evergreen tree.
As a key trade center along the Southeast Asian spice route, Batavia — as Jakarta was known for many years — had long been a magnet for Asians seeking work, including those from other Indonesian islands. Many also were brought in as slaves by Dutch and English spice traders. By the 19th century, this group of Asians adopted the label Orang Betawi, which means people of Batavia, to differentiate themselves from new arrivals to the city.
Today the Betawi, who often describe themselves as the original inhabitants of Jakarta, are the second-largest ethnic group in the city after the Javanese. Their creolized culture finds its expression in a Malay dialect and in distinct forms of dance, music, silat (Malay martial arts) and of course, food. A number of Jakarta street foods that carry the Betawi suffix, including gado-gado Betawi and sup Betawi, a spicy beef soup made with coconut and milk, came from this subset of Indonesian people.
Gado-gado is prepared a number of different ways on Java. On the west side of the island, for instance, the dish is served with raw vegetables. In east Java, the dressing, which sometimes calls for coconut milk and curry paste, is always cooked and poured, still hot, on top of the vegetables. But in an authentic gado-gado Betawi dish, the dressing — served at room temperature and never cooked — includes cashews, but no coconut milk, and it is folded in thoroughly with cooked vegetables before serving.
Gado-gado Betawi is a simple dish that likely sprang from easily available ingredients and common cooking techniques, says William Wongso, a cookbook author and host of the Indonesian television show “Cooking Adventure.” The easy-to-find medley of vegetables is sliced or cut into manageable pieces and boiled, and the unfussy dressing is made by grinding the ingredients in a cobek, a shallow stone mortar. Gado-gado has “probably been around for as long as we’ve had nuts and chilies,” he adds. Peanuts and cashews, as well as chilies, originated in the Americas and made their way to Asia with Portuguese and Spanish traders in the 16th century.
Gado-gado Betawi is traditionally a street food, proffered from Jakarta’s ubiquitous warungs (simple open-air eateries) and mobile food carts called kaki lima, which literally translates as “five feet” — it refers to the sum of the vendor’s two feet and the cart’s three (two wheels in the front and one supporting leg in the rear). Nowadays, it also can be found all over the city, from the humblest kaki lima to shopping-mall food courts and the tony Peacock Café at the five-star Sultan Hotel.
As a teenager in Jakarta’s Manga Besar district, Fiefi Wongsowidjojo, a Betawi and founder of the Jakarta cafe chain Betawi Kafe, frequented one gado-gado stall in particular: “I went there several times a week,” she recalls. “The gado-gado was really special, and it was always served with ayam goreng (fried chicken).”
Sri Owen, a London-based food writer, consultant and co-author of the forthcoming “Oxford Companion to Southeast Asian Food,” fondly remembers the gado-gado of her university days: “We stopped at this place to have our gado-gado as a one-dish lunch before we cycled back to our boarding house.”
Jakartans often turn it into a one-dish meal by eating it with a side of rice or asking for lontong (steamed pressed rice cakes) to be mixed right in with the other ingredients. This is the version Ms. Owen preferred as a college student. Now, she says, “when I make it at home I serve it as part of a meal, as the vegetable dish.”
In upscale restaurants gado-gado Betawi is usually served in small portions as an appetizer or a side dish.
The dressing of a first-class gado-gado Betawi must walk a fine flavor balance. “What I want is salty, sour, sweet and spicy” to play off of each other in the sauce, says Ms. Wongsowidjojo.
Mr. Wongso concurs, adding that the dish’s sweet-and-sour element must complement the “roastiness of the nuts” and the subtle fish taste of the shrimp paste, which should be used sparingly.
These days authentic cashew-based dressing is increasingly hard to find, as cooks substitute peanuts, which are less expensive. “With peanuts, it’s just a usual gado-gado,” says Ms. Wongsowidjojo. “Cashews make the dressing lighter, finer, less sweet. Better than ordinary.”
As for vegetables, the only hard and fast rule is that they be blanched — lightly cooked in boiling water. Most versions include long beans or string beans, white cabbage, bean sprouts, water spinach, sweet corn and potatoes. Some cooks personalize their dish with unusual items such as bitter melon or young jackfruit, a kind of East Indian breadfruit. Others add both bean curd and tempeh. Still others add color by folding in strips of fresh lettuce at the last minute.
“Everybody does it slightly differently,” Mr. Wongso says. “That’s the beauty. You can have it how you like it.”
Connoisseurs are rarely as blasé, however, when it comes to the cracker garnish, which can be eaten alongside or crumbled on top. Crunchiness is a must. Don’t fold the crackers into the salad before serving, says Mr. Wongso: “No mixing. I don’t like soggy crackers.”
The version served at this pleasant cafe, one of a chain specializing in Betawi dishes, is lighter and less sweet than others, thanks to a sauce that incorporates cashews as well as peanuts. No. 501, Pacific Place Shopping Mall, Jalan SCBD, Sudirman ( 62-21-5140-0710). $1.85.
The effort expended to find this casual shop, hidden in a warren of shops and eateries across from Pondok Indah Hospital, is rewarded with a delicious, large-enough-to-share version that includes labu (a pear-shaped vegetable), hard-boiled egg and lontong, and boasts a light smokiness from prime-grade palm sugar. Place your order and then move to the rear of the shop, where the cook, who presides over a mortar the size of a motorcycle tire, will customize your dressing to your specifications as she adds each ingredient. Jalan Pinang Emas III/US-6, Pondok Indah ( 62-21-750-8846). $2.20.
The refreshing trace of tartness in this chain’s dressing comes from white vinegar, and the soft tofu complements the toothsome vegetables. A bonus: They’ll deliver, even if you’re hotel-bound. Jalan Panglima Polim IX No. 124, Jakarta Selatan ( 62-21-724-8334). $1.75; $1.85 with lontong.