The hunt for true 'nasi campur'

What is known as nasi campur - a plate of rice with assorted side dishes - is essentially a reflection of the human desire to try and savour a little bit of everything in one go.

In Central Java eateries it is popularly known as nasi rames, rijsttafel among Dutch-speaking communities or Indonesian fine-dining restaurants, nasi ulam among Jakarta's Betawi community and nasi campur in Balinese.

And although their food is never called such, Padang restaurants serving rice and small plates of assorted side dishes as well as humble warteg eateries that serve white rice that you can mix with different dishes on display, basically serve their customers nasi campur.

When you order nasi campur in restaurants, what goes into it is already set and patterned. Like it or not, you have to accept their decisions on which side dishes are included or excluded.

The nasi campur I had at a famous restaurant frequented mostly by foreigners in Petitenget, Bali, for instance, was the restaurant's own version of Balinese nasi campur.

The restaurant took out some important Balinese elements and incorporated Javanese nasi rames and what looked like Lombok's plecing kangkung (blanched water convolvulus). It also came with bottled tomato sauce and chili ketchup, making it feel somewhat like fast food.

Rather than having a weird hybrid nasi campur like that, I find it much better to have nasi campur's traditionally well-defined counterparts known by other names - such as nasi langgi; (Javanese or Manadonese) nasi kuning; nasi pecel; and nasi bogana - whose tastes are more predictable because I know in advance what goes into them.

They probably evolved from the realm of flexibility as well as trial and error in the first instance before finally settling down into their current established forms.

By contrast, nasi campur in a foodstall is a sampling exercise where you have the liberty to custom-tailor your own nasi campur by choosing which side dishes you like or want to try, which may or may not include a bowl of soup of your own choosing and crackers to create hearty slurping and cracking noises, which can be so liberating.

The side dishes on offer differ from one foodstall to another, depending on ethnicity and region, which makes exploring regional culinary differences exciting.

Glodok's nasi campur: Chinatown's nasi campur (mixed rice) in Glodok, Jakarta, is basically rice served with pork sausage, roast pork, chicken liver, chicken stew, boiled egg and pickled cucumber.

Photo: Jakarta Post/ANN

In a rural foodstall about one-and-a-half hour's drive from East Nusa Tenggara's capital Kupang, for instance, I was so happy to encounter a rare side dish I had never tried before: the young pods and leaves of the turi tree (Sesbania grandiflora or hummingbird tree).

So, the nasi campur I had there consisted of the nutty pods with rice, papaya flowers, banana flowers, bitter gourd and the region's popular smoked bacon (daging sei).

Sometimes, however, a "rare" dish can also be found in Jakarta. One of them is in Cengkareng, West Jakarta, where I found a nasi campur at a food stall run by a Batak man from Karo in North Sumatra.

The food stall, for instance, sold an unassuming, ordinary looking side dish of sauteed diced tofu, slices of red and green chilis and fermented Chinese soy beans sauce (taoco) whose taste I liked very much because he cooked the taoco with kecombrang flower buds (Etlingera elatior, also known as torch ginger).

For breakfast, I often went there to have that particular side dish mixed with rice cooked in coconut milk (nasi uduk) or its turmeric-coloured variant (nasi kuning).

It came with fried peanuts mixed with anchovies, stir-fried diced tempeh (orek tempe), baked eggplant in chili sauce (terong balado), fried rice noodles, finely minced cassava-leaf curry in a Batak style, marinated egg, pickled cucumber and carrots in turmeric sauce (acar kuning), fried minced potato (perkedel) and green beans and carrot slices sauteed with egg (orak-arik buncis wortel).

However, the side dishes offered by another nasi campur foodstall nearby run by a Chinese woman from the city of Medan, North Sumatra, were more meat-based.

Instead of kecombrang-flavored tofu or Batak cassava-leaf curry, the cook used baby squid, dried shrimps (ebi) and fine anchovies (teri Medan) and some barbecued meat. Both were equally delicious in their own right.

Recently, however, the Batak man has taken the kecombrang out of the tofu side dish because the Chinese Indonesians, mostly from Sumatra and Kalimantan, who make up the majority of his regular, loyal customers hate the flower's flavor and requested that he remove it from the tofu dish. I am not happy with his decision. Although his nasi campur is still delicious, it isn't special anymore.

Balinese nasi campur: The side dishes on offer differ from one foodstall to another, depending on ethnicity and region, which makes exploring regional culinary differences exciting.

Photo: Jakarta Post/ANN

Another favourite nasi campur is Balinese. Among different Balinese nasi campur I have sampled in Jakarta and Bali, the best one was prepared by the servant who cooked for the family of late Balinese nobleman and national hero I Gusti Ngurah Rai.

It was halal, not prepared with pork and pig's blood-flavored vegetables (lawar) like the original but its splendid spectrum of flavors still linger in my mind more than 10 years later after I ate it.

Padang's nasi campur: Although their food is never called such, Padang restaurants as well as humble warteg eateries that serve white rice that you can mix with different dishes on display, basically serve their customers nasi campur.

Photo: Jakarta Post/ANN

It reflected nasi campur's tailor-made and accommodating personality: close-ended when favoured or popular and yet open-ended, with room for manoeuvre and space for different culinary orientations, flexibility and experiment.

Key to closing the open-endedness is satisfying the diner's craving for a different sort of varied dishes through mix-and-match ingenuity.