Ungerer taught Indonesian cooking for the City of Pasadena. Soeleiman opened a restaurant that she named Borobudur after the famous monument near Yogyakarta. With their input, words such as krupuk (fried chips), ayam (chicken), goreng (fried) and daging (meat) became part of my everyday cooking vocabulary.
That era may be gone, but Indonesian food is still alive and well in Los Angeles, thanks to the restaurant Simpang Asia.
Simpang is not only a place to eat but a market that stocks Indonesian ingredients such as sweet soy sauce (kecap manis), candlenuts and shrimp paste (terasi) as well as ingredients for other Asian cuisines.
One meaning of simpang is crossroad, according to my Indonesian dictionary. This is appropriate for a place that, through its market, offers access to a variety of cuisines and is located on a curving stretch of National Boulevard that links Motor and Overland Avenues.
The food is primarily from Java, the largest of the Indonesian islands, where the cooking is sweeter. Sumatran food is hotter. Simpang's mantep Padang, a Sumatran dish of chicken in a coconut milk curry (above), is mild, but the beef, egg and green sambals that come with it are spicy.
The fourth accompaniment is a kale curry so appealing that it ought to be elevated to a main dish. Kale also comes in fried rice and a stir-fry, not to be trendy but as a substitute for daun singkong (cassava leaf), which is not readily available here.
Padang is the capital of West Sumatra and so any dish called Padang is Sumatran. Another example at Simpang is sate Padang (beef sate). It's served with lontong, cubes of compressed rice (above). Simpang also offers Padang style kalio chicken curry.
The restaurant's most popular dish is nasi bungkus (above). Nasi means rice and bungkus means package, because the dish comes like a gift, wrapped with banana leaves, then white paper and tied with string.
Inside is a complete meal--rice along with chicken curry, beef rendang (beef in coconut curry), an egg in spicy red sauce and a mixed vegetable curry that includes chayote, carrots and green beans (above).
Another meal-in-a-dish is festival rice (at the top), which centers around a cone of golden rice. Two types of rice, jasmine and long grain, are soaked overnight with turmeric, then cooked with coconut milk, lemongrass and bay leaves. This dish was inspired by nasi tumpeng, a ceremonial presentation of cone-shaped yellow rice.
At Simpang Asia, festival rice comes with beef rendang, scrambled egg, noodles, chicken sate with peanut sauce and a sweet and spicy snack so addictive that for me it was the highlight of the dish. It's emping pedas, crispy chips that Simpang packages for the market.
The curry noodle soup laksa (above) is yellow with turmeric and aromatic with seasonings such as lemon grass, galangal, ginger, shrimp paste and chile oil. Along with noodles, the soup contains shrimp, squid and fish cake.
Willy Effendy from Jakarta is in charge of the kitchen. One of my favorite dishes from the long menu is ayam penyet, slightly crispy fried chicken with Chinese eggplant in a spicy dark sauce flavored with shrimp paste (above). The chicken is marinated overnight to make it extra tasty.
Smoothies include one made with durian, but the most typical drink is es cendol, a cool combination of coconut milk, palm sugar and green squiggles. The pandan-flavored squiggles are made at the restaurant with mung bean flour. They add a fun chewiness to the drink.
After eating, it's time to shop. Along with groceries, the market contains a coffee and sandwich bar that is handy for days when you're in too much of a hurry to savor Simpang's flavorful dishes. There's parking in the mall lot and a valet to help find a space.
Simpang Asia, 10433 National Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034. Tel: (310) 815-9075. The website is www.SimpangAsia.com.