The man sitting across the aisle on the bus to Lamonae spoke to me. His name was Abdul, and his eyes glowed brightly over a trim moustache. “You know, there are no houses between Lamonae and Buleleng,” he said in Indonesian.
“I see.” Buleleng was the town my companion and I hoped to reach by day’s end.
“And there are no houses between here and Lamonae.”
“Yes … ”
He paused, then spoke another sentence. This time he repeated it in English.
“Are you scared?”
I relayed the conversation in translation to Olivia. She laughed loudly at the last line.
Five minutes later, the bus broke down.
Our plan to travel from Kendari to Lake Poso—a crow’s flight of about 200 miles from the southeast tip of the island of Sulawesi to its central highlands—had already proven unusually quixotic. Merely reaching the starting point had required 24 straight hours of bus and boat travel, which delivered us to a town where the heat was ghastly, English-language newspapers were unavailable, and when I tried to call home from the main telecommunications office, I was told that all the phones were broken. Our Lonely Planet guidebook made no mention of Kendari or any other part of the province of which it was the capital. This seemed justified. One got the impression that nothing had ever happened here and nothing ever would. We were far afield, effectively cut off from everything.
It was 1999, and Indonesia was in disarray. In northern Sumatra, militias and separatists in Aceh provided the Jakarta Post with a steady stream of violent headlines. Forty-three security officers had been killed there in a week. At the opposite end of the archipelago, East Timor had just finished its referendum on independence, but the vote hadn’t been counted yet, and violence was expected regardless of the outcome. In Ambon—where actual white lines had been painted on streets to separate Christian and Muslim neighborhoods—there had just been another round of rioting and killing. But when we departed Muslim-dominated Kendari for the Christian highlands (against the recommendation of two bus-company operators and Kendari’s chief of police), the upheavals in the rest of Indonesia seemed to fade into distant irrelevance.
The bus driver patched up whatever needed patching, and within an hour we were under way again. Abdul continued, almost giddily, to supply more information about Lamonae, where the bus would be stopping—if it made it there at all. Lamonae had no guest house. It had no restaurant. It had no shops at which to buy food. There was no electricity. Furthermore, there were no buses from Lamonae to Buleleng. Maybe a market truck would pass through and we could catch a ride in the back of it, Abdul said, but he was doubtful. The road was very poor, and he didn’t think it even went all the way.
Abdul’s wife was very pregnant and very surprised to see us walk through the door of her spartan home on the edge of a forest clearing. She was a less ecstatic host than her husband, but an exceptionally gracious one. That night, she and Abdul slept on the floor, against our vehement protests, so that Olivia and I could share their bed. But first she served us tea, and following that an austere but deeply satisfying dinner of tempeh tossed with crisped noodles and dried minnows, over white rice.
I thought at the time it was a meal I would never forget. Outside, fireflies danced around the branches of an orange tree, and heat lightning turned the northwest horizon into a flicker of silver clouds and darkness. But I never imagined that 12 years down the line, a lunch deep in South Philly would reawaken the memory of it all with such intensity. Yet on a beastly hot day in June, in the cool dimness of Hardena Waroeng Surabaya Restaurant, it all flooded back in the first bite of stir-fried tempeh, tiny dried fish and crispy matchstick potatoes that Ena and Harry Widjojo’s cheery daughter had piled atop a heap of steamed rice.
What did it taste like? You could say crunchy hash browns salted with anchovy minnows. Or—after a second bite that was extra-crunchy with peanuts—an Indonesian fisherman’s gloss on Indian chaat. Both descriptions come close, though you’d probably want to add a third one to give the tempeh its umami-packed due. But sometimes what it tastes like isn’t exactly the point. Sometimes the point is the instantaneous resurrection of a moment that you never thought you’d unlock again. This is, of course, the highest promise of “ethnic cuisine,” and Hardena hit me with the full force of it on my very first bite.
The no-frills dining area, whose windows are clotted with dark green plants and orchid blooms, rams right up against a buffet-style bank of chafing dishes. Tofu cubes lay nestled against whole hard-boiled eggs stained sunshine yellow by a thin curry sauce, and aromatic hunks of beef rendang fell to shreds that glistened darkly with absorbed coconut milk. Stewed jackfruit sat in an inert pile, looking as unappetizing as it first seemed to me in Harry Widjojo’s native Java, its dull green sheen belying the clarity of its flavor on the tongue. Propped on a nearby counter was a giant bowl filled to the rim with satay paste thick as bricklayer’s mortar.
It’s a set-up replicated in roadside diners and workingmen’s restaurants from one end of Indonesia to the other: 10 or 15 dishes kept warm for wage earners whose main ballast is rice, served by a proprietor whose essential culinary aspiration is to be a surrogate mom. At Hardena, that would be the twinkle-eyed Ena or one of her daughters, ladling a trio of meat and vegetable offerings onto a plate of rice for $7.
Those offerings vary by day. Regular standbys include a mellow chicken curry (which is just okay), that beef rendang (sublime), and skewers of lamb or chicken satay (which come with crispy vegetable pickles and chili-studded dark soy sauce, and are probably the best in town). The assertively hot, slightly tangy and profoundly earthy homemade sambal is terrific.
The real treasures pop up more occasionally. A second visit (you can’t go here just once) featured a stew of chayote squash and sator beans (a.k.a. “stink beans”), whose pungent aroma had a transportive power of its own, if not quite on the same level as that first bite of tempeh and dried fish.
Hardena’s jackfruit belonged in the same category—though I’d love to be there on one of the infrequent days when Ena starts with fresh rather than canned. (Fresh jackfruit—which are expensive and perishable and weigh up to 80 pounds—are an expensive proposition for a place with barely 20 seats.) And for a balm against the insane heat through which I struggled home after that first lunch, it was hard to beat a plastic take-away cup of es teler, made of mango cubes, lychees, longans and coconut gel cubes in an icy pink slosh of shredded coconut and durian—even if it ultimately proved so sweet that I poured the last half down a storm drain after eight blocks.
I must admit, I’ve never found Indonesian cuisine quite as compelling as that of its northern neighbors, particularly Thailand. The archipelago may be the birthplace of nutmeg and clove (though neither looms large in its cooking), and it certainly is blessed with an unsurpassed variety of tropical fruits. But contemporary Indonesian cooking—at least as I’ve experienced it—is geared more toward the bellies of the masses than the aesthetics of the gourmet few.
What makes Hardena great is the way its authentic reproductions of workaday Indonesian fare carry an extra layer of exoticism here in South Philly, where nailing the essential character of stewed jackfruit or stink beans requires more artistry than doing the same thing in Java. Meanwhile, the Widjojos pay homage to the humblest and most common meals of their homeland—dried fish, tempeh, rice—in a way that honors their native cocina povera in its purest form. I’ll never forget the hospitality that accompanied my encounters with Indonesia’s peasant cooking. But just the same, I hope Hardena is still around in another dozen years, in case my memory needs another round of profound sensory refreshment.