We first inadvertently booked on Valentine’s Day, but cupid obviously decided that locations such as this were better saved for romantic couples on such an auspicious day, as events conspired to cause us to change the booking to, first Thursday, and finally Friday.
“Oh look”, I exclaimed when making the booking. “It’s Chinese New Year.”
Indonesia celebrates Chinese New Year since it’s first President assigned it bank holiday status in a show of pluralistic benevolence – after all, Indonesia is home to over 2 million Chinese. Whilst on the streets of Ubud, there is not much to tell you that any such event is taking place (such is the strength of the local Hindu traditions), within the four walls of Nusantara they are cooking up a special Chinese New Year menu!
The advertised set menu is decidedly meaty though, but unwilling to let my new found vegan status deter me from an occasion such as this, I request a vegetarian menu. Is a restaurant like Nusantara capable of handling such a request? Well 地狱呀! (that’s “hell, yeah!”, in Chinese).
As we were seated and handed the by-now familiar drinks menu, the waiter explained that they would be serving us a completely unique vegetarian menu for Chinese New Year. Wow, #feelingspecial! (or feeling-special.com for those 80’s kids).
He then went to fetch the menu they were serving to the rest of the restaurant and explained that each of the dishes would be substituted with a vegetarian option. The dishes ran to 2 pages and almost every item featured meat or fish. I gulped as I realised the enormity of the effort they were going to and really hoped that the chef saw this as a kind of professional challenge and was not laying voodoo curses on our food whilst he prepped 41 peking ducks wings and two tofu salads.
We ordered two glasses of Pinot Blanc and awaited our feast.
As is customary at Nusantara, a circular tray of snacks is brought out to accompany your aperitif and our waiter talked us through the array, explaining the Chinese/Indonesian influence. These included; Chinese steamed bun, braised pineapple, pickled cucumber, spring rolls, soy and cassava croquettes with sweet and sour dipping sauce and a sambal so garlicky that Victoria Beckham would be cancelling her flights to Bali.
It was a tasty preview of the veg-creativity to come.
The dishes came out altogether, as is the concept of shared dining at Nusantara. However, today it had the feel of a real Chinese banquet and the only thing missing was a Chinese-style swivelling round table to save us reaching over the piles of food for the next dish!
As more plates were placed in front of us, I struggled to keep up! Here was the baked tempeh cubes, here the young jackfruit curry, then the fragrant rice, then the dish of morning glory in broth, Kare-do from Java, blossom flowers in fragrant curry sauce and the banana flower in coconut milk sauce, looking distinctly like a piece of fish! I pictured the chef in a puddle of creative juices on the kitchen floor, surrounded by piles of leaves and vegetable peel. Well done, well done indeed; a feast fit for a meat-eater, fish-eater or food eater of any sort – and he hadn’t even been near a piece of tofu!
Before all that though, we were brought a delicious soup, served in a young coconut. It was delicately fragrant, with pieces of coconut flesh inside, along with some greens and a base of coconut milk and spices.
The coconut milk and spices were a common theme through many of the dishes and, as we piled food onto our plates, it became difficult to determine which flavours were coming from where, but they all intermingled beautifully. Although there were nods to Chinese cuisine, the main flavours coming through were distinctly Indonesian; lemongrass, garlic, chilli and peanut sauce.
It was only when we were served the cincau dessert of grass jelly in condensed milk with palm sugar, that I realised the whole rest of the menu had been completely vegan. It takes a real chef to serve vegan food that doesn’t feel like an apology for the missing animal on the plate, and this food was tasty whilst also being completely authentic.
The coffee ceremony
A great meal at Nusantara must end with the coffee ceremony. The waiter comes to your table and prepares your coffee (the beans from Seniman are Gayo from Sumatra, 100% Arabica), whilst he explains the process; the temperature of the water (95ºC), the amount of coffee he is adding (18.5g), the amount of water (100ml at first), the amount of time you wait until adding the next 100ml (45 secs).I’ve seen it before but Alice is open-mouthed:
“Who invented this?”, she wants to know.
“Why does it have to be so precise??”
Our waiter tells us he took at 3-week course at Seniman’s in order to learn how to make coffee.
You can see Alice is perhaps not convinced that quite such an elaborate ceremony is necessary to make a brew.
However, when we are eventually served the curated cup of steaming hot brown goodness and she takes a sip, I can see she’s converted.
The next day she texts me to tell me she’s off to Seniman’s to get another hit. I turn down the invitation to join her, for me it never tastes quite as good at Seniman’s as it does after a satisfying meal at my favourite restaurant and brewed at my table by a smiling waiter – sigh.
What a fantastic way to start off the New Year!
Happy Year of the Dog from the Greedy Cat.