Oma's Nasi Jaha

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Jakarta, circa 1978. There is a pile of bamboo sticks in our back yard. Oma stacks a few bricks, 3-high on 4 sides to make an enclosed pit on an old large metal sheet. Inside this pit she lays twigs and branches, and gets the fire ready.

The rice she cooked earlier in the kitchen is now being transferred into the bamboo, already lined with banana leaves on the inside. Caps were fashioned on one side of the bamboo poles; made from banana leaves and twine so the rice doesn’t fall off. As the fire gains momentum, these bamboo poles are positioned leaning at an angle close to the fire, never directly on top of it. I know now this is to have the rice settle on the bottom so as to make a more dense and compact rice roll. Also, slow and steady heat infuses the banana leaf flavour onto the rice much better, and develops a delicious crust on the sides.

My brother and I watch in fascination, not daring to go closer, the dancing flames both enthralled and terrified us. We were just waiting for the nasi jaha to be ready. Oma has already made some ayam woku to have for dinner. But we didn't need anything else, save the aromatic rice that is just minutes away from our palates.

Finally it is ready. And it isn't something you can dig in right away. The bamboo first needs to cool before we can pry the rice rolls out of them. And when it does, we would be right there, plate and spoon in hand. Oma cracks the bamboo poles open with a few whacks of the hammer, and as the pole splits, the aromatic steam fills the air ... grassy notes of banana leaf, pandan and lemongrass, a faint citrus note from the kaffir lime leaf, and ginger, ... a very decidedly pronounced earthy fragrance of ginger. We are salivating ... and the first bites can't have come any sooner.

Oh, to unwrap the rolls and dig in to spoonfuls of this soft, tender, fragrant and delicious rice, fresh from the glowing embers ... was a joy! To have seen it being made, from when the rice was washed, cooked with leaves and spices, arranged in the bamboo poles, roasted on a makeshift pit, cracked open, then have the roll finally on our plate. Sigh! An arduous task, only fueled by a desire to perpetuate a family recipe of a very authentic regional dish to feed loved ones.

Such are the kind of memories that fuel my interest in cooking for loved ones. That many many years from now, sights and smells jog memories of home-cooked meals, that will in turn fuel interest in the next generation to cook a family recipe. Something authentic, something regional that just isn't available in any restaurant around you. And that will be a mission well accomplished.

This recipe is a far cry from the authentic and traditional method to make nasi jaha. No bamboo or fire pit required. But it surely is Oma's recipe that was modified to meet the adequacies and capabilities of today's kitchens (read: pyrex dish and oven).

Need to further simplify it? Make it without banana leaves: just steam the rice with the already aromatic herbs and spices. It's as simple as you have time and inclination for. But please do try it. It's a delicious rice roll that can be enjoyed with any gravy-laden main dish and is sure to please any rice aficionado.

(3 cups) glutinous or sweet rice, rinsed
(1 cup) jasmine rice, rinsed
1-1/2 liters (6 cups) water
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large shallot, finely minced
5 cm ginger, finely minced
360 ml (1-1/2 cup) coconut milk
6 stalks lemongrass, each cut into 3, then bruised
9 kaffir lime leaves
Pinch of sugar
1 tbsp salt, or to taste
Young banana leaves, washed and dried, then cut into approximately 15x20 cm or 5x6 inches

1. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, boil both the rice with water for 20 minutes until it becomes fluffy and has soaked up most, if not all, of the water. It should be al dente and have a little bite, though not crunchy, after this step is done.
2. While the rice is cooking, heat the olive oil in a saucepan, then sauté the shallot and ginger until aromatic and slightly browned.
3. Add the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, sugar, and salt and let come to a boil.
4. Pour this liquid into the rice, mix well, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and let steam for 20 minutes, or until rice is soft and tender.
You can enjoy the rice right now as is, or ...

5. Preheat the oven to 175C or 350F.
6. Brush a 9x13 Pyrex or baking pan with olive oil.
7. Divide the rice mixture into 6, place in the center part of the cut banana leaves, roll tightly, then place seam side down on the dish to make 6 logs across.
8. Cover with parchment paper, then aluminium foil.
9. Bake for 20 minutes until banana leaves are browned and wilted.
Now you have nasi jaha.

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