When travelling to a foreign country, many of us are eager to sample the best of the local foods. In much of Europe this can be found in rated restaurants. But in the Orient, where restaurants as we know them are a relatively new institution, it is not always easy for the hurrying traveller to sample the best.

As a general rule, the most traditional foods can be found in private homes. Though we may well be welcome in these homes, most of us lack the chutzpah to get ourselves invited in. But there is an alternative – street foods. With sanitation less than West- erners are accustomed to, you may hesitate to eat in these unassuming places. But keep in mind that they are hiding nothing. With due caution you should have no difficulties.

Nowhere is the abundance and quality of street foods greater than in Indonesia. On a recent visit we found ourselves frequently enjoying a wide variety of foods in the busy and congenial atmosphere of street-side food stands, called warungs. The cooks explain and demonstrate what they are preparing. Fellow diners tell us of specialties offered at other stands (and sometimes where to get even better food).

In more remote regions we sit under thatched roofs and eat off banana leafs with our fingers. Away from the cities, choices are limited, but they often have foods we probably would not encounter elsewhere. In the cities there is the luxury of plates and forks and an incredible variety of foods to choose from.

Luscious tropical fruits, for instance, are often available at the food stands. Many of these have no English name. Some of my favorites are: kokosan, which looks like a bunch of green grapes and, inside the tough skins, tastes of them as well; dondong, which looks like lemons but has a sweet, custardy interior; sauo, which looks like a large kiwi but has a luscious pink interior; jambu, which looks like green figs and tastes of apples; kesemes, which look like dusty green apples, and taste like them too; and selak, with their snake-like skin, again tasting of apples.

Nearly everywhere there is nasi rames, rice topped with stir fried vegetables which invariably also contain tempeh, a delicious, versatile creation of inoculated soy beans. Pecel, a lightly cooked salad with a coconut or peanut sauce, is also frequently on the menu. But unlike so many of our fast food outlets whose food looks like everyone else’s, each stand prides itself on its own touches. These are my vegetarian favorites.

NASI RAMES

  • 4 servings
  • 20 minutes preparation

Rice topped with a colorful combination of vegetables is a beautiful change from a similar fast food, fried rice. Lemon grass is available in some Chinese stores and tempeh is available in the frozen food section of some natural food stores.

  • 2 cups white or brown short grain rice
  • 3 cups cold water
  • 250 gm tempeh, thawed
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup coconut or peanut oil
  • 1 cup sliced shallots or onions
  • 2 cups sliced green beans
  • 2 cups peeled and sliced tomatoes
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, or 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander seeds
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

Put rice and water (no salt) in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Cover, lower heat and do not stir. Simmer until liquid has been absorbed (about 20 minutes for white or 45 minutes for brown rice).

Meanwhile, cut the tempeh into finger-sized sticks. Brush with soy sauce. Heat oil and fry on medium-high heat until crispy and brown. Remove from oil and drain.

Fry the shallots until lightly browned. Add the beans and tomatoes. While these are heating, discard tough outer lemon grass leaves and finely chop the tender inner ones. Add these, the remaining ingredients and the fried tempeh. Simmer until the beans are tender green (about five minutes) Spread the rice over the middle of a serving plate. Top with the fried vegetables, surround with pecel (recipe on SB2) and garnish with chopped fresh coriander leaves.

COCONUT MILK

  • 2 cups
  • 5 minutes preparation
  • 15 minutes cooling

Coconut milk made from dried coconut is easier to make and tastes even richer than that made from whole coconuts.

  • 1 1/2 cups dried (unsweetened) coconut
  • 2 1/2 cups boiling water

Put coconut and water into a blender or food processor. Run at high speed for 5 minutes. Let rest for 15 minutes. Strain through a piece of nylon sheer material and squeeze out as much coconut milk as possible.

Lightly cooked leafy greens topped with coconut sauce not only look and taste great, they are also exceedingly nutritious.

PECEL

  • 4 servings
  • 10 minutes preparation
  • 10 minutes heating

Palm sugar ( jaggery) and tamarind concentrate are available in Indian food stores.

Sauce:

  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup (1 medium) peeled and diced potato
  • 1 hot chili
  • 1 inch fresh ginger root, sliced
  • 1 tbsp. tamarind concentrate, or 3 tsps. Barbados molasses plus 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. palm sugar or brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Vegetables:

  • 3 cups chopped and packed leafy greens
  • 1 cup mung bean sprouts (Collards, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, rapini or spinach.)

For the sauce, simmer potato, chili and ginger in coconut milk until potatoes are tender. Remove chili and ginger, then puree potatoes and milk. Add tamarind, sugar and salt. Simmer until thickened (about 3 minutes).

For the vegetables, put the greens in a saucepan with 1/4 cup water. Steam until bright green (about 3 minutes). Add the sprouts and steam another minute. Drain. Arrange on plates and top with the sauce.

RUJAK

  • 4 servings
  • 15 minutes preparation

A fruit salad with an Indonesian touch.

  • 1 cup lightly roasted shelled peanuts, or 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 2 tsps. tamarind concentrate or 1 tbsp. lemon or lime juice
  • 2 tsps. palm sugar or brown sugar
  • 1/2 hot chili, seeds removed or 1/8 tsp. cayenne
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • 2 tsps. soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated ginger root
  • 4 cups mixed fruits and vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces (Apple, banana, cucumber, mango, papaya, pineapple or turnip.)

Put all ingredients except for the fruits and vegetables into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. The consistency should be that of a thin gravy – thin with more coconut milk (or water) or thicken with more peanuts.

Attractively arrange the fruits and vegetables on a plate. Drizzle some of the sauce over these. Serve as a snack or as the finale to a meal.