Rice porridge must be Asia's most underappreciated dish. We love the stuff. Chinese congee, Vietnamese chao, Thai khao tom, Philippine arroz caldo, Malaysian and Indonesian bubur ... cook rice to mush, add savory (or sweet) ingredients, and we're there.
Our ardor runs so deep we've pondered a cross-regional rice porridge pilgrimage to target towns, cities, and states known locally for their rice porridge specialties. Maybe a book - The Bubur Chronicles, or the Khao Tom Trail. Problem is, rice porridge's poor reputation outside Asia pretty much precludes publication. Heck, I can't even sell an article on the topic.
That doesn't mean we don't continue to feed our lust for this anytime-of-the-day meal-in-a-bowl. Having first come to know the joys of an expertly made rice porridge in Hong Kong, where we lived in the early nineties, our allegiance long lay with the Cantonese version: minimally flavored (chicken and sesame oil, dried oysters), thick and smooth. These days we're firmly in the Indonesian bubur camp. So much so, in fact, that we'd wager the world's best rice porridge can be found just about anywhere in that vast island nation.
Indonesians treat rice porridge the way Italians treat soft polenta, as a blank canvas on which to paint layers of flavor. We've had spicy bubur and mild bubur, soupy bubur and stodgy, you-can-stand-a-spoon-up-in-it bubur, bubur that's mostly meat and bubur that tastes like a vegetable patch. It's all good. Every Indonesian bubur leaves us hankering for the next.
So it was last week, high in the hills above Cianjur, Java. We were up at 5 with the sun and by 6:30am our bellies were rumbling. Western Indonesia is on the cusp of its rainy season and the dampness combined with the altitude made for a bit of chill, so we were cold too. Hungry and cold - the perfect state in which to dive into a bowl of bubur.
This vendor has been dishing up bubur from this cart, in this village, since 1982. We can't imagine what this part of Java looked like more than 25 years ago, but we're pretty sure his bubur closely resembles its quarter-of-a-century-younger self.
The beauty of Indonesian bubur - or the versions we've tried, anyway - is that it's literally a sum of parts, assembled a la minute. Which means that you can always have it your way. First the rice, thick and so creamy you could moisturize your face with it,
followed by: a drizzle of soy sauce, a sort of 'curried' mixture of chopped leafy greens, onions, and snake beans, shredded chicken meat, a spoonful or three of fiery and slightly sweet cooked sambal made with green chilies, deep-fried soy beans, crumbled rice and melinjo crackers, and a flurry of chopped cilantro.
There are several possible approaches here.You can leave the assemblage intact, dipping in here and then there for mouthfuls of discreet flavors, a method adhered to by several baby-toting villagers who alternated a spoonful of plain porridge from the side of the bowl for their charge with a more challenging combination of rice, crunchy toppings, and sambal for themselves. The boys who stopped at the cart to fuel up before class (it's strategically parked right below a middle school), on the other hand, were too busy chatting to pay much attention to their bubur - their spoons haphazardly fell and scooped where they may.
I grabbed my spoon and stirred everything together, which I suppose defeats the purpose of layering ingredients one-by-one but does trigger a pleasant Rice Krispiesean snap-crackle-pop as crisps are subsumed by porridge. When I mix my bubur I tend to rescue a bit of sambal and shove it to the side of the bowl so that I can pepper my generally one-alarm meal with the occasional three-alarm mouthful.
This village bubur was so good that, having ordered one bowl to share, we followed it with another, and then returned the next morning (breathlessly - we'd been out walking and feared that Bubu Man had finished for the day) for two more. Back in Jakarta, we followed that up with tinutuan, a deliciously vegetable-heavy bubur native to Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi.
And all this has me remembering an equally tasty bubur we ate on Bali last March. According to my notes it was doused with a chicken-and-turmeric broth containing noodles and batons of chayote. Seeing as we won't be back to Indonesia for a while, it may be time to get into the kitchen and experiment.