William Wongso, a food ambassador for Indonesian cuisine, recently launched his cookbook entitled Flavours Of Indonesia, which explores Indonesian cuisine from different parts of the country. Here, he also shares stories about how his appreciation of food has evolved through his travels across Europe and Asia.
I noticed through your Instagram feed that you enjoy trying out different street food. What do you find fascinating about street-food culture?
Back in the early days, I was more fascinated with fine dining. I deliberately travelled to European countries such as France to get the feel of Michelin-starred restaurants. However, as I travelled more, I realised that I prefer more honest food. I want to enjoy food that is cooked with passion and which does not have to be fancy at all. Street food is also very diverse in terms of its cultural history and the many ways to enjoy it. That is what fascinates me.
You have travelled right across Southeast Asia. Can you share tips on how to find the best street food?
I’ve just come back from Saigon, where I absolutely love the street food. You can find delicious street food easily even without any guidance from the locals. Street food vendors are highly focused; they generally specialise in a certain kind of food for two or three generations as the older generation passes knowledge to the younger. That is why most of the street food I have tried is good.
What is the difference in street-food culture between Europe and Southeast Asia?
I think street food is more prevalent in Southeast Asia. It is very rare to see street food in Europe, where instead have small restaurants or bistros. Here, of course, we have the warung.
You previously mentioned that Vietnamese food has a higher global presence. Why do you think this is so?
The main reason why we can easily find Vietnamese restaurants in other countries is because they migrated extensively, taking and introducing their food to their host countries. Indonesia, on the other hand, has never seen such mass migration.
How can we boost the global presence of Indonesian cuisine?
I have conducted culinary diplomacy for almost 20 years. Throughout those years, I have never heard anyone say he or she did not like Indonesian food, but the one question everybody has is where they can find an Indonesian restaurant.The problem is that most Indonesian restaurants abroad try to adjust their dishes to local tastes, thereby eliminating authenticity. When I’m cooking Indonesian dishes, I only compromise on the level of spiciness.
In addition, the Indonesian government does not sufficiently support Indonesian restaurateurs abroad. Vietnamese restaurateurs, on the other hand, receive ample support from their government in terms of ingredient export. That is why whenever you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, you will find Vietnamese fish sauce and rice paper. Only through remaining authentic and having a supportive government can we successfully boost Indonesian cuisine globally.
Congratulations on winning the Gourmand Cookbook Award. What do you think of the win?
I was also surprised that the book won, as there were 200 participants. I think it won because of the mystery of Indonesia. There are already so many books out there talking about European, Latin American, and Mediterranean cuisines, but not so from Indonesia. This is the first time that Indonesia has participated in this kind of competition.
You travelled around Indonesia to make this book. Which place holds a special spot in your heart?
Every place has its own charm. However, one thing that I easily noticed is the economy of each place I visited. The ingredients at a traditional market in Sumatera are different from those in Jawa or Tanjung Pinang. You can find fresh seafood in eastern Indonesia, where the people have the saying “fish only die once”. If you go to Banjarmasin or Balikpapan, you can tell that they are new cities because their food comes from Jawa, Manado, or Makassar. If you go to Irian, it is very hard to find native food since most warung are operated by people from Jawa Timur, Manado, or Makassar. Indonesian cuisine is truly diverse and fascinating.
What are the challenges you faced during the making of the book?
I faced difficulties with Kalimantan’s dishes, because when I returned to Jakarta, I couldn’t find most of the ingredients as they heavily rely on ingredients from the bushlands, as well as rattan shoots. These ingredients are readily available in Kalimantan but not the rest of Indonesia.
Second part of interview coming soon!