For some chefs, their calling to get into the kitchen is passion or curiosity. For Rahel Stephanie it was homesickness. As a 19-year-old fashion student, she had just moved to London from Jakarta and was baffled that she couldn’t find a single Indonesian restaurant that served authentic food from the fourth most-populous country in the world.
“I was really missing my favourite meals and I realised that I was going to be obliged to learn to cook them myself,” she smiles. “It was born out of necessity more than anything.”
In 2019, she set up Sp00ns – her Indonesian supper club
Armed with a couple of Indonesian cookbooks and the help of the Indonesian “aunties” on YouTube, who film themselves cooking traditional dishes and swap tips, Rahel began mastering some of her favourite dishes from her flat in east London.
She’d soon mastered the likes of Javanese gudeg (jackfruit slow-cooked in sweet coconut milk), nasi liwet bakar (aromatic coconut rice grilled in banana leaves) and kering tempe (spicy glazed crispy tempeh, a plant-based protein) and served them up for her friends – and then friends of friends.
At the end of 2019 she set up Sp00ns, an Indonesian supper club now held in locations around the world. Tickets often sell out in under a minute.
For her, Indonesian food goes way beyond nasi goreng
“Most people have never tried Indonesian food before and their mind gets blown when they do,” she says. “There’s such variety in the dishes, the flavours are so complex and it goes way beyond nasi goreng,” she jokes, of the country’s ubiquitous rice dish.
“Indonesia is such a diverse country of more than 17,000 islands and 200 different ethnicities. When I’m planning a menu, I try to balance it from different regions. For example, Sumatran dishes are more creamy and rich, whereas food in Bali is more fresh and aromatic with lemongrass and leaves, and Javanese cooking is a bit sweeter. I want to showcase as much variety as I can.”
Her trips back home now are very focused around food
Because it’s often hard for her to find Indonesian ingredients in London, Rahel says she regularly travels back home with an empty suitcase. “My entire luggage is dedicated to dried spices and textiles,” she jokes. “My favourite thing to bring back is Andaliman pepper which comes from Sumatra and has this amazing citrus aroma. I’m very precious about using it, because it’s so hard to get hold of.”
She says her trips to Indonesia now are very focused around food. “Eating is the main event,” she jokes. “On my last trip, I don’t think I was hungry for a single moment as I was eating about 10 meals a day.”
Her top tip for food is the North Sumatra capital of Medan
Rahel says that she prefers to travel solo when she’s on a flavour-finding mission. “When you’re by yourself, you really have the space and time to explore,” she says. “I like it because I can walk around trying things on little street corners. I then get chatting to people and ask them where they like to eat.”
Her top tip for a culinary odyssey in Indonesia is the North Sumatra provincial capital of Medan. “It really has so much to offer because it’s so diverse. You get Malay cuisine and Chinese-Indonesian dishes. They take food very seriously. People are always sitting and eating out on the street, drinking coffee and having snacks.”
Rahel says her favourite restaurant in the world is any warung (Indonesia’s local family-owned restaurants). She also loves street food. “One of my earliest memories is sneaking out of my ballet class in Jakarta to get some prawn dumplings with peanut sauce from a stall.”
One of her most popular dishes was thanks to a happy accident
But she’s not averse to fine dining, too. “I really want to check out a restaurant called Locavore in Ubud in Bali because I’ve heard it’s doing some really original things with Indonesian food. I’m going to the Ubud Food Festival in June so hopefully that’ll be my chance.”
In 2022, Rahel took Sp00ns on a homecoming tour, hosting a supper club at the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak where she served an Indonesian feast including lemper tahu bakar (tofu wrapped and grilled in banana leaf) on a rooftop at sunset. “That was the first time I’d cooked for people in my home country, so it felt really special,” she says.
One of her most popular dishes – pandan berry blondies – came about thanks to a happy accident in lockdown. “One day, my partner went out for a really long walk and came back home with a big bucket of blackberries he’d foraged and asked me to turn it into a dessert. I had some leftover coconut condensed milk in the fridge and a bit of pandan, so I threw them all together. It’s just one of those things that just worked instantly.”
She hopes Indonesian food can establish the reputation it deserves
Rahel says she hopes Indonesian food can establish the reputation it deserves on the world stage. In the meantime, she’s on a one woman mission to educate people about satay.
“A lot of people don’t realise that the word ‘satay’ in Indonesian merely refers to any skewered dish – of which we have 252 in total. On the UK high street, you’ll find ‘satay rice boxes’, ‘satay sauces’ and ‘satay salads’ – all with no skewer in sight. There seems to be a misconception in equating ‘satay’ with ‘peanut sauce’. It drives me crazy.”
The self-taught chef says that she still regularly turns to the Indonesian ‘aunties’ on YouTube. “The other day I wanted to make asinan, which is mixed vegetables in a spicy red sauce with peanuts, from Jakarta. So, of course, I turned to the ‘aunties’,” she laughs. “They’re the best – their camera skills might be shaky, but it’s straight from the source.”
Rahel Stephanie spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way. Catch up on the other interviews with Taylor Godber, Cecilie Skog, Ellen Magellan and Ana Hop now.
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Images: courtesy of Rahel Stephanie x Sp00ns