Food for Thought: The desperate journey to my Ketoprak

Featuring Lee Kum Kee peanut sauce . . . the horror!

An illustration of Ketoprak in a bowl with a side of peanut sauce an an Indonesian flag on a toothpick
ILLUSTRATION: Alyssa Umbal / The Peak

By: Emily Huang, SFU Student

It all started when my parents in Indonesia sent me a picture of the Ketoprak they had for lunch.  As the day dragged on, the image of vermicelli noodles glistening in peanut sauce, accompanied by fried tofu, rice cakes, and a hard-boiled egg, haunted me.

Ketoprak is one of Jakarta’s iconic street foods. Whether enjoyed by the side of the street or in an open-air restaurant, vendors selling this plate of vermicelli noodles all have a similar set of equipment: mortar and pestle, two pans, and a tall red-capped biscuit can to store crackers. All of this equipment can be found behind an iconic wooden cart. What makes this dish so special extends beyond its taste — It encapsulates a familiar scenery and taste of home, which I cannot experience in a foreign land like Canada.

Giving into my Ketoprak cravings and homesickness, I decided to visit my nearby grocery store the next day to endeavour making it myself.

My first priority was the peanut sauce. Unfortunately, without a mortar and pestle, the backbone of the Indonesian kitchen, I surely wouldn’t be able to replicate the mouthwatering flavours and textures that can only be derived from crushing garlic and peanuts rigorously with stone. I wasn’t going to eat my Ketoprak with the nuts still crunchy, as that would be a sin against my tastebuds, but I struggled to find a different option. On the shelf stood a perfectly good bottle of Lee Kum Kee peanut sauce — the saving grace of any cheap recipe — and I decided it would do. 

Looking back, I should have backed down while I still had honour. Before me, there was a plate of vermicelli noodles drenched in a sauce that was ten shades too light and smelled too much like vinegar and defeat. I should have used peanut butter instead. Despite the aching feeling in my chest, food was still food, and I did not have the heart to throw it out. I took one bite out of the fried tofu and was satisfied enough to present my best efforts to my friends. 

Joko Widodo, one could not imagine the shock on my face when I saw the same conflicting expressions on their faces. Maybe it was because the Ketoprak had some enchanting jinx or that we all had rose-tinted glasses that led us to believe that peanut sauce can never taste that bad. Regardless, the three of us collectively agreed to forget about the dish in favor of the divine instant noodle rations our parents shipped to us in all too good timing. 

In the end, what mattered was the burst of oily shallots and bucket-load of MSG to bring me the comfort from home I was pining for. Even still, I still look forward to the day when I can indulge in a plate of Ketoprak again while feeling the 40-degree-celsius winds of Indonesia against my face. Maybe, then, I could share a piece of my other home with the place I grew up in, starting with a very good bottle of maple syrup.