Nasi gandul is a plate lunch which can only be found in the District of Pati, located 80km (51 miles) by car from the main central Javanese city of Semarang. Nasi gandul is actually a variant of nasi gudeg, a rice dish typical of central Javanese cuisine.
I had my first taste of Pati’s nasi gandul at Waroeng Pati, a lavish, popular half-way stop for vacationers driving from the metropolis of Semarang to the historic town of Lasem, the site of one of the earliest Chinese settlements outside China (local records showed an early Chinese settlement there dating back to 1294 AD). Waroeng Pati overflows with diners at lunch-time, especially on weekends, so one should try and time one’s arrival there before noon.
To order one’s nasi gandul, approach the food display where the day’s offerings are laid out - there, one can choose from a variety of dishes for one’s plate lunch, indicating one’s choices to one of the servers on-hand to assist. This can include stewed beef, tofu, ox-tripe and ox-tongue, all slow-cooked in palm sugar, spices like coriander & candlenut, pepper, galangal (blue ginger), coconut water, shallots, garlic. Tofu and hard-boiled eggs, all cooked in the same stew, giving them a golden-brown hue, are also must-have side-dishes.
The way the tempeh is served here here is pretty unique: cut into rectangular wafers and deep-fried till crisp, with an almost popcorn-like crunchy texture.
The origin of this dish’s name is pretty funny - post-World War II, a woman-hawker by the name of Mbak Melet used to peddle her wares around Pati balancing two baskets - one on either end of her yoke: a basket filled with rice, the other with the side-dishes. As she walked, the two baskets would sway with her gait - the swaying motion was called “gundal gandul” in local Javanese dialect. In time, her rendition of nasi gudeg became known as nasi gandul or “swaying rice”.
For my nasi gandul plate lunch, I chose telur pindang (stewed egg), perkedel (potato croquette), stewed beef, stewed ox-tongue, ox-tripe, crisp-fried tempeh and a generous ladleful of coconut-rich turmeric-tinged curry sauce to be poured over the steamed white rice.
It can be a rather cloyingly-rich dish, and I sometimes do struggle to accept the Javanese’ palate, which favours combining meats with sugar, so it’s savoury-sweet all round. The version here, perhaps to cater to travellers from various parts of Indonesia, is slightly toned down in its sugar content. Coconut milk lent a richness to the stew which I rather enjoyed. Beware of their local sambal relish - it flies off the Scoville Scale with its explosiveness. The Javanese, unlike their Padang/Sumateran cousins, do NOT like curries or spicy stews, but will instead opt to pep their sweet, mild dishes with extraordinarily chili-spicy sambal relishes made from “cabe rawit”, tiny bird’s-eye chilis similar to Thai “prik kee noo”.