By Kevindra P. Soemantri
Translated by ESF Media
History of Gulai
Almost everyone in Indonesia is familiar with Gulai. Typically known to be of West Sumatran origin, Gulai has the following characteristics – a thick soupy consistency and richly spiced. Gulai is quite well-known to the Malays and people living in the Malaka Strait – Indonesians and Malaysians included. It is not an original Indonesian dish, but the result of acculturation which took place in Indonesia thousands of years ago and it became popular between the 15th and the 20th centuries, during which time international trade began to boom.
People often wonder about the difference between Gulai and curry. Generally, both have very similar appearance. They are made with a variety of spices, they are relatively thick in texture and use coconut milk. However, the spices used for curry are usually in powder form while the spices for Indonesian Gulai are both in fresh and powder form. For instance, Indian curry is made with powdered turmeric or cumin whereas fresh turmeric is used by West Sumatrans to make Gulai. Another characteristic of Gulai is the variations of its main ingredients. Many types of Gulai are made with vegetables instead of meat. These differences are what make Indonesian Gulai unique. When Gulai entered Java, sweet soy sauce was added to the dish as the result of the growing sugar industry in the region. The texture changed and became thinner than the Sumatran Gulai. In Java, Gulai is often served together with Sate (chicken skewers). This was influenced by the Arab culture, as Middle Eastern traders, who resided on the island, continued to grow in numbers. The similarities between Indonesian and Arab cuisine made Gulai well-accepted and it spread across the nation.
Types and Characteristics of Gulai
There are two main types of Gulai – Minang and Javanese. Minang or Malay Gulai is the most typical one. It has a thicker texture, complex aroma, with a wide variety of ingredients, from vegetables such as jackfruit and beans to fish and meat. Meanwhile, Javanese Gulai , often called Gule, has a sweeter flavour, it is rich but has a thinner texture. Trenggalek in East Java and Semarang in Central Java are two cities famous for their Gule.
Gulai Restaurants in Jakarta
As the capital city of Indonesia, Jakarta is a melting pot of different culture and ethnic groups. Gulai has existed in the city for decades. In 1957, a book titled “The Secret of Middle Eastern Cuisine” was published. It was written by Ms. Abbas Alatas from a renowned Arab-Yemen Alatas family. The first recipe she wrote was Gule Kambing, which literally means Goat Gulai. This raised a question of whether Gulai originated from Indian curry or from Middle Eastern cuisine, as the book revealed that Arab dishes are similar to Gulai in terms of richness and the spices used.
Gulai in Jakarta was introduced by domestic migrants who moved to the city many years ago. These are people who sought a better life in the big city. Yuniar is one of the families who migrated and opened “Restaurant Sepakat” in 1967 at the well-known Blok M area in Jakarta. Their signature dish is Gulai Gajebo with its sour and spicy flavour. As for Javanese Gulai, Mr. Lasimin was probably the first person to introduce the dish in Jakarta. He came to the city in 1974 as a freelancer. After moving to Jakarta he did many types of work, from security guard to porter. Anyone who has seen his aging face and hunched posture would realise the wealth of experience he holds.
Javanese Gulai with thinner sauce served with chilli paste. Writer collection.
In 1979, his wife was expecting a baby. At this stage, he realized that a stable job was required to support his family. A year later, he decided to start a food hawker stall business selling gulai from his hometown Sukoharjo, using a wooden cart. He never expected to be the pioneer of the Gulai hawkers on that street, now well-known as “Gulai Street” in Jakarta. For Lasimin, Gulai means everything to him. It has given him a better life and because of this he decided to serve his Gulai for free to the street cleaners, who live on minimum wages, once every two weeks. Lasamin says, “To me, this Gulai business is a blessing from God and I want to share this blessing with others. This is my way to express my gratitude to God”.
Mr. Lasmin and Yuniar are the examples of those who have made Gulai their main source of income. The stories of Gulai reflect how the dish has become an identity of Indonesian society. Gulai is now thought of as a part of traditional Indonesian cusine.
ecipe of Chicken Gulai
2 tbs powdered turmeric or 2 pcs fresh turmeric
1 tbs powdered ginger or 1 pc fresh ginger
8 shallots, peeled
2 large red chillies
5 cloves garlic, peeled
½ teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon coriander powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon powder
½ teaspoon pepper
3 tbs/pcs tamarind
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 pc lemongrass, mashed
2 tbs sugar
300 ml coconut milk
300 ml water
As needed salt
8 pcs chicken fillet
200 ml cooking oil
How to make
1. Blend all spices except for the kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and tamarind.
2. Heat up a pan, add cooking oil. Stir fry the chicken until the colour is brown. Remove the chicken from the pan.
3. Using the same pan and oil, stir fry the ground spices. Add the kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and tamarind. Add the previously stir-fried chicken, coconut milk and water.
4. Cook on medium heat for 20 minutes. Add salt and sugar to enhance the flavour.