Retno Pratiwi couldn’t leave Indonesia without her mortar and pestle. “I carried it, like this,” she says, demonstrating how she hugged it to her waist.
The Jakarta native brought back a shallow black bowl used for grinding spices on her last trip home. As the East Boston chef mashes garlic on the stone surface, she reminisces about silky sauces called bumbus, which she made with a mortar and pestle in her grandmother’s kitchen. “My grandmother would tell me to do it super finely, and that sticks with me now,” she says, blonde bangs hanging in front of her glasses. “Sometimes I cheat.”
Pratiwi, 30, began a restaurant pop-up, called Kaki Lima (named for the five-wheeled carts in her city), in 2013. She feels guilty that her dinners require her to switch to a food processor. For a few of her first meals, she refused to use one and pureed sauces for the five-course menus by hand, to the sound of Indonesian pop singles. “Is this the music from the pop-up?” she asks her husband, Peter Gelling, as she grinds galangal.
In parts of Sumatra and the western end of the island-cluster north of Australia, a single dish might begin with 15 freshly ground spices. The result is warm, multifaceted stews and sauces with ambrosial flavors. One dish, often considered the most well-known in Indonesia, is beef rendang, meat simmered in coconut milk, cinnamon, candlenuts, nutmeg, galangal, garlic, shallots, and other seasonings. It takes hours, and is often reserved for special occasions, as it is on this day during Ramadan.
In their tiny apartment, sun reflects off a large wood coffee table from home; nubs of fresh turmeric glow. Pratiwi uses incense and a saucepan of cinnamon sticks to mask lemongrass and garlic aromas. In a blue dress and whale socks, she scoops up a spoonful of rendang from a Le Creuset pot. “Is it good now?” she asks Gelling, who, as her business partner, also serves as surrogate taster; Pratiwi, who is Muslim, cannot eat until sundown.
“Mmmmmm,” he responds, delighted.
Pratiwi and Gelling met in Indonesia. She lived in Ottawa with her uncle during high school, when she cooked for his friends and co-workers. She moved back to Jakarta and worked for a journalist as a “fixer,” a local contact who helps correspondents find sources and translate documents. The journalist was Gelling, a correspondent at the time for The New York Times and a Lexington native. After four years together, they moved to Boston. One day he watched her prepare dinner for his father’s birthday — she was grilling out the bedroom window on a camp stove on the fire escape — and realized that they should do something about her dream to open a restaurant.
Pratiwi went to Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and the two set up an account on Kitchensurfing.com, which connects chefs with patrons for private events. The first dinner, held at KO Pies at the Shipyard, was for 40 family members and friends. At the first New England Indonesian Festival, the two sold out 40 pounds of beef rendang and decided to take a six-month tour of Indonesia to collect recipes. “We realized how much of a market there was for [Indonesian food],” Gelling says.
Tonight, cooking for their pop-up team, the menu includes classics like tempe orek (glazed tempeh) and shrimp in pineapple sauce. Tempeh is common in most of Indonesia, its country of origin, where the savory soybean cake is inexpensive. Pratiwi’s begins with lemongrass and galangal (similar to ginger), garlic, and kaffir lime leaf, then it’s glazed with sticky-sweet kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). “Use fresh ingredients, good ingredients,” Pratiwi says. “Take your time to grind it and build up flavors from the very beginning.”
Not all Indonesian dishes call for the contents of your spice cabinet. Eastern regions often use fish and produce for quick stir-fries, or grilled meats. A typical meal anywhere often involves many components, served with rice. Nasi campur, also known as mixed rice, combines small bites of several dishes on one plate, perhaps tempeh, chicken, some sauteed vegetables, and sambal, a chunky Indonesian chutney.
The shrimp salad Pratiwi makes is a Western take on her signature dish, with leafy greens (uncommon in Indonesia). She makes a spicy pineapple sauce often served with seafood or satay.
Every few weeks, Pratiwi and Gelling wheel into KO Pies for a pop-up. As servers carry out platters of otak-otak (fish dumplings), the bustling, rowdy back deck of the East Boston restaurant is reminiscent of the warungs that line the streets of Bali — tiny restaurants that serve satay, nasi goreng (fried rice), and more. Her five-course pop-up menus are $50.
One recent attendee, Sarafina Kennedy, grew up in Jakarta before she moved to Roslindale to become a midwife. “This was incredible,” she says after the dinner. “I’ve been searching for Indonesian food ever since I came here.”
From fire-escape cuisine to a pop-up restaurant, Pratiwi adapts to the kitchen she’s in, even a globe away from home.
Kaki Lima 617-650-0696, www.facebook.com/KakiLimaBoston
Brooke Jackson-Glidden can be reached at email@example.com.