Folks, I believe I've found the Bay Area's best kept food secret. I'm not proud, but neither am I ashamed to admit: As I shoveled forkfuls of some of the most incredible food I've had since leaving Asia, I cried. All around me, my dining companions had a sheen of perspiration on their brows, and even a couple of freely running noses. But me, the wimpy one, I was dripping hot, salty tears into the terong bumbu balado pedas (spicy, sambal eggplant dish).
"What's the point?" you ask. "What's the point of a dish that's so fiery that your mouth is aflame and you can't taste a thing?"
Here's the point: There is bad (or good, depending on whether you like it) spiciness. The kind that coats your tongue and numbs your mouth (Szechuan ma la hot pot comes to mind). Then, there is good spiciness. The kind of heat that comes with a great, big, wallop of flavor. In Southeast Asian cuisines—particularly that of the Indonesians, Malaysians, and Peranakans—the foundation of a dish is the rempah, or spice mix. Fresh herbs, spices, and aromatics such as chiles, ginger, garlic, turmeric, shallots, lemongrass, coriander seeds, candlenuts, and fermented shrimp paste are pounded together to form a paste. This paste is then slowly sautéed in oil until it becomes deeply fragrant, permeating all the other ingredients in the dish.
A good rempah takes years to master. Done well, it will have nuances more complex and edifying than the most revered of fine wines. Done well, rempah can be a religious experience. And because a good rempah takes hours of backbreaking labor, it's the kind of thing one usually only gets to savor if one's mom is a very good cook. In other words, it's the kind of food one usually only gets to eat at home, where the quality of ingredients used and the heart and soul put into the making are never stinted on.