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.
So it's not all that astounding that Golden Mar isn't a real, physical restaurant. Instead, it's a little-known one-woman catering service in the South Bay.
Mariana Mangkuo is the accountant-turned-chef who whips up true blue Indonesian cuisine—the likes of which I've not encountered outside of Asia. What started as a hobby has flourished to become a weekly food service catering to international students and migrants craving a taste of home. Each week, Mangkuo sends out a virtual menu. You pick out what sounds good, email her your order, have her confirm it, then pick it up at her home on Friday evening or Saturday morning.
This past week, we ordered the spicy sambal eggplant dish that made me cry, Buncis kentang gule padang (potatoes and green beans braised in a mildly spicy coconut sauce), cumi bakar cabe ijo padang (stuffed baby squid simmered in a hot green pepper relish), and three servings of the nasi bungkus padang (banana leaf–wrapped portions of rice topped with various meat dishes). All items were $8 each.
The eggplant was velvety-soft and had soaked up the flavors of the rempah—young, bold, and brash—it was sautéed in. Sweet caramelized onions and tangy stewed tomatoes rounded it out nicely. It was the first dish to disappear off the table.
The potatoes and green beans we took as a welcome reprieve from the eggplant's heat. The rempah base used here was completely different from that employed in the eggplant dish. Here, the rempah was gentle, almost lilting—a suggestion of spice followed through by a light hand on the coconut milk.
Masochists that we are, we chased it with dollops of Mangkuo's excellent cabe ijo padang (green chile sauce). She had slipped a cup of it into our order, gratis. This was yet another rempah, and the depth of flavor the sauce provided inspired me to hide the cup in the far reaches of the fridge. I have been steadily polishing off the leftovers with plain steamed rice all week.
The squid had been given a typical Indonesian preparation, unlike that for most other cuisines. Most chefs are careful to avoid overcooking squid so it doesn't turn into a rubbery, inedible mess. Indonesian chefs opt to simmer squid over a longer period, so its texture traverses from tender-crisp to chewy, and finally to a silken softness. The longer cooking period allows the squid to absorb the flavors of the rempah, which really is the whole point. The stuffing, unfortunately, was too dry (probably more noticeably so in contrast to the tender squid). But it was hard to pay attention to the stuffing with the presence of the absolutely brilliant hot green pepper relish that had been draped atop it. This relish was sweet-tart, had a (relatively) subdued amount of heat, and had us fighting with our spoons at the table.
Mangkuo includes some variation of rice topped with various dishes on her menu each week. This week's came with a hearty portion of rendang daging ("dry" beef curry), redolent with spices and roasted coconut (excellent). It also came with a single (rather forgettable) shrimp, a hard-boiled egg that had been deep-fried and soused in a sweet chile sauce (interesting texture), the same potato and green bean dish, as well as a generous serve of the cabe ijo padang. All in, a great "one-dish" meal for $8.
Folks, it sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid. But then again, I was crying. I was having my religious experience. Mangkuo's rempahs are that good. Her seafood dishes may be hit-and-miss, but her meat-and-vegetable dishes (so attest my Stanford pals) are rock solid. Dinner for four, with enough leftovers for lunch the next day, cost $48. Our tummies are happy. Our wallets are happy. The food hasn't been ruined with corn syrup or Sriracha sauce. Everyone rejoice.
Serious eaters may be glad to know that Mariana's homemade rempahs will be available at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's by the end of the year.
Mariana Mangkuo can be reached at 408-889-3621.
If you want a taste of her food, email email@example.com and ask to be added to her mailing list. Emails are generally sent in Bahasa Indonesian, with English translations available upon request. You may ask that your food be mild, spicy, or extra spicy.
Pick-up in the South Bay is at 441 Paula Court, Santa Clara CA 95050 (map). Pick-up in the East Bay is by request.