Oakland-based, Bay Area-born writer, photographer Melati Citrawireja admits that her Indonesian accent is “dreadful,” but whenever she travels to visit her large extended family in Java, she finds the cultural differences melt away, especially when sharing meals with relatives.
“It seems we always understand each other when we’re sitting cross legged eating together, scooping rice from the same banana leaf, cooing in pleasurable pain as the sambal’s heat kicks in. Flavor is its own special language,” Citrawireja writes in the first issue of Three Salted Fish, a monthly newsletter she started earlier this year.
If Citrawireja’s name rings a bell, you might recognize it from bylines and photo credits in Bay Area-based publications, including Berkeleyside, Oakland Magazine and East Bay Express. These days, Citrawireja is mainly a freelance editorial and wedding photographer, but last year, she started Three Salted Fish, an Instagram account where she chronicled her efforts to deepen her connection with her roots through learning about Indonesian cooking and foodways. Citrawireja posted photos from her travels visiting family in Java, as well as recipes and ingredients, with interesting and informative text to accompany the vibrant images.
Wanting to share more than just these short blurbs, Citrawireja started the Three Salted Fish newsletter in March, posting not only recipes but introspective musings about her family, Indonesian history and current world events through the perspective of a half Javanese, half European woman living in West Oakland. She’s also expanded the project to include conversations with other creative Indonesians living in the U.S., many of whom are in the food industry. Three Salted Fish is a fun read and a great way to learn more about Indonesian food, whether or not you make any of the recipes.
We asked Citrawireja to tell us a little more about Three Salted Fish and to share her recipe for tempe kering, a popular Indonesian street food, which you’ll find at the end of the Q&A. The interview has been lightly edited.
Why did you choose to expand Three Salted Fish into a newsletter?
The newsletter specifically appealed to my desire for a longer-form exploration — I get to really geek out on specific dishes, ingredients or people. I dream about ideas all the time now… it’s very consuming, in a good way!
What does the name “Three Salted Fish” mean?
My dad’s family is from a small fishing town called Pangandaran in Java, Indonesia. As a teenager, my dad was a fisherman, and to this day, my grandma still salt cures the local morning catch and sells it on the beach every day. I think it’s a social thing for her — it’s where all the ladies exchange gossip! Almost every meal at the family home is served with a side of fried salted fish (called ikan asin), so that flavor is very familiar to me.
I chose the name “Three Salted Fish” to acknowledge my third identity as an Asian American – I’m part of a younger generation who is weaving our many family stories into something that feels genuine to our lived experiences. While I didn’t grow up in Indonesia, I have a deep appreciation for how it has shaped me.
Where did you grow up?
I moved to the East Bay seven years ago to finish college and now live in West Oakland. I love it here. I spent most of my childhood in Healdsburg, a small agriculture-turned-wine town in the North Bay, where much of my mom’s side of the family still lives. My mom was a pastry chef so our cookie jar was always stocked. I homeschooled and had a really solid group of strange and beautiful homeschool friends who still I consider family.
My dad remarried an incredibly kind and generous woman, Esti, who he met on a trip back to Indonesia, and when she moved to the United States to start a family with him, we grew very close. I get so much of my cooking inspiration and wisdom from her — she’s definitely my first “phone a friend” speed dial when it comes to Indonesian cookery.
Before the pandemic, how often did you visit Indonesia? When is your next trip?
I spent infancy in Indonesia but didn’t travel back until I was a teenager. When I finally visited I was totally hooked and ever since have been going for several months at a time to travel the islands and to build relationships with my extended family. The country is very regionally diverse — the dialects, the religions, the food, the ecosystems, and so on — there is so much to take in.
On my most recent trip three years ago, I went with an intention to spend lots of time in kitchens and to practice recipes with as many relatives as I could. It was huge fun and everyone was so tickled! I believe there is a special sort of wisdom that exists only in a home kitchen and I feel very humbled when I’m there to witness it. If all goes to plan, I’m hoping to visit Java over winter, and I’ll definitely be doing a lot of the same.
Sometimes Three Salted Fish reads like a diary, with you sharing personal thoughts on a variety of topics, such as recent AAPI hate crimes. Yet, the newsletter’s main focus is food. Do you see sharing food as a path to healing?
Yes, I think cooking and sharing meals with intention are strong entry points for healing and change. While of course food isn’t a catch-all for healing, it can reveal how history has impacted us. For example, Dutch colonialism is very apparent in many Indonesian breads and sweets, like lapis legit (thousand layers cake) or kue kelapa (coconut cake), and many of the world’s commonly used spices today are indigenous to Indonesia, like cloves, nutmeg and mace.
When folks participate in the daily activity of eating, especially the very visceral experience of eating spicy food with your hands as is often customary in Indonesia, I think they may feel a little bit more invested in the place the food has originated. Starting this dialogue offers space for some of us to have more control over our own narratives and to reveal truths where bias and racism have painted a different picture. I think many folks, not just Indonesians, might relate to that sentiment.
There aren’t many Indonesian restaurants in the Bay Area, but more Indonesian food businesses — including pop-ups — are starting to emerge. Do you think there’s more interest in Indonesian fare these days?
It still puzzles me how invisible Indonesian food is in the Bay Area! I was so disappointed when Jayakarta in Berkeley, the one Indonesian restaurant in the East Bay, closed for good, but I do think there is a slow and steady rise of folks who, like me, are beginning to share their stories. I think the more we see real-life examples of Indonesians successfully selling their food the more we will see come out of the cracks. Several young Indonesian Americans sent me messages after reading my newsletter saying they grew up as the only Indonesians around and feel so grateful to be able to virtually connect — so there is an obvious space that needs filling!
What are the common ingredients and flavors you’ll find in Indonesian dishes?
Indonesian food is very rooted in its environment and not shy with its flavors. It’s wildly spicy, salty, sweet and medicinal in the best way, and changes quite a bit depending on the region. A common breakfast dish many may know is nasi goreng, fried rice. We also love frying tempe [how tempeh is spelled in Indonesia] and chicken, steaming foods in banana leaves, or pounding vegetables with herbs and spices in a mortar. We use some familiar Southeast Asian ingredients like lemongrass, Makrut lime leaves, coconut palm sugar, tamarind, fresh turmeric and galangal. We also use slightly lesser-known ingredients, like terasi (a very potent fermented shrimp paste), lemon basil, sand ginger, candlenuts and Indonesian bay leaves. The list goes on and on!
You recently spotlighted Feby Boediarto, an Indonesian American who founded Reculture Kitchen, an Oakland-based, small-batch tempe company. Who else do you plan to highlight in Three Salted Fish?
My most recent newsletter highlighted chef Siska Silitonga — the mastermind behind SF-based Indonesian pop-up ChiliCali and soon-to-be restaurant Warung Siska. I cannot sing enough praise for what she offers the Bay Area and our hungry tummies.
In between my own solo forays, I also plan to highlight other folks who may not necessarily be chefs but are deeply rooted in the Indonesian American experience. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I think I’m going to interview a very talented Balinese dancer next.
Are there any upcoming local Indonesian restaurants you’re excited about? And which Bay Area Indonesian chefs or food makers should we be keeping tabs on?
Well, I’ll be first in line at Warung Siska when it opens! Other folks to keep on your radar are Richmond-based bakso (meatball soup) pop-up D’Grobak and the Rasa Rasa food truck at Parklab Gardens in San Francisco. Oh, and of course chef Nora Haron, who runs a Mexican-Indonesian pop-up IndoMex, and is bringing a contemporary take on Indonesian fare to Table at 7, an upcoming restaurant in Walnut Creek. And now that folks can legally sell home-cooked meals in Alameda County, I think there will be more small-scale food events too, which is very exciting.
Recipe: Tempe Kering (Sweet + Spicy Fried Tempe)
For the bumbu (blended spice paste):
2-inch thumb of ginger
3 cloves garlic
2 small shallots (or one large)
2 candlenuts (can substitue Brazil or macadamia nuts)
3 Thai chillies, remove seeds if you prefer less spice
1 tablespoon salt
16 oz tempe, sliced into one-inch length pieces
4 Makrut lime leaves, deveined and thinly sliced into slivers
1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 2-inch pieces, bruised
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh ground coriander (can substitute pre-ground)
1 teaspoon sweet soy sauce
2 tablespoon coconut palm sugar or brown sugar
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate, mixed with 1/4 cup water
1-2 Indonesian bay leaves (aka daun salam)
1 tablespoon salt
Neutral oil for frying, such as sunflower or refined coconut oil
In a large, preferably non-stick pan, heat 4 tablespoons oil on medium-high until it starts to shimmer. As it’s heating, sprinkle the tempe pieces with 1 teaspoon of coriander before carefully placing into the pan. Fry about 3 minutes each side until the pieces are golden. Depending on your pan size, you may need to do this in two rounds, adding more oil if needed. Set the tempe aside on a paper towel or in a colander.
Meanwhile, add your bumbu ingredients into a food processor or mortar and pestle and blend or pound until smooth.
In another large pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil on medium heat and add 1 tablespoon coriander, toasting for 1 minute.
Add the bumbu, stirring frequently until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the Makrut lime leaf pieces, lemongrass and bay leaf and cook, stirring frequently until aromatic, about 2 minutes.
Add the tamarind water, sweet soy sauce, and coconut sugar and cook for another minute or until the liquid begins to thicken.
Add the fried tempe and mix gently but thoroughly so every piece gets coated in the sauce. Once the sauce has gone from ‘saucy’ to ‘tacky’ (about 2 minutes) you’re ready to eat.