Walk around just about any U.S. city and chances are you’ll stumble upon a decent number of Asian restaurants slinging variations of dishes from the continent’s many countries and vast array of influences. And it’s no longer just the inauthentic, Americanized takes on these cuisines — large chunks of sticky General Tso’s chicken and imitation crab-stuffed California rolls — that people have come to embrace. We clamor for reservations to sit at the counter of the latest omakase-only hot spots and wait in long lines during lunch breaks at our local bánh mì vendors. We re-create northern Thai specialties at home and take pride in knowing how they differ from their more recognizable southern counterparts. Sure, we’ll order in sweet and sour pork every now and then, but we’ve come a long way toward understanding the efforts that have been put into replicating some of these countries’ traditional dishes in our homeland.
Then there’s the curious case of Indonesia, a sovereign state in Southeast Asia that comprises close to 20,000 islands and boasts an estimated population of more than 250 million people, making it the world’s fourth-most-populous country. A recent CNN International online poll of 35,000 individuals found one of the country’s trademark dishes, rendang, to be the world’s most delicious food. And yet pose the question “What is Indonesian food?” to the majority of the very same people described in the above paragraph, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare or a shrug of the shoulders. Good luck searching for a nearby establishment serving any of the island’s regional dishes. But why?