Cooking Abroad

Lontong Made In USA


Muslims living abroad don’t generally get to feel the excitement of preparing to break the ritual fast of Ramadan or the rush to buy enough provisions for the prolonged Idul Fitri celebration. One of the main things missing for Indonesian Muslims is the process of making ketupat rice cakes in coconut palm leaves for the holiday.

Ideally, ketupat is served with opor ayam (chicken in creamy coconut sauce) for Lebaran, as Idul Fitri is known in Indonesia. Unfortunately, palms leaves for covering the chubby square ketupat rice cakes for boiling and steaming cannot be found just anywhere around the globe. So, I have had to make do with making lontong, a thin elongated tube shaped rice cake, instead of ketupat.

Even making lontong is a challenge. The biggest problem was finding plastic bags strong enough to withstand 3 hours of boiling. That is how long it takes dry rice to cook into the smooth, thick, solid paste of lontong or ketupat rice cakes.

In my efforts to prepare lontong, I surveyed the supermarkets within a reasonable radius of my apartment in Washington, D.C. With the shape of plastic bag generally used in Indonesia for making lontong in mind as a guide, I found a wide variety of possibilities, but finally chose sandwich bags.

To make the lontong, I closely followed the instructions I had seen on lontong making tutorial videos, or from directions gleaned from Indonesian food recipe blogs online. In general, the instructions boiled down to: perforate the plastic bags evenly with a fork or sate skewer, wash the raw rice and drain off the water; then fill the plastic bags about one-third full (or a bit more if you want the lontong very solid), and seal the bags, before filling a pan with water and dropping in the bags of rice for boiling for approximately three hours.

The results? Failure!

The plastic bags broke before the boiling time was up; they couldn’t withstand the prolonged heat.

So I went back to the supermarket to try to find heat resistant plastic bags. I found a number of choices: large oven bags for roasting turkeys; smaller slow cooker liners, and even smaller microwave cooking bags. I chose the latter because they were the size I was looking for.

Praying as I went, I repeated the lontong preparation ritual. Wash and drain rice, punch holes in plastic bags, fill bags with rice, and boil the rice in the bags for three hours. Because I was using an electric stove rather than a gas stove, the lontong was ready in less than three hours.

And … the plastic did not break. Perfect!

With pride, I sent a photograph of the lontong I made to my mother in Indonesia with the message: “Lontong made in plastic in America. Now I am ready to open a lontong sayur food stall in the land of Uncle Sam!”