A passionate team of cultural entrepreneurs is redefining what it means to eat, drink and live like an Indonesian— in Sai Ying Pun. Ronald Akili introduces Charmaine Mok to Potato Head and its celebration of his island nation.
n a time when dining trends are dictated by how intricately a chef can plate his microgreens and edible flowers, there is a certain charm to the rusticity of a simple plate of rendang—a rich elixir of coconut milk and spices enveloping meat and vegetables—unfussily garnished yet proudly presented. The version we try comes with a flutter of purple sweet potato crisps, a drizzle of ivory coconut cream and a tangle of red chilli and fried shallots. We knock elbows with our fellow diners, each desperate for another helping of the tender beef and red beans, which have soaked up the flavours of ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric leaves and ground red chillies—the thick sauce a product of at least eight hours of slow cooking to achieve its sultry complexity.
Rendang daging sapi is one of the standout dishes of the newly opened Kaum restaurant at Potato Head Hong Kong, and the ritual of eating it is an ideal way to start exploring the philosophy behind this ambitiously multifaceted lifestyle project by PTT Family, headed by Indonesian entrepreneurs Ronald Akili and Jason Gunawan. The duo started their business seven years ago in Jakarta with the original Potato Head, a casual restaurant serving comfort food and killer cocktails, and have since created several of the region’s hottest destinations—most famously the Potato Head Beach Club at Seminyak, Bali, and Potato Head Folk in Singapore’s Keong Saik district, where international hipsters mingle with Chinatown denizens. At the heart of this budding empire, though, is a yearning to capture and disseminate the richness and diversity of Indonesian culture and cuisine while presenting it through the eyes of the global citizen.
Ronald, who is of Chinese and Indonesian heritage (his father’s side hails from northern Sulawesi), explains that the Hong Kong project has been an opportunity for him to continue learning about his own culture through creating a microcosm of Indonesia via its food, drink, design and architecture. Ronald spent 13 years at school and university in Hawaii, graduating with a master’s degree in entrepreneurial studies, before returning to his hometown of Jakarta in his early-twenties to do an internship with a property developer. After a year, Ronald started his own residential project, Tanah Teduh, with acclaimed architect Andra Matin and nine other leading Indonesian designers, who instilled in him an appreciation for local materials and sustainable design. “When I went back to Indonesia, I realised how rich and unique our culture was,” he recalls. Indeed, just two years after embarking on the project, Ronald decided to launch the first Potato Head in Jakarta’s Pacific Place; Tanah Teduh was completed in 2012.
There is a certain charm to the rusticity of a simple plate of rendang unfussily garnished yet proudly presented
This curiousity about Indonesian culture and aesthetics is clear in his Hong Kong project, opened in collaboration with Yenn Wong’s Jia Group (which provided the premises, a multistorey former kindergarten on Third Street, Sai Ying Pun) and with interior design by Sou Fujimoto. It’s easy to clock the acclaimed Japanese architect’s signature geometric style, with stacked square frames creating individual spaces for the I Love You So Coffee bar that greets guests upon entry to Potato Head, or Canaan, a lifestyle boutique peddling Indonesian crafts and clothing. But move further into the space, where the all-day cafe and bar blends into Kaum, the restaurant, and you begin to see the intricate detailing of the ceiling panels that represents the artistry of the Torajans, an ethnic group from South Sulawesi known for their abstract wood carvings. Here, dishes such as that extraordinary rendang are served, thanks to the work of chef Antoine Audran and champion of Indonesian cuisine Lisa Virgiano, who have collaborated on a culinary programme that highlights traditions from at least five of Indonesia’s major islands.
“It’s so underrated,” Ronald says of the cuisine. “We have at least 600 different tribes in Indonesia and every single one has different ingredients and techniques. There are dishes that even I’m not familiar with, because they come from different tribes that I’ve never been exposed to. We have so much potential to offer, and here we are given the opportunity to put our cuisine on the global map.”
Adds Lisa, “The public tends to misunderstand Indonesian cuisine as only street food or Javanese-centric, when Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 islands with diverse ethnicities, cultures and sublanguages. From Aceh in Sumatra to Papua in the east, there are amazing techniques for cooking, preserving and highlighting the harmony of nature though local ingredients and Indonesian flavours.”
You’ll find familiar Indonesian dishes that have pervaded kitchens around the globe, such as gado gado and sate, but Kaum’s chefs will also be highlighting esoteric ingredients such as field mushrooms exclusively found on Bangka Island off Sumatra, or rice harvested by a small producer in Kalimantan, Borneo. Rare Andaliman wild pepper from North Sumatra adds its citrussy tinge (much like Sichuan pepper) to wok-fried noodles, highlighting the Chinese influence in the cuisine. To fire the
palate even more, four distinctive sambals are offered: ikan asar bakar (salted fish with red chilli), matah (shallot, lemongrass, torch ginger, red chilli and coconut oil), kluwek (roasted black nut and chilli) and rica rica (lemongrass, ginger, red chilli and fresh lime).
Over 18 months, Antoine and Lisa have been researching the unique food cultures of Indonesian tribes (indeed, kaum means tribe in Bahasa Indonesia), bringing back with them forgotten techniques such as bamboo grilling and various applications of fermentation. The former technique from Toraja lends a thrilling smokiness to pa’piong ayam, free-range chicken marinated in Sulawesi spices, grated coconut and sweet potato leaves, which is wrapped in banana leaf before being stuffed into the hollow of bamboo and grilled.
Ronald plans to open more branches of Kaum, starting with Bali later this summer. It’s a symbolic move for the young Indonesian, who stays connected to his culture even when building an international empire. “We’re all global citizens. We’re exposed to many different cultures and are constantly travelling,” he says. “But we also have our own traditions that we’re proud of, and we always want to bring that back to the forefront.”
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