Dropping back into the frozen Midwestern tundra after spending a good long spell in the fourth-world paradise that is Indonesia was a little shocking to my body, mind and spirit. I just returned from an epic adventure to Bali and Lombok that still has my mind reeling. I was exploring and volunteering in a tiny mountain village called Sembalun Lawang on Lombok (a very primitive Muslim island just east of Bali) and, of course, in between my incredibly rewarding classes of teaching English to all the school kiddies, I did what I do best: I ate.
The food of Indo reminds me of Spanish-style tapas—not the flavor but the way the meal is laid out. Situated on colorful plastic mats, everything centers on fluffy piles of white rice, and the spread just gets better from there. Vibrant vegetables picked that morning, tiny squares of salty omelette, and spicy homemade sambals (think Indonesian salsas) are the mainstays in this exotic cuisine, and I ate like a champ. If I wasn't eating the delicious meals made by my local live-in family on Lombok, I was busy seeking out an addictive national dish called nasi campur (mixed rice). My fascination for that brilliant 40-cent meal bordered on the obsessive, and the only dishes I've found that remind me of it in Chicago are the wildly flavored eats at Da Rae Jung, a storefront Korean joint in Rogers Park. I never thought I'd be a fan of Korean food, but this off-the-radar gem has made me a believer. Just be on the lookout if you're going to trek out in this hellish weather to find it, because Da Rae Jung doesn't have proper signage. It only sports a bright fluorescent sign that simply states: Korean Restaurant. Better to call a spade a spade, I guess.
The looks-like-it's-on-the-skids dining room is usually empty, and what a shame. Everything that the beaming host/waiter/busboy/possible owner suggests is so bursting with flavor, it makes my heart swell. You'd be wise to just let this gentle soul order for you since the menu can be a tad intimidating. Each made-to-order dish is a sight to behold, and tastes like the pure essence of Korean hospitality. Friends who like to share do really well here.
After ordering enough to feed a small army, my dining compadre Lisa and I sat quietly awaiting what we knew would soon pepper the table—almost a dozen tiny bowls of Korean vegetables created just to whet our appetites. I was stunned when I tasted the homemade kimchee, since I usually abhor this putrid smelling dish. Ah, but these kids do it up right; one whiff of the sweetly scented fermented cabbage, and I knew I could chow on it for days. Traditionally seasoned bean sprouts, broccoli and zucchini rounded out a whole cadre of other dishes we didn’t recognize, but we just happily nibbled away until our main dishes arrived. I wish I could tell you what those were, too, but I let the main man of the house do all the ordering, and he just started blitzing the table with dish after dish of pure bliss.
My favorite was a rice/veggie/egg concoction that he brought out sizzling in a black pot. Once he presented it to us, he expertly sliced and diced all the ingredients tableside to create a tasty little nugget of homestyle perfection. We also taste-tested a fantastic noodle soup with veggies, egg and lean meat, and the beef dish he trolled out packed a flavor punch. Lisa attacked that one with balls-out delight, while I kept my chopsticks working overtime on the sizzling egg dish. After our somewhat uncivilized eating frenzy, our table looked as if it had been blasted by a bomb, but our new friend was so excited by our state of happiness, we figured it was a sign of respect that we had attacked the food so feverishly. Like the beautiful natives of Indonesia, I don't think they see too many white faces at Da Rae Jung, but, just like Indo, I will be back there lickety-split. When you find a good thing, it's wise to stick with it.
The final rave: If you really, really dig the kimchee, you can purchase small tubs of it from the kind folks at DRJ. It might well be the best in the city.
Keep it going:
Do it: Lombok Live-In
This was my volunteer situation over in Indo, and there is seriously no other way I can travel now. Give to get. It's my new mantra.
Eat it: nasi campur
This always-changing dish just blew my mind. Start with rice and then add the day's meats and veggies accordingly. Top with egg. Simple yet profoundly satisfying.
Read it: Eat, Pray, Love
Even though I read this book almost two years ago, I saw loads of people all the way from San Fran to Singapore to Korea to Indo with this page-turner in their hands. I still recommend it.
Get crazy with it: Volunteer Abroad
This handy site is loaded with fantastic volunteer opportunities around the world. Pick your poison. Hell, you could even base your give-back choice on which cuisine you're keen on exploring. What a way to travel, eh?