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New York Times / Life - Entertain

Sendok Garpu Serves Up Indonesian Cuisine Outside Brisbane

The restaurant in Indooroopilly offers specialties from all over Indonesia.

Slide Show|8 Photos Finding Indonesian Food in Brisbane

Finding Indonesian Food in Brisbane

David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

INDOOROOPILLY, Queensland — “Stinky bean” is a good nickname for a jolly baby, but it is also the colloquial name for petai, a plant whose vibrantly green seeds look much like fava beans. Unlike the polite fava, petai has an irrepressibly subversive personality that unleashes an umami bomb of funk, with a flavor like a shiitake mushroom but more extreme.

At Sendok Garpu, an Indonesian restaurant in the Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, petai hustles its raucous stank in a dish of king prawns and chopped green beans, cooked in coconut milk and a sweet chile sauce. It stays with you — I swear I could still taste it the next day.

Sendok Garpu, which means “spoon and fork” in Indonesian, is a large restaurant decorated in dark wood, Indonesian fabrics and leafy potted plants, but its origins are in a desolate parking lot on the other side of town. Alicia Martino, the chef and owner, immigrated to Brisbane in 1998 with her husband so they could pursue university degrees away from the riots that were shaking Jakarta.

In 2010, when her first child was about to enter kindergarten, Ms. Martino was looking to get into the food business, but lacked the funds to rent a traditional restaurant space. She came across a listing for a snack bar in the middle of an industrial park in Coopers Plains, an outer suburb of Brisbane. The original plan for the business was to sell small bites and lunch — meat pies, sandwiches — during the week to workers in the warehouses that surround the stall.

But sales were sparse, and when floods hit Brisbane in January 2011, many of the businesses in the industrial park shut down. Ms. Martino’s brother, who also lives in Brisbane, complained at the time that people from his church had nowhere to eat and socialize after services. So Ms. Martino began opening the stand on Sundays, serving family recipes: her father’s lamb curry, beef rendang, nasi goreng and noodle soups.

Before long, word got out, and the Sunday lunch crowd became larger (and more lucrative) than the trickle of weekday business. The Sunday meals also became a focal point for the social life of Brisbane’s Indonesian community. Eventually, Ms. Martino opened on Saturdays and shut down the weekday operation completely.

Impossibly light and crisp corn cakes, served with peanut dipping sauce, are much like those sold from street stalls in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

The Coopers Plains location of Sendok Garpu is still in operation, and it is one of those food discoveries that is so unexpected it feels like pure magic. To find it, you drive down a suburban side street and turn into an unmarked collection of buildings. The industrial park has rebounded somewhat since the floods, but on the weekend the area is deserted except for the white tents of Ms. Martino’s food stall in the center of the block. There, families gather at plastic tables to eat plates of West Sumatran-style mixed rice with cabbage, searingly spicy beef rendang, and green beans cooked in fragrant yellow curry.

In 2014, after attracting a cult following through the weekend stall and appearances at food festivals, Ms. Martino opened the full-time dinner operation in Indooroopilly. The food in Coopers Plains is homey and comforting, but the Indooroopilly restaurant serves specialties from all over Indonesia — dishes more likely to be found at festivals and celebrations. The menu is six pages, but if you have only ever eaten in Bali, one of the most popular tourist destinations for Australians, there will be much that is unfamiliar. The island is the only part of Indonesia with a majority Hindu population. (The nation is predominantly Muslim.) There is no pork on this menu, and no booze — though you are welcome to bring your own.

To start, there are impossibly light and crisp corn cakes, served with peanut dipping sauce, like those sold from street stalls in North Sulawesi. Martabak telur presents beef with egg and shallot, wrapped in crepes and fried to a shattery crisp. On the “wok station” section of the menu you can find multiple iterations of nasi goreng — the fried rice considered by many to be Indonesia’s national dish — including versions made with wide, sticky egg noodles or vermicelli. The kitchen does not hold back, and there is a hefty dose of funk and spice in each version. Most tables have a bowl of cooling peanut-dressed gado gado salad on hand as salve for the heat.

Even if the spice and pungency thrill you, there are things at Sendok Garpu that might be less appealing to a non-Indonesian palate. Fried items are fried hard — catfish is so crispy it is difficult to pry from its skeleton. Some short-rib dishes are cooked to a meaty stew, while others are fried to a suspended state of hot oily crackle, like beef chicharrón with bones.

Many dishes come with one of three house-made sambals: one sweet with green chile, one pungent with fermented shrimp, the last bright with garlic — all of them intensely spicy. It is worth ordering a side of each with your meal, to add to rice and stir-fry dishes. They showcase the same deft complexity that appears in the restaurant’s curries. The lamb curry in particular (Ms. Martino attributes the recipe to her father) is musky and rich and irresistibly sweat-inducing.

At both locations, Ms. Martino is telling the story of her country. The cultural exchange between Australia and Indonesia has mainly gone one way: Australian tourists vacation in Bali. Sendok Garpu offers a wonderful taste of what is possible when that exchange goes the other way, when an expat community’s yearning for a taste of home makes all of our lives more delicious.

Do you have a suggestion for Besha Rodell? The New York Times’s Australia bureau would love to hear from you: nytaustralia@nytimes.com or join the discussion in the NYT Australia Facebook group. Read about the Australia Fare column here.

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