Taking Tempeh to Madison Street

Published: Jakarta Post, May 26 2013

Simple as it is, tempeh turns out to be diners’ favorite in Bandung Restaurant — an Indonesian eatery in the US.

The restaurant’s owner, Mochammad Sjachrani, is proud of his tempeh, which he has personally made from the scratch in the past 15 years.

Tempeh is one of three kinds of soybean products from Asia — tofu from China, miso from Japan and tempeh from Indonesia.

“A long time ago, you only found tempeh in the homes of poor families because meat was expensive in Indonesia at that time. But now you can find tempeh in five star hotels,” said the man, better known as Roni, who also sells his tempeh at several stores near his restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin and ships some out of the state as well.

The tempeh at Bandung Restaurant is served in western style. One of the dishes, sambal goreng tempe (spicy fried tempeh), is delicious, with a pleasant balance of sweet and sour flavors. Although the name suggests it may be spicy, the dish is not.

Interestingly, the dish comes with a beer recommendation — after all this is tempeh served the American way.

“I have been eating tempeh since I was 7. I am a vegetarian, so tempeh is one of my favorite dishes. I never knew that tempeh originally from Indonesia. I think that’s interesting,” said Talia Sarah, an American student dining in the restaurant.

An Indonesian student, Ilham Barab, was happy when he found out that Bandung Restaurant sold his favorite food.

Mochammad “Roni” Sjachrani shows his Taste of Madison award.

“When I came to Madison, at first I was homesick. Then I found tempeh in one of the grocery stores. I was so happy because I grew up with tempeh. My mom always cooked tempeh,” he says.

Home of the famous rendang (beef stew) and popular nasi goreng (fried rice), Indonesian cuisine is not particularly well-known in the US, with only some 50 restaurants scattered the vast country.

Roni, who has been living in the US for 33 years, recalled that at first he struggled to promote Indonesian cuisine.

Hundreds of years ago, spices from Indonesia were brought across the oceans but Indonesian dishes only began to appear on menus in Europe after the Second World War, even though Indonesia was colonized by Dutch for more than 300 years.

The 75-year-old, who arrived in the US in 1980 from Banten in Java and attended the University of Wisconsin, said that not many people in the US know that many spices are originally from Indonesia.

“I jumped into the business although I never had the done it before,” said the man, who looks more like a university professor than a restaurant owner with his gray hair and thick glasses.

His oldest son, Pramudya Adriansyah, managed a Chinese restaurant and although he graduated from college with a psychology major, he preferred to work in the culinary business instead.

In 1996, they opened a small catering business targeting Indonesian students, who had just arrived to study there. The business lasted for four years.

Being limited financially, Roni and his son planned to buy an existing restaurant. The opportunity came when one of Pram’s friends in California offered them a loan. Another door opened up when a friend of Roni’s wife, Nani Sjachrani, wanted to sell her Thai restaurant.

Bandung’s owner Mochammad “Roni” Sjachrani (left) chats with his diners
After negotiations, they were able to pay one third of the cost for the restaurant and the rest was to be paid in installments over four years.

“But we paid off our debt only in two years,” Roni says.

When they first started the restaurant in 2000, five family members — Roni, his wife Nani, Pram and his wife Julie as well as Roni’s youngest son, Riki Sjachrani — were involved in the business.

They had to do everything by themselves since because they simply did not have enough money to hire workers.

“I woke up in the morning and I wore my tie. Every customer who came in for lunch wore a tie, so I thought it would be nice to greet them in a formal suit. I helped with the cooking and I also had to wash the dishes at noon,” said Roni, who is friends with many of his regular customers.

He said opening an ethnic restaurant in the US is a risky business as many Indonesians who tried their hands at the business ended up having to close.

The creativity in combining Indonesian cuisine with Western style is the key to Bandung Restaurant’s appeal to its
customers.

The restaurant’s dishes have often won the Best Ethnic Food Award in the Taste of Madison annual food festival.

“We have survived for 13 years now. We have expanded to 98 seats and we also have our own bar,” he said proudly.


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