By Franz Scheurer
Jakarta is a city made up of five autonomous municipalities, each with its own mayor, with a total population of more than 20 million. Old and new, rich and poor live side by side and the climate, with its incessantly ultra-high humidity, is a great equalizer. Brand new buildings look shabby within weeks and Armani suits crumple just as easily as the local cotton robe.
From a culinary point of view this is a Mecca for the wandering gastronome. Indonesia is a hotpot of different ethnic groups with very individual traditions, cooking methods and ingredients. Even the establishment of the multinational junk-food chains has not dampened the quest for traditional flavours. Most Indonesians eat ‘on the run’ at least once a day, making use of the many food stalls scattered throughout the city (you can’t cross the road without tripping over a mobile kitchen) or visiting their favourite Padang restaurant. Padang is the capital of West Sumatra. Padang restaurants display their food in the front window and do not offer a menu, specializing in a myriad of select dishes, that arrive on your table as soon as you sit down. You are then charged according to what you consume. Many locals will travel considerable distances to get to the Padang restaurant that they perceive serves the best interpretation of the dish they are after. The dexterity of the waiters is astounding. I have never before seen anyone carry so many different dishes at once without spilling a drop. Padang food is generally spicy, meaty and robust and a typical Padang selection might be ‘Gulai Nangka’, jackfruit in coconut curry, a dish so “meaty” it will fool most vegetarians, ‘Cabe Hijau’, a green chilli relish hot enough to blow the wax out of your ears, ‘Rendang’, beef or buffalo coconut curry that is simmered until almost totally dry and improves with age, ‘Gulai Ayam’, chicken in coconut, ‘Kankung’, water spinach, ‘Kacang Panjang’, long beans, ‘Hati Ayam’, chicken liver, ‘Telur Rebus’, eggs cooked for many hours until creamy soft, (just like the Arabic Hamine egg) served with a turmeric sauce and many other dishes, like ‘Gado-Gado’, a salad of vegetables with peanut sauce, stuffed squid or snapper simmered in turmeric, grilled spicy chicken, slipper eggplants in tomato relish, ‘Pete’ a bean pod that tastes at once nutty and not unlike an undercooked artichoke, various kinds of dried fish and the lot accompanied by the ever-present sambals of chilli and sweet soy. Padang food is traditionally eaten with your right hand (a finger bowl is provided) and hot or iced tea is the perfect drink to complement this type of fare.
The city is littered with banks and hotels. Everywhere you look there seems to be one or the other, or both. All the international names are represented and offer pretty much what you would expect. My favourite hotel in Jakarta is the Hotel Borobudur, named after an enormous Buddhist temple, built by the Syailendra Dynasty between 750 AD and 850 AD and lost in the jungle 12 km north-west of Yogyakarta in Central Java, until re-discovered in 1815 entirely buried by volcanic dust. Hotel Borobudur is Indonesian owned and run and they do it very proficiently and with a smile. Nothing seems to be too much trouble, although communication can sometimes be a little bit of a challenge. Amongst the standard international (spell that boring) hotel food fare they also offer a couple of terrific local dishes. One of these is served at breakfast and is called Bubur Ayam, an Indonesian congee, or rice porridge, it is served with chicken in a broth, candied mung beans, deep-fried garlic and onions, freshly chopped green onions, kroepoek (or kerupuk, prawn crackers), sambal oelek (chilli paste) and ketjap manis. (sweet soy) It is wonderfully fragrant and offers substantial nourishment. The hotel’s local dining room is also famous throughout the city for its Sup Buntut (oxtail soup). The oxtail is braised for hours and served in its own broth. The same ingredients that accompany the Bubur (minus the chicken) are eaten again with this dish. It has an unctuous, gelatinous mouth-feel and a deep and lingering, satisfying taste. Although Indonesia is a Muslim country the fundamentalists are a vocal minority and alcohol is freely available at reasonable prices. Borobudur has a terrific selection of international wines and if you’re into cigars then the selection of rare and fabulous items will blow your mind. It will be worth your while to visit the on-site bakery and sweet shop where you can purchase an ‘Almond and Durian Croissant’, (absolutely delicious) and admire the row of pastries, going from right to left, ‘Vanilla Danish’, ‘Apple Danish’, Cherry Danish’, followed by ‘Tuna Danish’. (I kid you not!)
If you are adventurous enough to sample the Indonesian cuisine then a visit to Payon will reward your enthusiasm. About half an hour’s drive south from the city centre this pagoda style, open sided restaurant with an open kitchen lies in a serene, tranquil oasis, complete with rice paddies and a few select shops offering local crafts and clothes, surrounded by skyscrapers. The menu is extensive and mainly focuses on Sundanese and West Javan cuisine. Put together a banquet, concentrating on ordering as many different dishes (protein and cooking method wise) that you think you can eat. The food is incredibly cheap due to the local currency’s low value and it is superb. We tried the ‘Ayam goring serai’, deep fried chicken marinated with traditional spices and lemongrass, the ‘Osengan Kecipir’ a green vegetable, similar in shape to bitter melon, sautéed with shallots, garlic and chilli, the ‘Tempe takuk penyet’, fermented deep fried soybean curd marinated in traditional spices crushed in garlic and chilli with a fair whack of belachan, the ‘Sate Kerang bumbu rujak’, clams satay marinated in hot and spicy sauce and, finally, ‘Ikan Layur bakar, bumbu kuning’, grilled ‘Layur (a local freshwater fish) marinated in spicy coconut milk, served with a paste of fresh turmeric, deep-fried garlic and coriander seeds. The accompaniments we ordered were ‘Sambal Terasi’ a hot chilli and shrimp paste dip, the ‘Sambal Belimbing’, a hot chilli relish with tiny baby star fruit, the ‘Sambal Kecap’ which consisted of hot dried chillies in sweet soy sauce, with tomatoes, shallots and lime. To drink we sampled the ‘Es cendol beras’ a riceflour-based grass jelly served with jackfruit pieces in coconut milk and sugar syrup and ‘Es blewah’, iced blewah (red pumpkin) with pandan leaf. The flavours and textures are astonishing. The whole meal a journey through a style of food we see very little of in Australia, and we deserve to see much more of! It is an interesting mixture of the use of dried spices with fresh chilli, fruit and vegetable with the protein almost insignificant in the flavour profile.
Whilst travelling the streets of Jakarta be on the lookout for mobile satay stalls. They grill the meaty skewers over tiny charcoal fires, often using coconut husks for fuel and the end result is absolutely delicious. Chicken satay, especially, is smoky, spicy, and texturally superb, accompanied by a thick, salty peanut sauce. The chicken is threaded thinly onto wooden sticks and caramelised to perfection. If you are very lucky they might even spot someone serving the local soup, ‘Soto Betawi’, (named after the indigenous inhabitants of Jakarta) soup with every part of the cow, including the bone marrow, which is made creamy by the addition of coconut milk.
Shopping is one of the great pastimes for locals and expats alike. There are hundreds of modern shopping malls where you find everything from Estee Lauder’s latest ‘Black Cashmere’ to a 128MB memory stick for a Sony digital camera. They also have impressive food halls. Walk past the Wendy’s, McDonald’s, KFCs etc and look for the local food stalls. You will be rewarded with great, cheap food like ‘Martabak’, crispy skin omelette with egg, vegetables and meat, and many interesting curries, noodles and soups.
In the very northwest of Sulawesi lies the port city of Manado, closest point to the Philippines. Here the food is searingly hot and spicy and seafood is the main protein. This cuisine is of course also available in Jakarta and we tried the following dishes: ‘Kepala Kakap Kuah Asam’, steamed head of red carp in a lemongrass scented hot and sour soup, ‘Tude Bakar Rica’, grilled mackerel in hot chilli, ‘Baronang Bakar Rica’, grilled seasoned white rock fish with hot chilli, ‘Cumi Bakar Sans Rica’, grilled calamari with a separate hot chilli sauce, ‘Ayam Woku Blanga’, steamed seasoned chicken with hot chilli sauce, ‘Perkedel Jagung’, crispy corn fritters, ‘Kang Kang Cah’, water-spinach with garlic, ‘Kang Kang Tumis Jagung Bunga Papaya’, stir-fried water-spinach, corn and papaya buds and finally, ‘Dabu Dabu’, green tomatoes, onions and chilli. No doubt you have recognized the recurring theme of “hot chilli” and to make sure, they serve a separate chilli sambal with the above dishes. The food is very different to anything else we tried in Jakarta. Very fresh, clear flavours compete with much hotter spices. Although a balance is achieved with sweet fruit or coconut drinks it is very chilli focused food and most western palates might find it too hot. It is however eaten with copious quantities of rice and proceeding cautiously, is certainly worth trying.
If you have time to do some sightseeing I suggest you hire a driver (cheaper and a lot safer than a taxi) and drive out to ‘Jatnegera Batu Basar’, the local gem market. You have never seen so many sparkling, glittering colours in one place. Don’t forget to be wary of fakes and drive a hard bargain. If you can’t buy it for half price or less you should be ashamed of yourself. A similarly fascinating place is the ‘Flea market’ on Jalan Surabaya. Here you will find wooden ornaments, ceramics, brass and silver items, rejuvenated navigational equipment and clever antique fakes. Another wonderful place to visit is ‘Sunda Kelapa Harbour’, the old harbour at the northern outskirts of Jakarta, where you can admire the majestic, wooden Makassar schooners manually offloading rice and onloading timber and cement with the totally fearless carriers balancing great load with incredible balance and dexterity up and down the narrow and steep gangplanks.
Jakarta might be a hotbed of political discontent where tempers boil over easily. It displays an almost unimaginable divide between the rich and the poor and it’s noisy, hazy, hot and humid. But Jakarta has a heart. It’s full of charming, smiling people who unquestioningly accept their lot in life and make the best of it. They’re industrious and ingenious. Jakarta is filled with exotic smells, wonderful plants and flowers and once you are wooed by the charm of this city it works like a magnet, drawing you back, again and again!
Jalal Kemang Raya no. 17
Phone: 719 4826
Hotel Borobudur Jakarta
Jalan Lapangan Banteng Selatan
P.O. Box 1329
Phone: +62 21 380 5555
Sari Indah Padang Restoran
Wolter Monginsidi 42-44
Phone: 723 7232 or 722 0930
Cak’ Tu’ Ci’
Ikan Bakar Manado
Jl. Panglima Polim V / 15
Phone: 724 4833 or 726 8484
To Mervyn, Mui and Lola my heartfelt thanks for sharing your local knowledge so generously!