Note: Before Manila, Jakarta was the first place I ever thought of as home. It was there that I lived for almost seven years from 1981-1987 — I was 7 when I arrived and 13 years old when I tearfully bade goodbye to a country that had been so good to me. Twenty years later, I’m now 33 and married, living the next chapter in my life. This is the story of my journey back to Jakarta, my Jakarta.
There are several foods that I’m tracking down while here in Jakarta, foods that I ate when I lived here and grew to love. How does one begin to describe what it’s like to once again eat long-cherished fare ”“ food that is separated from me by time and distance?
The first thing I seek out when arriving in Jakarta is the soft drink of my youth, Fanta Merah (Fanta Red). The red stands for rasa strawberi (strawberry flavor) although one swig of this and no one who’s ever eaten a fresh strawberry will be persuaded to believe that. As expected of anything that’s strawberry “flavored,” Fanta Merah is also a garish shade of red, as red as the outside of its can. I remember this carbonated libation used to come in slim bottles but those have gone the way of rotary dial telephones and cassette tapes.
Still, there’s something to be said for taste, and Fanta Merah is still as sickly sweet and reminiscent of fizzy cough syrup as I remember. It’s not a terribly moving description I know, but it’s a flavor that grew on me as a child in Jakarta and it still appeals to my now “adult” sensibilities. I kind of miss sucking my Fanta Merah through a straw though, since I’m now chugging this drink through a can.
There are many things that are native to Indonesia and salak (SAH-lak) is one of them. Its name characterizes its scaly brown skin, a fruit grown at the base of a squat palm tree. The skin is thin and strong and is easily peeled, although it’s occasionally sharp enough to pierce fingers or impart a “paper cut.” To peel, pinch the tip of the fruit and pull away. Looking a lot like a fig, the salak’s flesh is composed of three to four segments of varying sizes, most of which contain a dark brown (hard!) seed.
A salak is quite dry and crunchy, almost like biting into an apple. It’s also a little tangy due to its high tannin content leaving my mouth a bit “chalky.” It’s impossible to describe what a salak tastes like — truly, it can’t be compared to any other fruit or food that I’ve ever tasted. There’s an entire orchestra of flavors going on, but sweet and acidic come to mind.
Eating at the local warung
Warung (WAH-roong) are simple food stalls that line the streets in any Indonesian city. It’s here where the true essence of Jakarta’s native cuisines can be tasted, for as little as Rp (rupiah) 500 or P2.50 per dish/piece. The following are three of my childhood favorites.
Serabi (suh-RAH-bee) is an Indonesian pancake, a small flying saucer-like thing that reminds me of a fried egg. It’s found only on the streets and during the late morning to early afternoon, at that. The serabi that I remember was light brown, almost tan, and it was carried around on the street in large triangular glass containers balanced on the vendor’s shoulder.
The serabi that I see this time around is still being sold by a roving food vendor but now, he’s equipped with a clay pot and charcoal so that he can make the serabi as he sells it. I’m elated to find this kue kecil (KOO-eh keh-CHILL; little cakes) of my youth because they’re not as widely sold on the street as bakso (meatball soup) or kretek (clove cigarettes). The vendor ladles a small amount of his green-tinged batter onto the hot clay wok, stirs the edges around to smoothen them and then covers the pot with a conical aluminum cover. Less than three minutes later, the batter has cooked up into a pancake with brittle edges and a center that has miraculously puffed up into a pillowy delight.
A serabi has crispy edges — from rice flour — and an increasingly softer texture towards the middle — from wheat flour, sometimes combined with tapioca or sago flour. While cooking, the pancake gives off an ethereal aroma of coconut milk with a lightness blessed by a combination of yeast and/or baking powder, sugar, and a kiss of pandan.
There are two kinds of martabak (mar-tuh-BAK), and they completely differ in appearance and taste. Martabak telor is egg-based or savory, a square, deep-fried omelet usually stuffed with ground beef and shredded vegetables. Its sweeter sister, martabak manis, is the one that my heart beats for, however. An inch-thick disc of decadence aflame with chocolate, cheese, and condensed milk, it’s a serabi, supersized and on steroids. Think: the mother of Manila’s local bibingcrepe. And all this for only Rp10,000 (P50!) I stuff myself useless and waddle off. “Ay, saya senang sekali!” (“I’m so happy!”) In my eyes right now, the martabak vendor who blessed me with his creation is right up there with God.
When we were living in Jakarta, my mom constantly reminded me and my sisters to never buy food from the streets. “It’ll be the death of you,” I remember her saying, shaking her finger at us. “Think, Hepa A, B, and C!” It’s what I’m thinking of as I spy this gorengan (goh-reng-AN) stall in Blok M. A gorengan literally means “fried things,” and is a temple to all things deep-fried and bad for me. Just my kind of food, I say.
Golden brown snacks fried to perfection gleam in front of me: tahu (tofu), tempe (bean curd), pisang (bananas), singkong (cassava), ubi (sweet potato, our local kamote) and more. I buy one of each and watch as the vendor places each dripping fritter into a paper “container” and watch transfixed as the oil subsequently proceeds to stain the paper. Hoo-ah, this is gonna be good, I tell myself.
I have a shirt that reads, “If it ain’t fried, I ain’t eatin’ it.” Fried food is the best, so you can imagine how good these goodies are from the gorengan stall. And no, I don’t get hit with any ill after-effects. Just to compare, I buy some upscale gorengan from the supermarket and they don’t taste as good as the ones from the street.
Kue (KOO-eh; alternatively kueh, kuih) is cake, sweet little treats not confined to a certain meal but eaten throughout the day. Almost all kues are made with coconut milk, pandan, gula melaka (palm sugar) and assorted starches (rice flour, glutinous rice flour, glutinous rice, tapioca, and on occasion, wheat flour) for structure. Kue lapis is a special type of Indonesian layer cake and it differs according to which region it’s made in. There’s Kue Lapis Surabaya, Lapis Malang, Lapis Legit and more. Each one of them is quite different in the number of layers stacked, colors, and flavors. What you see in the photo are lapis legit and lapis coklat (chocolate).
These cakes consist of thin alternating layers made of butter, eggs, and sugar piled on top of each other. Each layer is laid down and baked separately. It’s a lengthy, laborious process which justifies its steep price (about P100/slice) and explains why many are made only for special occasions. At first bite, kue lapis tastes just like any butter cake until notes of cinnamon and cardamom float through. This characteristic flavor is due to the Spekkoek spice, a type of spice mixture that consists of the above-mentioned spices plus nutmeg and cloves. Other countries like Singapore and Malaysia also boast of their own kue lapis, but I’ll always attribute this cake to Indonesia.
Orange juice, strawberry milk, and “that chocolate bar”
I miss the days when I could mindlessly eat all the sweets I wanted. My childhood was all about sugary treats that now make me cringe with their artificial flavors, but sometimes it’s just good to taste them again.
I hardly drink anything other than water now but when I was a kid, orange juice was my citrus of choice. Rather than getting it fresh, I preferred the fake stuff packed in a tetra pack under the brand name Buavita. Mom used to put this in my Holly Hobbie lunchbox and it was my noontime staple along with my then-best friend’s liverwurst and mustard sandwich on wholewheat.Though its packaging and design are predictably different now than what it was 20 years ago, the juice itself tastes as artificial as plastic with some chemical thrown in for that orange tang. One sip and I smile at the rush of memories.
I think that I was born drinking milk. Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right. Okay, I was weaned on milk and I haven’t stopped my love for this particular dairy. Lactose intolerance (LI) is foreign to me. When other kids were being asked if they’d, “Got milk?”, I was already way ahead of them with all the milk I could get, sipping up milk and all its variant flavors. In Jakarta, there was a brand we called Indomilk, although I think it’s now been replaced with Ultra Milk, as seen in photo. Most kids my age at the time were grossed out with something that put strawberries and milk together but I loved it. Still do. I only wonder why I’m not taller than I am, considering all the milk I drank as a kid.
Any chocolate that has a cocoa percentage lower than 60% will often merit a dismissive sniff from so-called connoisseurs. They say that Hershey’s, Mars, and their ilk often churn out not chocolate but confections, or candy, if you will. I can only imagine what they’d have to say about Chocnut, those Goya chocolate footballs or my childhood fave, Beng-Beng. Made only in Indonesia, a Beng-Beng is a chocolate-enclosed wafer lined with caramel. It’s crispy and will often suspend a chocolate craving in its tracks. I loved it and after one bite on this trip, I was happy to see that it still tastes the same as it did two decades ago. And oh look, Beng-Beng has kept up with the times by creating more variants: peanut butter, cappuccino, and mint.
Up next: The food of Indonesia.