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.
Indonesian cuisine is much more than just sate, nasi goreng and mie goreng, although no one would’ve guessed it from the vast amounts of those dishes I consume during my Jakarta visit. Blame it on my memories.
Indonesia’s unique cuisine is still largely unknown to the outside world, a product of many borrowed cooking styles and ingredients. The Arabs and Indians brought along their spices and martabak (see Jakarta Part 2) and the Spanish introduced the Indonesians to a lifelong affair with chili. But it was the Chinese who had the greatest impact of all: they introduced now-Indonesian staples such as mie (noodles), soy sauce (which becomes kecap manis when sugar is added), taugeh (bean sprouts), and soybeans used to make tahu (tofu) and tempeh (fermented soybean, usually formed into a sheet and fried). Ironically, the Dutch, who ruled Indonesia for a little over a century, weren’t very influential on the local cuisine.
Indonesia’s staple, like the Philippines, is rice. A typical meal consists of the white grain with several small savory (protein) dishes, a moderate serving of sayur, (vegetables), the ever-present sambal (chili sauce or paste), and crispy wafers called krupuk. The krupuk I know (see photo above) is flat with a distinct smell and taste of shrimp, thus krupuk udang (shrimp). I’m told however, that the more traditional krupuk is called krupuk kampung (see below), which is whiter, made with fish, and possesses an interesting interwoven design. It’s slightly blander and somewhat “chewier” than the former. Krupuk is eaten as a snack but is more often paired with a meal to provide crunchy contrast.
Sate Khas Senayan
For my first meal in Jakarta, I return to the Indonesian restaurant that I grew up eating in, Sate Senayan. It’s now called Sate Khas Senayan, but the food still tastes the same. I’m amazed at how my Bahasa Indonesia comes flooding back when faced with an entirely Indonesian menu. Terms like daging (beef), babi (pork), cumi (squid), and ayam (chicken) float before my eyes and I find myself conversing quite comfortably with the waitress. My Bin is looking at me bug-eyed, wondering at the strange sounds coming out of my mouth.
I order all of my favorites: nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), sate ayam (chicken satay), lontong (cubes of pressed rice often served with peanut sauce), krupuk, and deep-fried tofu stuffed with seafood. It’s a veritable feast for just two people, meriting me a curious chuckle from the waitress. “Selamat makan,” she says, wishing us a happy meal.
Happy it is, and happy I am. Every bite of food releases a filmstrip of things I remember from 20 years ago, — memory triggers, meals — sending me back to long-forgotten moments, aromas, people in my Jakarta life. It’s enough to make me weep. Tastes that have been frozen in time in my head are suddenly unlocked, finding wholeness in the nutty smell of the peanut sauce, the characteristic grilled taste of the sate, the oiliness of the nasi goreng, and the soft denseness of the lontong. Long have I waited for this lontong, which could be a sister to the Philippines’ suman, except that it’s unsweetened. Its packed, plain flavor is a foil to the other more pronounced tastes, allowing them to ring forth.
Fancier Indonesian Fare
On another night, some of my Bin’s Indonesian friends take us to an upscale local restaurant. I say “upscale,” because this place is certainly lots more froufrou than the street food I’ve been eating lately.
Many of the local dishes served in restoran (restaurants) come from Java and Sumatra. Sumatran cooking is a confluence of fresh and dry spices to produce equally hot and spicy dishes served with lots of rice to tone down the heat, and ostensibly, to make one eat more. One typically Sumatran dish I’m most familiar with is rendang, specifically beef rendang. It has its origins in Padang, West Sumatra, and it’s a stick-to-your-ribs meat dish simmered in coconut milk, chili, and an alphabet of spices such as black peppercorns, fresh galangal, ginger, and lemongrass. Looking very neat and behaved at this restaurant, the beef rendang is piquant but curiously, not spicy enough to suit my increasingly incendiary tastes. I ask the waiter for a side dish of chopped up cabe (chilies). He looks at me knowingly. “Ah, anda mau lebih pedas, ya?” (“You want it more spicy, yes?”)
As nice as this restaurant is, and as pretty and presentable is its food, I can’t help but feel that it’s not hitting the right notes with me in terms of true Indonesian fare. I have no doubt of its authenticity but I’m suspicious, a feeling that’s not helped by the number of foreigners in the room, including me. Perhaps two days of eating street food has impaired my more “chichi” taste receptors.
Es here, Es there
If Manila has its halo-halo, Indonesia has its es (“ice”). I consider these drinks the precursor of Zagu, Quickly, and all the rest of the pearly shakes gang. There are infinite varieties of es-whatever and not a day goes by during this visit that I don’t scarf down a glass or two of the colorful stuff.
Some of the more standard es drinks are es cendol (seen above), a mixture of palm sugar, coconut milk, and alien-green jelly strips made from mung bean flour and colored accordingly. Heaped with crushed ice, it reminds me of the Filipino guinumis.
This is es teler, traditionally made with coconut milk and whatever fruit is available. This version uses condensed milk, strips of kelapa (coconut), mango, and alpukat (avocado). Indonesians are very fond of this green, buttery fruit and utilize it in several sweet ways. Not a stranger to sweet avocado preparations, I admit that the avocado in this icy concoction provides a mysterious top note of smoothness. “Ok, that’s it, we’re having this every day that we’re in Jakarta!” Declares my Bin, so enamored is he of this es teler.
The photos above and below are examples of es campur. Campur (cham-POOR) means “to mix” and this frosty has nearly everything in it: milk (coconut or condensed), fruit, agar (the strips of seaweed jelly seen in both photos in various colors), and mounds of ice. As an Indonesian acquaintance tells me, “It’s basically everything they can find to put in there.” The red coloring of the es campur above comes from a type of red syrup that is reminiscent of rose water, imbuing the drink with a mysterious flavor.
The coffee that urban legends are made of
Indonesia produces some of the best coffee in the world: Estate Java, Sumatran Mandheling, Bali Kintamani. Big-bodied, lush mouthfeel, and a lingering finish typically describe the Indonesian cup profile. Indonesian coffee is THE original “cup of java,” since the Dutch first brought coffee to the island of Java in the early 18th century.
There’s a type of Indonesian coffee called Kopi Luwak, ”˜luwak‘ being the Indonesian civet cat that roams the archipelago and is reputed to eat only the best coffee beans. The undigested luwak beans are collected from its droppings and then processed. It sounds highly unappealing and open to all sorts of dirty jokes, and some say that such coffee (beans) don’t exist. To unbelievers, the term, ”˜kopi luwak’ nowadays simply means the beans which the luwak would choose to eat, ergo, beans of supreme quality.
I’m not sure what to believe especially after I come across a carved black box in a department store containing 500 grams of kopi luwak that retails for more than 1 million rupiah (over P5,000)! And my interest is piqued all the more when I stumble upon a café called ”“ what else? ”“ Kopi Luwak. Settling down for a cup that costs me about the same price as a short latte at Starbucks (P85), it’s a model of what Indonesian coffee is known for: consummate earthiness and smoldering power. I’m no coffee connoisseur but I know what I like and this stuff is all right. And no, my enjoyment of this particular cup is not marred by thoughts of “cat poop” or whatnot. As for the urban legend, I tend to believe it’s really just that and nothing more. With Kopi Luwak retailing for over $100/pound in the States, I say come to Indonesia and try the real deal for less than a dollar.
Rice rules for an Indonesian breakfast but so does roti bakar, (grilled) toast with a choice of fillings, usually cheese or chocolate. Readily available from any warung kopi (coffee stall) it’s the perfect jumpstart to one’s day together with a cup of kopi manis (sweet coffee).
This particular roti bakar is unfortunately not from a warung kopi but from a small restaurant that touts itself as having “the best roti bakar.” I don’t know what I’m expecting, but it’s two relatively ordinary pieces of square white bread lightly spread with cheese, chocolate, and a mere smear of kaya jam. Like I said, I’m not sure what I was expecting but I’m disappointed. The toast has a pleasant, smoky taste to it but it’s a bit meager on the filling. Perhaps this “restaurantified” specimen isn’t characteristic of the better ones being sold at the kopi warung.
The best food in Jakarta
Every traveler knows that the best food of any city is found where the locals eat. In Jakarta, it’s at the warung (food stall) or from the kaki lima (ambulant food vendor). All the martabak and serabi and gorengan have proved that to me.
So not wanting to take any chances, my Bin and I have one snack at a jajanan malam (evening street dining) on our last night in Jakarta. Here, the locals eat as they are wont to do, by using the fingers of the right hand (kamayan). The rustic ambience and sparse lighting belie a selection of food that is varied as it is delicious: fried noodles, fried rice, fried chicken, siomay, tahu, and of course sate and martabak. This is food that’s cooked with exceptional sincerity and purity of spirit. Truly, it’s what good food is all about.
I have my martabak manis (see Jakarta Part 2) which grants me my own personal epiphany several times over. My Bin, on the other hand, has 10 sticks of sate complete with lontong which he pays a measly Rp.10,000 (P50) for. Eating and chatting, taking swigs of air mineral (bottled water) and breathing in the now-cool evening air devoid of dust and smog, this is the Jakarta food of my memory. It’s unlikely that nothing else can inspire in me such unmixed delight.