Discovering the world, one bite at a time!

Farewell. Jakarta Iceblocks,Taking It To The Streets

The only thing easier than finding food in Jakarta is sweating. Fifteen metres in any direction of your hotel is all the effort you have to put in to banish hunger. Sure it isn’t fine dining but street food does have its charms. Where in Brisbane can you experience debilitating leg cramps while crouching in the gutter of a busy backstreet, trying to balance a plate of piping hot food precariously above your groin? If you are still not convinced, the cost of carparking for a couple of hours in Australia exceeds the that of a hearty kerbside feast in Jakarta.

For the uninitiated the busiest food places are near mosques, catering for rush hour either side of prayer time. My rule: the busier the stall the less chance of being doubled up in pain on a toilet for the following week. Let your ears guide you as prayer rings out throughout the city and once you get closer your nose will guide you the rest of the way. It was near a mosque where I literally couldn’t walk past my favourite Indonesian breakfast dish, bubur ayam. Rice porridge covered with a splash of curry, chilli, nuts, soy sauces and shredded chicken. For less than $1.50AUD you can start your day the same way as a million locals. A sticky, spicy and savoury street snack. Side effects are a full tummy and alliteration. This addictive wake-me-up will see me return everyday until immigration drags me out by my ear. So long hotel buffet, greetings old man with the friendly smile and shocking dental hygiene. If you polish off a plate of bubur ayam there is no need to eat until after lunch (the following day), but are you seriously going to pass up the other great street foods?

Mr Bubur Ayam’s neighbour whips up a fresh bowl of ketoprak for me. I raise two fingers in the air to signify two birdseye chillis that will possibly melt my gums. He then gets to work for what is likely the 383,250th time, firing up his gas wok. An old wooden mortar and pestle grinds the chilli, some garlic and a handful of peanuts into a paste, adding water from an old looking bottle to loosen it up. I’m trying to convince myself that the water came from a reputable source (but the answer will only be a few hours away.) I know the egg won’t be the issue this time around because the heat from the wok was peeling paint off the hotels in the next suburb.

After snapping a few action shots I’m ushered to the roadside table, his friend making sure that I have a drink. Fearing that I might bust the chair, recall the double stacking trick from my time in Vietnam. This one tasted better than the Chinatown version because things have a habit of tasting better if you don’t have to eat peanut butter out of a plastic bag with your fingers.

Nearby is another warung (cart) which deals in fried food. Anything you can batter and drop in hot oil in his specialty. I put up one finger for five fried items and rush to the nearest piece of unused turf to examine my haul. Tofu and noodles, some kind of meat, spring rolls and sesame balls, something there for everybody or in this case, all of it for me. The fried aroma was masked by the musty, funky South Asian smell but I didn’t have to be a beagle to sniff it out, it was twenty metres away in direct sight. According to Wikipedia the carts have an official name that once translated to “Five-footed merchant.” I know that most Indonesians are short but this is a bit unfair – turns out the five feet are the number of legs of the cart owner (2), the cart (2) and an awning (1).

One of the most beloved street foods is the nostalgic es goyang, a traditional Indonesian ice block. In what is a dying art metal moulds are filled with a mixture, sticks placed in the centre and then this somehow manages to set in the Jakarta heat. A sea of melting ice in the bottom of the cart is rocked back and forward, somehow managing to solidify. The best thing, you can get it dipped into a chocolate and nut mixture at no extra cost. For anyone that grew up with chocolate Billabongs or Have-A-Hearts the flavours of coconut, strawberry and green bean will have you scratching you head, but all worth a try at $0.40AUD a pop.

And if the ambience of the passing traffic isn’t your idea of alfresco dining you can always visit a bricks and mortar bakery and try some zany creations. My favourite bakery was run by a group of lovely women who also offered traditional Indonesian comfort food. A wide range of pastries stuffed with meat, coconut concoctions, rice utilised 293 different ways as well as the standard breads and rolls. In addition to those premade goodies they serve a handful of familiar local favourites gado gado amongst their best sellers. Gado gado is dish that caters for anyone with a stutter. Essentially it’s a salad that is covered in a spicy peanut sauce. Also called Gado2 (which makes no mathematical sense) it saves on the signwriting costs on street carts. Paraphrasing the ancient Indonesian saying of the Gado gado street cart owner, you eat with your eyes not a calculator. If you have a peanut allergy look away now for your safety, there is enough peanuts in the following photos to trigger a reaction even through the screen.

Walking back from the bakery I saw that semen is possibly a binding ingredient in formwork. Didn’t Google to get confirmation at the risk of some unwanted attention from Customs on my return to Australia (P.S. Back in Australia I found out that Semen Gresik is one of the largest concrete companies in Jakarta.) It’s motto?: Trusted by builders as it manufacturing process is quick when everybody in the company pulls together.

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My nightly ritual was a long sweaty walk and one of these led me to the local night markets where the specialty is goat fried rice (nasi goreng kambing.) The soundtrack supplied by a lady with a portable karaoke machine, consisting of a large stereo speaker around her neck which belted out a backing track while she supplied the (ear splitting) vocals into a microphone. The singing was awful but this was likely due to the weight of the speaker crushing her lungs. Singing in a foreign language, she may have been testing out material for a Hunchback of Notre Dame one woman musical for all I know? She was less annoying than the man who placed a nonsensical “Bank Of Indonesia” plastic paperweight on my table. After a lengthy staring contest he picked it up and moved onto the next table in the hope to meet somebody that resides in a wind tunnel. Couldn’t grab a photo, this would have meant everybody back home would have received a weird souvenir of my time at the goat fried rice stall. Somebody needs to let him in on the concept of a paperless office so he has some time to pivot to something more useful. At least the kids offering tissues for sale had put some thought into their venture.

Similar to the karaoke lady, this blind man is lead around by his backing singer in Chinatown.

I couldn’t leave Jakarta without trying the local delicacy, satay. Meat on sticks in a winner in any culture and apparently it has its origins in Indonesia. The owner was so surprised to see a white man he gave me a special drink which was one part tea, thirty-one parts sugar. The next night I got the invitation to come back and try “the best soup on the street.” Unfortunately I didn’t have the stomach capacity to test his theory but the soup and a side of lontong (ricecake) meant I didn’t go hungry.

When holidaying every meal must finish with dessert and across the road there was a kue putu bambu stall. Rice flour filled with a sweet paste, steamed and then rolled in coconut. A mixture is made and then forced into bamboo cylinders which are placed on top of a steamer with spikes. If you are after something gelatinous and semi-sweet, this is the ticket.

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When you can’t get to sleep because of the heat and the alternative is air-conditioning that coughs out pure liquid nitrogen you will be entertained by the Indonesian version of Family Feud, Family 100. What are the chances that everybody in the family below is a ventriloquist? Not your thing, there is always the 24 hour badminton channel for any shuttlecock freaks?

One day with clouds rolling in from nowhere I decided to see shelter in one of the large shopping malls in Jakarta. This one is that large is has a walkway wider than the Pacific Highway to join the Great Eastern Mall to the Great Western Mall. My review would be one word “snoozefest”. Yes, they are big and heaps of options but it was just every multinational chain next to every other multinational chain. If I wanted a designer polo or jeans that may have fitted me in 1989 I would have been spoilt for choice. Maybe it was because I had been to the mayhem that is Chinatown that this whole setup had no charm or soul. Any of the food on sale was pre-packaged, franchise style slop. After two minutes I was craving the streetside banquets in the heat amongst the stray wildlife.

The one food I shied away from was murtabak. Previously I had tried a savoury version in Malaysia but this sweet version in Jakarta should come with a warning that this will stop blood flow in its tracks. A dense pancake mixture is lubricated with a half a tub of margarine. This is then topped with chocolate, grated cheese, a tin of condensed milk, cut in half and then just for good measure the other half of the margarine tub is rubbed on the top.

Enough to feed 8 people, but it was one of the few things that didn’t pass my lips. Too hedonistic for me. Not only would it go close to killing me, it bordered on extortion at $17AUD. At those prices any of the following are healthier options for the same cost – six cups of coffee, forty-five iceblocks or a hundred satay sticks. If I don’t draw the line somewhere, somebody will be drawing a chalk outline around me.

For anybody that has an interest in weird Asian drinks or icecreams, you’re in luck:

Or perhaps Indonesian chocolate bars and icecreams are more your fetish?

And here is the remaining flotsam and jetsam:

I wanted to give Bali a swerve due to the influx of Australians but I may have overcorrected with the amount of time spent in Jakarta? Would I come back for another visit? Yes, but two weeks was too long. But then again you probably need that additional week to combat what my taxi driver affectionately described as, “The worst traffic jams in the world.” My final taxi, a two hour, twenty-six kilometre trip to the airport suggests the city probably has a claim to this unwanted record?

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This blog started life as a series of emails with poor quality photography to family and friends whilst overseas to let them know I was still breathing.  It has since grown into it’s own little part of the internet.  A place where I ramble on about my love of travel and food.  Hopefully you find some enjoyment and inspiration out of it for future travel plans.  I have got a buzz from seeing it evolve into this flurry of pixels. 

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