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Food from the heart of Java

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Imagine an island seven degrees south of the equator, blessed with rich volcanic soil, where broad coastal plains rise to the hills and a chain of mystical 3,000-metre peaks. An island roughly the size of Greece, of sprawling cities, endless rice fields, and raw, otherworldly landscapes where you might find boiling lakes and plumes of steam billowing from the earth. This island is known as Java, and it is a food-lover’s paradise.

The population of Java, a staggering 145 million at the last count, is largely divided between three ethnic groups: the Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese, each with their own ways of cooking. This post concentrates on the cuisine of Central Java and Yogyakarta, for that is where Bama and I spent three weeks at the start of our recent Spice Odyssey.

What is the character of Javanese food? I would describe it as the buttery taste of candlenut, the earthy notes of turmeric, nutmeg, cumin and coriander seed; the fragrance of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, lemon basil, ginger and galangal, blended with the sharp tang of garlic and shallot; the fiery jolt of bird’s eye chillies; and the creaminess of coconut milk. There is also one particular trait that sets it apart from Indonesia’s other regional cuisines. While the Sundanese like to eat fresh leaves, the Javanese penchant for sweetness is expressed in the liberal use of palm sugar and kecap manis, a syrupy soy sauce reminiscent of treacle.

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Mie ongklok, Dieng Plateau

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Kupat tahu, Magelang

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Bale Raos, a restaurant serving royal cuisine, Yogyakarta (Jogja)

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Loro Blonyo, a Javanese carving of a bridal couple, at Bale Raos

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Skewered meats including sanggar (top left) and catfish rolls at Bale Raos

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Making young jackfruit stew (gudeg), at Gudeg Pawon, Jogja

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A pyramid of gudeg, wrapped in banana leaf

Apart from the popularity of soy sauce, I spot a few other Chinese influences. In the highlands of Dieng – accompanied by fellow travel bloggers Bart and Badai – Bama and I sample mie ongklok, a specialty of nearby Wonosobo. It consists of noodles, cabbage and chopped chives in a thick, starchy sauce, served with beef sate. The noodles are boiled with the help of a woven bamboo basket called ongklok, hence the name. For dinner near the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur, we try kupat tahu – a bowl of rice dumplings, fried tofu and bean sprouts in peanut sauce.

In Yogyakarta, or Jogja for short, the four of us visit the restaurant of Bale Raos for a taste of royal cuisine. The two standouts are favourites of the current dynasty’s seventh sultan: urip-urip gulung, grilled catfish rolls in turmeric gravy; and sanggar, thick slices of spiced beef slathered in coconut milk before grilling.

After dinner, we wait an hour in line for bungkus (takeout) at Gudeg Pawon, a warung converted from a typical Javanese house. Jogja’s signature dish of gudeg – stewed young jackfruit – will be tomorrow’s pre-dawn breakfast. The heat of the kitchen fills the air, and I can feel the beads of sweat forming on my face and arms. The line moves at a snail’s pace, past a vat of jackfruit stew simmering away on a simple firewood stove. When it is finally our turn to be served, the attendants heap gudeg, chicken and boiled egg on a portion of rice, deftly wrapping the whole ensemble in banana leaf and brown paper.

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Alfresco dining at Galabo, Surakarta (Solo)

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Grilling sate (satay) at Galabo

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Sate buntel, Solo

Cabuk rambak with rice crackers, Solo

Cabuk rambak (right) with rice crackers, Solo

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Nasi liwet tempong, Solo

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Tongseng, Solo

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Tengkleng, Solo

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A feast at Omah Sinten, Solo

In Solo – formally known as Surakarta – Bama and I return each night to the street stalls at Galabo to sample the local delicacies. We bite into succulent sate buntel, mutton satay covered in fat and drizzled in kecap manis, and admire the resourcefulness of the “poor man’s dish” called tengkleng, a delicious heap of goat ribs and offal in soup. I find a worthy addition to my list of favourite Indonesian dishes in tongseng, a curry-like mutton stew with vegetables and the distinctive touch of kecap manis.

We also try nasi liwet tempong, rice cooked in coconut milk and chicken broth, topped with egg, sliced vegetables and chicken thigh; and order a side of cabuk rambak – rice dumplings (ketupat), peanut sauce and a spicy-sweet mystery paste.

In Semarang, Bama’s mother is a chef extraordinaire, cooking us a sumptuous array of Javanese delights including nasi gandul, rice and aromatic beef stew from the nearby town of Pati. She even prepares me a birthday dinner of nasi kuning (yellow turmeric rice) with seven sides, five of them created in her own kitchen. I have already raved about her unbeatable opor ayam in a previous post, and I must also mention the Semarang specialty of mangut iwak pe. A medley of smoked stingray cooked in coconut milk, with palm sugar, ground spices, and three varieties of chilli, Bama tells me mangut is rarely served in restaurants, and it tastes as wonderful as it sounds.

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Nasi kuning (yellow turmeric rice), Semarang

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The stew and spices for nasi gandul, a beef dish from Pati

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Smoked ray (iwak pe), Semarang

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Bama’s mother cooking chillies for mangut, a Semarang specialty

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The finished product – mangut iwak pe

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Some of the spices used in Javanese cooking

74 Comments Post a comment
  1. ceeesssssss…

    January 28, 2016
    • Iya, saya kangen masakan khas Jawa!

      January 28, 2016
  2. Awesomeee.. As usual, I like the way you describe it, James!

    January 28, 2016
    • Makasih, Wien! I can’t wait till my next trip to Indonesia.

      January 28, 2016
      • Terima kasih kembali James. When will you come back to Indonesia?

        January 29, 2016
      • Hopefully sometime this year, Wien. I was thinking of coming again after Imlek but that doesn’t look very likely now. We’ll see!

        January 29, 2016
      • I see. Actually you have to make it in Imlek festive. You can go to Singkawang 😉

        January 29, 2016
  3. This post makes me hungry! Can’t wait to taste Indonesian food next week! 🙂

    January 28, 2016
    • You won’t be disappointed, that’s for sure! 🙂

      January 28, 2016
  4. Gosh, I’m glad I’m still in Semarang when this post comes. 🙂 Come again to Java, James. My mother says there are still many dishes you haven’t tried.

    January 28, 2016
    • With your mom’s incredible cooking, I’m jealous that you’re in Semarang. 🙂 I wish I could fit in another trip after Chinese New Year… I am missing Javanese food so much! It doesn’t help that so few of my favourite dishes are available in Hong Kong.

      January 28, 2016
  5. James, those photos are killing me 🙂
    I am missing Indonesian food so much and can’t wait till I come home next month.
    Hope you enjoyed all those foods..

    cheers,

    January 28, 2016
    • Sorry about that, Nurul. 🙂 I think masakah khas Jawa is my favourite food in the world – I love sweet things and complex flavours so it’s perfect for me.

      January 28, 2016
  6. James, I wish I could join your food-adventures in Semarang and Solo. Seems that you makan macam-macam dan banyak yaaa hahaha 😀

    Btw, I like the way you describe Javanese foods in third paragraph. Jempol! 🙂

    January 28, 2016
    • Makasih, Bart! It was so good to have you and Badai along for the first part of our trip. If you stayed with us longer we would have tried even more local dishes! I know you would love Tante Dhani’s food in Semarang. 😀

      January 29, 2016
      • I’am absolutely sure about that, since Sego Gandul, Iwak Pe, and Mangut are some of my favourite Javanese dishes as well. They remind me to my childhood-live in Semarang and Kudus.

        Iya nih, kangen juga jalan bareng kalian lagi. Let’s arrange another trip James. Sumatra overland maybe? 😉

        January 29, 2016
      • I really think Jateng has the best food. Mungkin karena aku punya ‘ilat Jowo’. 😉

        Sumatra overland? Tapi jalan rusak! I’d love to see more of NTT, Maluku and Sulawesi. 🙂

        January 29, 2016
      • (((Ilat Jowo))) hahahaha. Who told you about that? Tante Dhani or Bama? 😀

        Agree with you, Jateng has the best food!

        Well, anywhere is okay James, asal bareng kalian aku mau. I’ve never been in NTT nor Maluku. And just visit a small part of South and North Sulawesi. So, we have many option to pick 😉

        Jadi mau ke Indonesia, Imlek ini James?

        January 29, 2016
      • Tante Dhani figured it out. And she’s right! Aku suka manis dan gurih. 😀

        NTT and Maluku are two of my favourite provinces. I am sure you will love them both. Pengen datang lagi setelah Imlek, tapi harus mencari pekerjaan…

        January 29, 2016
      • Dan aku pikir belakangan dirimu suka yang pedas juga James 🙂

        I am sure about that too. Your article about Banda makes me want to visit it soon.

        Cari kerja? Ah, I think that the most important thing you have to do now. Semoga cepat dapat pekerjaan baru ya James. Amiin 😉

        January 29, 2016
      • Betuuuul. Dulu, sebelum ketemu dengan Bama, aku nggak suka. Sekarang aku sudah terbiasa makan yang pedas. 😛

        Makasih, Bart! Mudah-mudahan bisa kerja di Jakarta. Meskipun ada macet dan banjir, aku pengen pindah ke sana. 😉

        January 29, 2016
      • Siiip, cocoklah kalau nanti kita coba masakan Minang atau Lombok ya 🙂

        Amiin amiin, semoga James 😉

        January 29, 2016
  7. Your spectacular photos and descriptions have all our mouths watering! The spice blends are especially intriguing to me – I would love to taste those.

    January 28, 2016
    • I learned so much about spices in Java. The best part was watching Bama’s mother cook, and then tasting her dishes afterwards! That experience has made a huge impact on my own cooking – just today I made fried rice with turmeric, nutmeg, pepper, garlic and shallot.

      January 29, 2016
  8. My mouth is watering. I loved the food in Java and hopefully I’ll get back one of these days. Your feature shot of the satay is particularly tantalizing.

    January 28, 2016
    • That shot is one of my favourite food pictures from Indonesia – I think the familiarity of satay made it an easy choice for the feature image. Guess I am pretty lucky to live just 4 hours away by plane… I’d love to go back sometime this year.

      January 29, 2016
  9. I could hop on a plane right now the effect of your pictures makes my mouth water … oh all that spiceyness; what a treat!

    January 29, 2016
    • I feel the same way! We have some good restaurants here but they are often expensive and lack the dishes I miss the most. It’s strange how Indonesian food can remain so underrated while Thai and Vietnamese are so popular around the world.

      January 29, 2016
      • The first time I had Indonesian food was a few months ago when I was in Amsterdam! I’m sure there must be at least one in the DC metro area, so I’ll have to find it.

        January 29, 2016
      • That would be really interesting – and a great way to combat the extreme winter weather these days!

        January 29, 2016
  10. The way you described the foods and flavors had my mouth watering! Being a vegetarian, though, I wonder if I would find a lot of Indonesian/Javanese dishes to try? By the way, I was just reading that jackfruit is the new darling here in the U.S.; lots of chefs are using it these days. I just had some for the first time in Nicaragua!

    January 29, 2016
    • Actually yes, although vegetarianism isn’t very common in Java, there are plenty of fabulous vegetarian dishes. Gado-gado and pecel are perhaps the most famous; both consist of mixed vegetables in peanut sauce. You can also have stewed young jackfruit without the sides of chicken and egg.

      One of my favourites is lontong sayur, which is coconut milk and vegetables with rice steamed in banana leaf. You’ll also find lots of tofu and a local soybean product called tempe. I especially love tempe when it’s fried in sweetened soy sauce.

      I didn’t know that jackfruit was catching on in the U.S. – I’ve always associated it with dessert! It is perfect in a shake or with ice cream.

      January 29, 2016
  11. OK – so I certainly won’t starve to death over there! Yum!

    January 29, 2016
  12. All looks so delicious but I’m a bit wary of so many chillies!

    January 29, 2016
    • Funny thing is, that dish with all the chillies wasn’t nearly as spicy as I imagined! It was largely because they were cooked whole instead of being ground into the sauce. If that had happened I’m sure my taste buds would be completely overwhelmed.

      January 29, 2016
  13. Completely salivating!! Love how you described the character of the cuisine. I seriously miss tahu… cannot get anything even close to the way it is prepared in Java here in India.

    January 29, 2016
    • Actually, I don’t recall having tahu at all (or any other soy products) during our month in India. But Keralan food really reminded me and Bama of Indonesian… it must have been the similar spice blends and their love of coconut milk!

      January 29, 2016
      • I get the association between some Kerela cuisine and Indo too. But you can see now why I miss tahu??

        January 29, 2016
  14. I’m glad I waited until I was full to read this or I’d have stopped halfway to go eat. That mangut looks pretty awesome – and spicy. Was it as fiery as it looks?

    That nasi kuding with all the sides looks like a personal buffet.

    January 30, 2016
    • The mangut was spicy, but not overwhelming at all. I think the creaminess of the coconut milk balanced out the chillies.

      I loved the nasi kuning – so much effort was put into cooking it and I felt it was way more special than a run of the mill birthday cake!

      January 30, 2016
  15. This looks amazing! Mmmmm

    February 1, 2016
    • It really was! I definitely miss all the spices and flavours.

      February 1, 2016
  16. Thanks for visiting my country, n my city 🙂 kotasolo as Surakarta

    February 1, 2016
    • You’re welcome. 🙂 I love Indonesia and Jateng.

      February 1, 2016
      • i live in jateng bro, solo

        February 1, 2016
      • Cool, I had a really great time there. Solo has so much culture and history.

        February 1, 2016
  17. What an amazing variety, and yet, I am not familiar with a single one of these dishes! I even had to Google candlenut! The Mangut looks particularly delicious. Strange how the South East Asian culinary scene has been dominated by Thai and to some extent Vietnamese cuisine. We much preferred Lao and Burmese. And from your mouthwatering account, I think Indonesian could easily best them all.

    February 1, 2016
    • Bama and I felt that the food on India’s west coast had strong similarities with Indonesian, so I am sure you and Ravi will enjoy it as much as I do. The lack of exposure compared to Thai and Vietnamese might have something to do with Thailand’s long-standing appeal as a tourist destination and the spread of a large diaspora (Vietnam). That said, Indonesian food seems to be very popular in the Netherlands where roughly 1.8 million people have Indonesian descent. It will be interesting to go on a Dutch-Indonesian food tour when I get to Amsterdam!

      February 2, 2016
  18. James your food photography is incredible. I think I shall come over for some lessons! I enjoyed seeing the dishes very much however moreso your eloquent description of the delicious dishes. Bama’s Mom sounds like quite the extraordinary and generous cook!

    February 6, 2016
    • Thank you so much, Sue! It takes a lot of practice, the right kind of light (natural is the best) and the advice of someone with more experience – in my case, Bama. His mom is really a superb chef. I learned so much watching her cook and she even gave me the recipe to one of her signature dishes!

      February 6, 2016
  19. Saya lapar!

    February 7, 2016
  20. This is simply a delicious post 🙂 Wish you a great year ahead James, filled with great travel and food 🙂 新年快乐!猴年大吉!

    February 8, 2016
    • Thank you so much, Randall! 🙂 May you live to the fullest this Year of the Fire Monkey – here’s to another 12 months of new adventures and happy memories. 🙂 祝你身壯力健, 心想事成!

      February 8, 2016
  21. Thank you James, your celebration of Javanese food is so heartfelt ! Lapar !

    February 13, 2016
    • You’re welcome, Juan!

      February 13, 2016
  22. Gudeg, Tongseng, Kupat tahu … what a journey ! A special mention to Bama’s mother’s mangut iwak pe, how can I get invited at the family’s table 🙂

    February 13, 2016
    • Ah, I don’t have the answer for that one. 🙂 I guess it was partially down to perfect timing – we were travelling around Idul Fitri and Bama’s family decided to welcome me into their home for the festive season.

      February 13, 2016
  23. Wow I love your photos and the descriptions of regional food which are so descriptive that I am feeling hungry reading your beautiful post. How lucky you are to have home made food made for you. What a wonderful treat! I love hr photo of Bama’s mother cooking chills and the finished product.

    April 20, 2016
    • Thanks Peta! There is really nothing like home-cooked food. It was such a privilege to be invited to the family home by Bama’s parents. I learned so much about Javanese cooking from his mother.

      April 20, 2016
  24. As an Indonesian I’m proud reading this! Glad you enjoyed your trip to Java! 🙂 I also love our special combo of shallot+garlic+lemongrass+lime leaf – it’s the bomb! collegeguycooks.wordpress.com

    August 1, 2016
    • I especially love daun salam – it has such a specific and subtle taste, more refined than daun jeruk nipis! What a coincidence that you are an Indonesian studying in Hong Kong… I’m a Hong Konger living in Jakarta so we are like opposites. 😀

      August 2, 2016
      • Say what that’s a perfect coincidence!

        August 8, 2016
  25. I have never heard of Java and this post is so informative! I love learning about new cultures’ foods and man, do these ever look delicious. Thanks for sharing!!

    August 19, 2016
    • You’re welcome! Javanese food isn’t well known outside Indonesia but I hope that begins to change in the next few years – it deserves so much more recognition!

      August 19, 2016
      • It certainly looks like it needs more recognition! Some amazing stuff there!!!

        August 19, 2016
  26. Wow…my citiy here

    September 14, 2016
  27. What a magnificent gallery and mouthwatering dishes!:-)
    All the best for the New Year!

    December 28, 2016
    • Thank you, Dina! Happy New Year to you too! 🙂

      January 1, 2017
  28. halo..salam kenal dari Banjarnegara : )

    July 9, 2017
    • Salam kenal juga, Hendi. 🙂

      July 9, 2017

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