Malang by the mouthful
“I’ve never seen an Indonesian working so fast,” Bama says.
Night has fallen in Malang, East Java’s second-largest city, and we’ve joined a small crowd of hungry customers at Puthu Lanang, a portable stall at the covered entrance to a street just wide enough for motorbikes. A five-person assembly line is churning out traditional sweets at lightning speed, led by the mustachioed vendor who takes orders, gives change, heaps the morsels on banana leaf before dousing them in palm sugar syrup, and wraps it all while we look on in amazement.
This four-day jaunt to Malang is Bama’s idea – chiefly because the city and its surroundings harbor a trove of ancient Hindu-Buddhist temples. But there’s another good reason to come. Among Indonesians, Malang has garnered a reputation as something of a culinary hotspot. This is down to an auspicious blend of mouth-watering Javanese cuisine, the presence of a large Chinese-Indonesian community, and Malang’s location in a fertile, well-watered valley flanked by no less than four active volcanoes – with a somewhat higher elevation (476 meters) that brings cooler temperatures ideal for cultivating fruit and vegetables.
Our first food-themed pit stop is Toko Oen, a decades-old institution just up the street from the leafy central square known as Alun-Alun Malang. The airy wood-and-plaster interior hung with sepia-toned photographs feels as though it has barely changed since the restaurant and bakery opened in 1930. Bama and I recline on low rattan chairs for a delicious late afternoon meal served in reverse: thick cuts of beef tongue steak doused in rich gravy are preceded by a banana split and tutti frutti ice cream, made with an old-fashioned technique that gives it an extra iciness.
Bama and I walk off the calories in and around the Alun-Alun as the call to prayer resounds from the main mosque that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with an old Protestant church. Dinner awaits at Depot Gang Djangkrik, a no-nonsense chain restaurant known for its extensive selection of a Chinese-influenced Malang specialty, cwie mie. This involves a heavenly bowl of spongy noodles steeped in flavor, while the texture alone is a perfect balance of softness and bite. Bama orders his cwie mie with diced chicken and mushroom; mine has a topping of char siu (Cantonese-style barbecued pork), which proves just as tender and indulgent as the kind I grew up eating in Hong Kong. Djangkrik’s noodles are so divine we return the very next day for a second helping.
On the recommendation of our local driver, Pak Bakir, we stop by a humble, timber-built canteen called Depot Soto Rampal for some rawon – an East Javanese beef stew that gets its near-black color and distinctive taste from the fermented keluak nut. But the dish lacks both flavor and depth (Bama’s mother, Auntie Dhani, makes a much better version); adding sambal and sweet soy sauce does not make much of a difference. Luckily the disappointing experience is countered by the excellent and generously portioned oxtail rawon at Hotel Tugu, whose Melati restaurant is a veritable museum of Chinese artifacts and Javanese curios.
Of course, not all of Pak Bakir’s recommendations end up missing the mark. His suggestion of lunch at a simple Javanese eatery by the roadside on the way back from Candi Jawi – a temple roughly an hour and a half outside Malang – was a winner. Up a flight of stairs from the parking lot, we find a display case loaded with trays of hearty comfort food. I pick sliced rings of squid cooked in ink and a delicately spiced sauce, a side of boiled beansprouts, and a toothsome corn fritter (perkedel jagung), all served on a bed of rice with a generous dollop of fiery tomato sambal. I’m so focused on diving in that I completely forget to take a photo.
An unexpected highlight is meeting fellow travel blogger Debbie and her sister Monica at Taman Indie, a beautiful vintage-style restaurant that rambles down to a gurgling river between a weathered cast iron span and a charming faux suspension bridge, both designed to recall Dutch colonial times. We eat cross-legged at a low table in a thatched riverside pavilion, pairing our food with delights like Es Campur Mahameru – a syrupy concoction in which nata de coco, slivers of jackfruit, and avocado encircle a cone of shaved ice draped in basil seeds (selasih). After she secretly pays for our meal, Debbie directs us to Puthu Lanang for some sweets to take back to our hotel. Bama and I skip dinner in favor of 10 freshly made putu – rolls of pandan-scented rice flour, stuffed with nuggets of palm sugar and steamed in bamboo before being topped with shredded coconut. It’s the sweetest finish to our culinary romp through Malang. ◊