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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. 

Dutch-style banana split at Toko Oen

Tutti frutti ice cream

Toko Oen provides a snapshot of colonial-era Malang

Vintage decor at Toko Oen (left) and Depot Soto Rambal (right)

Rawon – an East Javanese beef stew spiced with keluak nut – as served up by Depot Soto Rampal

Cwie mie – a Malang specialty – with char siu at Depot Gang Djangkrik

Es Campur Mahameru (shaved ice with assorted goodies); making traditional sweets at Puthu Lanang

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. The food looks absolutely amazing! Sounds like a fun adventure!

    August 12, 2017
    • Oh it was! I definitely gained weight over those four days…

      August 14, 2017
  2. mistimaan #

    Very nice pictures and well written 🙂

    August 13, 2017
    • Much appreciated – thanks for reading and leaving me a comment. 🙂

      August 14, 2017
  3. I’ve had cwie mie several times before, but the one we had is by far the best I’ve ever tasted — I would be surprised if one day I find an even tastier cwie mie. When I was a kid, a putu vendor often came to our neighborhood at night, carrying a modest steamer and other tools with a shoulder pole. To see how putu is made after more than 20 years really was a treat. A big shout-out to Debby and Monica for recommending us Puthu Lanang!

    August 13, 2017
    • I really wish you guys stayed longer in Malang so I could show you more of my hometown’s delicacies other than putu. Well well it was such a pleasure for us to meet you guys, Bama and James :*

      August 13, 2017
      • One more day of wisata kuliner would have been great! Debby, thanks so much for treating us to lunch and the take-home boxes of kue from Toko Sara. 🙂

        Bama – I was tempted to order a second bowl of cwie mie when we went back… it’s a shame the menu didn’t have dishes in size XL. I also adored the putu. There’s nothing like having it freshly made and still hot to touch!

        August 14, 2017
  4. This post makes me miss Asia! Especially the putu!

    August 13, 2017
    • I guess you’ll just have to plan a future trip to Indonesia!

      August 14, 2017
  5. Sounds like a great long weekend. And yes, that char siew looks good!

    August 13, 2017
    • I rarely eat pork living here in Jakarta (partially because it’s not widely available) so the char siu in Malang was a real treat. 🙂

      August 14, 2017
  6. Lovely. I guess the Mahameru is because of that mountain of ice.

    August 13, 2017
    • Absolutely – the name also recalls a nearby volcano (Semeru), Java’s highest peak whose own creation myth involves the Hindu gods transporting Mahameru from India!

      August 14, 2017
  7. Curious… is puthu rice and coconut based steamed in those long tubes? If so, must be some connection with Kerela puthu! Remarkable. 🙂

    August 13, 2017
    • Yep, putu/puthu is indeed made of rice and steamed in the tubes. Here it’s traditionally sprinkled on top with grated/shredded coconut. That’s a good point, Carissa – given the uncanny resemblance there must have been some cultural cross-fertilization between Kerala and Java in the past! 🙂

      August 14, 2017
  8. Sometimes the greatest and fastest way to learn a culture is through the food ~ great post James!

    August 19, 2017
    • Much appreciated, Randall – and yes there’s no doubt about that!

      September 3, 2017
  9. Thanks for that delicious dose of Malang culture James. Your wonderful food posts, and Bama’s, remind me I should click more food photos when I travel, but I forget each time 🙂

    Carissa is right, Puthu sounds very much like the puttu of Kerala. The coconut is sprinkled on top there as well, but it isn’t always sweet, usually eaten with chick pea curry.

    September 15, 2017
    • You’re welcome, Madhu. 🙂

      Actually I would love to try Keralan puttu after having its Javanese counterpart. It’s a shame Bama and I missed out on it when we were in Kochi and Kumarakom two years ago!

      September 24, 2017

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