Jakarta on the Weekend
I never thought I’d miss Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams, but this pandemic has turned an annoyance of life in the Indonesian capital into a strangely reassuring sign of normalcy. On one of our last outings before the city’s half-hearted lockdown began, Bama and I finally made it to a restaurant I’d raved about ever since attending a work event there several years ago. It was a ghost of its former self. Only a small section of the impressive, greenhouse-like venue was still open; the rest had been left dark and unlit, and until the staff turned on the music soon our arrival (we were the only customers at the time), a deafening silence prevailed. By then, its chefs were forced to downsize their once-extensive menu to a single sheet of paper with some lackluster options. We later learned that the restaurant closed the very next day, and it has remained so for the past two months.
Being able to eat out is something I will no longer take for granted as we gradually emerge from our long spells of self-isolation. I sometimes wonder what has become of Regina, my favorite vendor at the basement canteen of my office building, and her young employees I know by name: Tuti, Maria, and Karomah. Regina’s two adjoining stalls were shut in the final days before I began working from home. But I’m happy to report that Andri, purveyor of a fabulous nasi uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk) served with fried chicken and other sides, is doing a roaring trade these days. He adds a dash of joy to our weekend mornings when he delivers breakfast straight to our door.
Spending days on end inside a small apartment hasn’t driven me stir-crazy – thanks in no small part to Bama’s ever-growing houseplant collection – but I do miss our weekend explorations that typically revolve around food and local heritage. Jakarta is a place that often feels like an overgrown village the minute you step away from its skyscrapers and tony shopping malls, and one of its most fascinating neighborhoods is Glodok, the historic Chinatown that has been around since the 17th century.
The back streets of Glodok are a hive of activity in the mornings: tarpaulin canopies propped up by bamboo poles demarcate makeshift stalls brimming with all kinds of fresh produce and foodstuffs, including packed meals, deep-fried snacks, and even live frogs bound together at the legs. One local media entrepreneur who returned to Indonesia after studying in Melbourne recently told me of the area’s singular appeal. “I’ve been to lots of Chinatowns around the world, but none of them are like Glodok,” he said. This can be partly attributed to the fact that it’s not a tourist attraction – the neighborhood’s ramshackle charm hasn’t been diluted by gift shops selling the usual tchotchkes, and there are no comical lampposts adorned with dragons and pagoda roofs in red and gold.
Any food-obsessed traveler who goes to Glodok should sit down for a bowl of rice noodles at Bakmi Loncat Elda, a family-run hole-in-the-wall with an entrance so narrow you’re bound to miss it on first glance. I settled for my favorite kind, kwetiau – a wide and flat variety known in Hong Kong as hor fun – with slices of char siu (roast pork), two boiled dumplings in broth, and a plate of ngo hiang. I’d never tasted the latter while growing up eating Cantonese food, but that’s because it is a specialty of the Hokkien- and Teochew-speaking peoples who have made their mark on the countries of Southeast Asia through successive waves of migration. So, what exactly is ngo hiang? Imagine a thick, sausage-like roll of minced pork and prawn seasoned with five-spice powder, wrapped in wrinkly tofu skin before being deep-fried to give it a crispy crust and a soft but bouncy center. Sliced and dipped in a sweet chili sauce, it’s heavenly.
Walking south through the busy street market from Bakmi Loncat Elda, I eventually reached Jakarta’s oldest Buddhist temple. Vihara Dharma Bhakti, also known by its Hokkien name Kim Tek Ie, has been standing at the heart of Glodok since it was first built in 1650, but sadly, a 2015 fire largely destroyed the main building and left only the outer shell intact. For now, the sanctuary is shielded from the elements by sheets of corrugated iron, and worshippers pay homage to three images of the Buddha inside a temporary structure. The long temple forecourt welcomes people of all faiths – it’s one of the few open spaces in the neighborhood where residents can sit outdoors.
Across town, local creatives have transformed a disused 1950s-era facility belonging to Perum Peruri – the Indonesian state-owned company in charge of printing banknotes – into a hip hangout spot called M Bloc Space. The factory had stood derelict for more than two decades until Jakarta’s first long-awaited metro line opened last year, and its location a short walk from both Blok M and ASEAN stations made it the ideal choice for a den of independent stores and eateries with a multipurpose venue for performances, talk shows, and art exhibitions. Bama was especially keen to see how it could become an exciting alternative to the monolithic (and largely uninspired) shopping malls that are a dime a dozen here in Jakarta.
When Bama and I went six weeks after M Bloc Space made its debut in September, the compound was already buzzing with curious visitors. We walked past a comic-book store packed with an audience listening attentively to a special talk. A neighboring architect-run shop that sold earrings and bracelets, stationery, bags, and bath products – all created by Indonesian designers – also had a room for small-scale events or artistic showcases. “This place is going to be featured in Monocle at some point,” Bama quipped.
Of course, we were also here for the food. Bama’s prior research had steered us to Katong, a two-story café and restaurant founded by two musicians, each one a member of a famous local rock band. Both performers hailed from eastern Indonesia, which is something of a forgotten region as the national discourse tends to be dominated by the far more populous and prosperous islands in the west (especially Java and Sumatra). Katong specializes in the Manadonese fare of North Sulawesi, one of my favorite regional Indonesian cuisines. Though my tolerance for spiciness has inexplicably gone down in the past few years, I will happily accept the elevated heat of Manado food to enjoy its punchy flavors and freshness from herbs like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
At Katong, Bama and I both opted for turmeric rice with spicy papaya-leaf salad, skipjack tuna in a chili-and-tomato sauce, perfectly cooked squid, a generously sized corn fritter. For Indonesians, no meal is complete without sambal, a chili-based condiment that has an estimated 212 varieties in Indonesia alone. Our lunch featured classic Manado-style sambal dabu-dabu: a tart relish of diced green and red tomatoes, shallots, and bird’s-eye chilies. We washed down the ensemble with kopi rempah: sweetened clove- and ginger-spiced coffee topped with chunks of the almond-like kenari nut. This drink is a specialty of Maluku, the fabled “Spice Islands” of Southeast Asia fought over by European powers up until the 19th century.
The hot and humid weather meant that wandering the open-air corridors of M Bloc Space became a little more taxing than we’d anticipated. Naturally, our visit ended on a sweet note at Kebun Ide (whose name means “Garden of Ideas”), where we lined up for “farm-to-scoop” gelato in unusual flavors like kale, pumpkin and honey, and red spinach in a striking purple hue.
Longtime readers of this blog will know I have a soft spot for historical buildings. Back in early December, Bama and I returned to Kota Tua, Jakarta’s old town district that was the center of the Dutch colonial administration until overcrowding and outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases forced the authorities to move south, where they regrouped around a patch of open pastureland named Buffelsveld (present-day Merdeka Square).
When I first went to Kota Tua, back in 2012, much of the neighborhood was in a sorry state; a four-story Art Deco office block on its main square had turned into a roofless ruin. Bama parked his car by the Kali Besar river – at that time it stank of raw sewage. Not long after we stepped out of the vehicle, a soot-faced boy approached and stared at my camera bag as though he was thinking of snatching it. How things have changed. Inspired by the success of Seoul’s revival of its once-obscured Cheonggyecheon stream, the riverbanks of Kali Besar have been completely revamped. Thanks to a wide promenade featuring flower-filled planters and built-in benches, and increased foot traffic by way of a new pedestrian bridge with timber decking, they now feel much safer.
Bama and I strolled a short distance along the Kali Besar to reach Toko Merah, which was built in 1730 as the home of then Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. Distinguished by a red-brick façade and high sash windows with split shutters, the building looks as though it was transplanted directly from Amsterdam. We then crossed the river to step inside the Bank Indonesia Museum, which does a fine job of narrating the history of Indonesia through its money. It’s my favorite attraction in the old town because of the fascinating exhibits and the handsome Neo-Renaissance/Art Deco building it occupies. On a previous visit, Bama and I had brought along friends visiting from overseas, one of whom remarked that the ticket hall – with its impressive coffered ceiling – reminded him of Gringotts Bank in the Harry Potter series. But the silence that had greeted us then was no longer the case, as the place now thronged with in-the-know Jakartans checking out a trimonthly pop-up bazaar called Semasa (literally “Once Upon a Time”).
Over three days, Museum Bank Indonesia’s unused halls and corridors showcased a cornucopia of clothes and accessories, fragrances and aromatherapy products, alongside stationery, artisanal soaps, and handmade ceramics – all of it from independent local makers. Bama wove expertly through the crowds to pick up a large air plant and a quirky wooden tabletop sculpture depicting a stylized head. I was far more interested in the food vendors who had set up tents around the perimeter of the building’s central courtyard. One stall displayed neat rows of red velvet chocolate chip cookies and breaded, deep-fried doughnuts made of instant noodles; another sold Indonesian-inspired vegan wraps using local ingredients. We cooled down in the stifling midday heat by sipping on iced tea and devouring spoonfuls of low-calorie ice cream in two flavors: strawberry cheesecake and klepon, named for a traditional sweet made of sticky rice with a filling of palm sugar syrup.
Lunch awaited at a nearby restaurant and bar appropriately named Historia. The food was decent but nothing spectacular; what won us over was the homey, retro ambience. Cocooned inside a restored Dutch-era warehouse with incredibly high ceilings, the ground-floor dining room came adorned with murals painted on the exposed brick walls, vintage furniture, knickknacks, and framed reproductions of antique maps and historic prints. The tables were spaced unusually far apart, a prescient decision mere months before social distancing became the norm.
There’s one more eatery that deserves a special mention though it isn’t anywhere near the old town. Lying far to the south, way past M Bloc Space and not accessible by metro, is the pet-friendly brunch spot Hunter and Grower. You’ll find it in the trendsetting neighborhood of Kemang, which is favored by locals and expats alike for its cosmopolitan outlook, the strong café culture, and an array of boutiques and watering holes. Hunter and Grower fits right in: it offers East-meets-West takes on Indonesian comfort food that retain the original flavors while dialing down the spiciness. One example is the sour vegetable soup sayur asem, which has been deconstructed into a quinoa salad with all the constituent parts carefully arranged on the same plate.
Bama and I have been to Hunter and Grower several times, and one dish we almost always order is the perfectly grilled salmon fillet topped with a “wafer” of crispy skin and a non-spicy version of Balinese lemongrass and shallot sambal. The salmon finds a perfect pairing in nasi bakar – a parcel of coconut milk-infused rice steamed with lemon basil and then grilled in banana leaf. Even though he spent 11 years in West Java, the province where nasi bakar is said to have originated, Bama tells me the version made at Hunter and Grower is the best he’s ever eaten. I’m looking forward to sampling it again once this pandemic passes. ◊