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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.

“Ngo hiang” and rice noodles at Bakmi Loncat Elda, in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown

At Vihara Dharma Bhakti (Kim Tek Ie), the oldest Chinese temple in town

Sadly, the temple was largely destroyed by fire in 2015 and is still awaiting restoration

Looking back toward the main entrance at Vihara Dharma Bhakti

Trimming lotus stalks outside the temple; a street-food stall with large pork siomay on display.

These pork-and-dough “bakso”, or meatballs, were all about the size of a tennis ball

Roaring business in Pasar Petak Sembilan, a Glodok street market

Breakfast to go with a smile

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.

The entrance to M Bloc Space, a repurposed 1950s money-printing factory in South Jakarta

Most shops and eateries at the complex spill out onto a shaded pedestrian-only forecourt

It ain’t a hipster hot spot without plants; inside Katong, an eastern Indonesian restaurant

Manado-style “nasi campur” (mixed rice) with all the trimmings at Katong

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.

Bama tucking into his lunch; drip coffee with condensed milk and chopped kenari nuts

Handwoven “ikat” fabric adorns the dining rooms at Katong; a laneway inside M Bloc Space

Posing for the ‘gram

“Indonesia” spelled out in bold; a nod to the site’s original purpose as a money-printing factory

Red spinach and pumpkin-honey gelato from Kebun Ide; a Javanese restaurant at M Bloc Space.

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.

Golden pseuderanthemum in Kota Tua, Jakarta’s old town; Dutch-era commercial buildings

Weekend wanderers on a bridge crossing the Kali Besar river with a backdrop of the old town hall

Inside Historia Food & Bar; built in 1730, the red-brick Toko Merah is one of Jakarta’s oldest buildings

A 19th-century stained glass window at the Bank Indonesia Museum

The museum’s central courtyard, enlivened by a pop-up market

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.

A zero-waste store in the trendsetting South Jakarta neighborhood of Kemang

Sayur asem salad at Hunter and Grower, also in Kemang

Hunter and Grower’s inviting, pared-down interior

Grilled salmon with sambal dabu-dabu and nasi bakar (rice grilled in banana leaf) at Hunter and Grower

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Red spinach and pumpkin honey flavours sound very good.

    June 7, 2020
    • They were both delicious – I was very surprised by the red spinach as it didn’t have any traces of bitterness.

      June 8, 2020
  2. I’m an old building fan too, especially Art Deco. What comes to mind first, is Napier on New Zealand’s east coast. It was destroyed by an earthquake back in the 1930s and rebuilt totally Art Deco — stunning. I wrote a post on it year’s back as it’s still the most tasteful town I’ve ever visited.

    June 7, 2020
    • Funnily enough, Art Deco is also one of my favorite architectural styles. There is just something innately optimistic about the forms and decadent patterns and motifs used in Art Deco – they express the zeitgeist of the 20s and 30s and I love the way it bridges the more traditional movements before it and the stripped-back modernism that followed. I’d love to visit Napier someday. Thanks for the recommendation!

      June 8, 2020
  3. You got us at the gelato!

    June 8, 2020
    • I would never say no to gelato – even if it comes in strange flavors!

      June 8, 2020
  4. Love the pics and the write up. I think it’s also one of the few times either one of you are pictured. All these places look and sound interesting to visit.

    June 8, 2020
    • Thanks so much, Matt. I really hope none of the restaurants have closed down for good because of coronavirus – that would be such a shame! And you’re right… Bama and I tend not to take photos of ourselves (or each other for that matter) even while traveling.

      June 8, 2020
  5. James I just read your comment over at Gallivance which brought me here. Like you I think we will be doing much more writing on local destinations. I smiled at you missing the traffic jams but I certainly understand. We live in inner city Calgary and in the early days of isolation the streets became so quiet it was eerie.
    I enjoyed this delicious tour and hopefully your favourite eateries will survive this challenging time.

    June 8, 2020
    • I hope so too, Sue. The lockdown here hasn’t been as strict as in many other places, so some businesses have had a slightly better chance of survival – that’s if they’re willing to go online and do delivery! Fingers crossed we’ll be out of the woods soon.

      June 8, 2020
  6. I can see why you and Bama miss your weekend explorations. I so much enjoy, in this post and previous ones, your beautiful descriptions of the Jakarta neighbourhoods and all the great eateries you’ve discovered. These districts are all so appealing and very different from each other. It’s time for me to revisit and I want you guys as my guides!

    You had me drooling with your description of ngo hiang and I could go for one of those kopi rempahs right now. The salmon dish at Hunter and Grower sounds divine.

    I hope that your favourite vendor at your office will return or has found another way to conduct business. I’m quite jealous of your weekend breakfast delivery!

    June 8, 2020
    • I would love to take you and Mike on a tour of Jakarta in the future – and I’m certain Bama thinks the same! Ngo hiang is one of my guilty pleasures. I was trying to explain it to my mom the other night over the phone but I’m not sure she understood. Maybe there are a few places that serve it in Hong Kong but I’ve never seen them.

      June 8, 2020
  7. Oh how I miss exploring Jakarta. I miss trying out new eateries, revisiting some heritage buildings and witnessing how they’ve changed over the years, taking the MRT, going to some random alleys and discovering delectable dishes, heading to far corners of the city to see the other sides of Jakarta, and… I can’t believe I’m saying this… going to the malls! Before the outbreak of Covid-19, I had already had a list of new places across the city that I wanted to see. The government is beginning to ease some restrictions that have been in place since early April, but I think I’ll wait a few more weeks or months before deciding to go out again. In the meantime, the fat cats in the garden will do. 🙂

    June 8, 2020
    • I completely agree, Bama. We really took it all for granted at the time – once things have settled down I’ll be very thankful we can go to the mall and enjoy a nice meal. But you’re right, as the case numbers keep going up here it’s best to stay at home for the time being. A couple more weeks of waiting can’t hurt. 🙂

      June 8, 2020
  8. Living here in a restaurant-rich city, we too miss exploring the old and new eateries in town. I remember Bama’s post about M Bloc; it (along with other parts of South Jakarta) seems like such a cool place. It’s funny – today I am reading your post about Jakarta and Bama’s about Kowloon! Nice to see how much you have adopted and enjoy each other’s home places!

    June 9, 2020
    • I joke that Bama is a true South Jakartan given his substantial houseplant collection and his knack for finding cool new places via Instagram. Hunter and Grower, M Bloc, the neat pop-up market at the museum… they were all his ideas. In fact, I don’t think this post would have been possible without those visits. Your observation about our posts on each other’s cities made me smile. Now that I’m no longer in Hong Kong, I appreciate its different neighborhoods and unique quirks so much more.

      June 9, 2020
  9. Nasi Uduk! One of my favorite dishes! And I made corn fritters last night. Amazing how food connects us, all over the world. Cool post, James!

    June 9, 2020
    • Thanks, Kelly! Nasi uduk is one of my absolute favorites too – a weekend just isn’t complete without having it for breakfast. I agree about food being a great connector that transcends language and creed and culture (and geographic location). Fingers crossed you’ll get the chance to swing by this part of the world again soon!

      June 9, 2020
  10. This sounds amazing. All of it. I can only hope that by the time I finally get to Jakarta you and Bama are still there and can show us around. I feel as if I’d need at least a month to even scratch the surface.
    Alison

    June 10, 2020
    • Oh, Bama and I aren’t going anywhere – we’ll be sticking around here for the foreseeable future. I’m a city boy at heart so I can’t imagine living anywhere else in Indonesia, not even Bali! Fingers crossed we’ll get to meet you and Don in person someday. 🙂

      June 10, 2020
  11. You know, James, Jakarta seems so full with interesting places where to eat! It kind of reminds me of some parts of London, but with one key difference: whilst London pretends, acts, the food in Jakarta looks REAL.

    I hope you and Bama are going to be able to get further out soon and keep on showing us the beauty of Indonesia.

    Your bit on whatever happened to your office canteen staff really resonates with me: I, too, find myself thinking at what’s happening to coffee shop staff I used to go to, or restaurant waiters… it’s part of the human cost of this pandemic.

    Fabrizio

    June 11, 2020
    • How funny, Fabrizio – that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone drawing comparisons between Jakarta and London! But I can vaguely see the similarities if you’re referring to the East End. There’s definitely an undercurrent of creativity here, and yes, the food in general (and at all budgets) is fantastic.

      It looks like we’ll be sheltering at home at least until the middle of July – the daily case numbers here in Indonesia are still going up (they reached record highs on two consecutive days just this week) and yet the authorities are still adamant on reopening offices, malls, and places of worship. I hope the situation in London is a little more optimistic!

      James

      June 11, 2020
  12. Thanks for sharing these places with us, James! I should take note for my future trip to Jakarta. Btw, that drip coffee looks so familiar. If you change kenari nuts with coffee beans, you will have a classic VNese fin coffee 🙂

    June 14, 2020
    • My pleasure, Len! I reckon you’ll feel right at home here – Jakarta may remind you of Saigon in certain ways. It’s entirely possible the presentation of the “kopi rempah” was actually inspired by Vietnamese phin coffee… I had it once while traveling in eastern Indonesia and it looked like a regular mug of coffee, just with the kenari nuts on top. 😀

      June 19, 2020
  13. James, we were just reminiscing with Bama about today’s Jakarta compared to your “new normal.” Your gorgeous photos and food descriptions are mouthwatering and bring back so many memories. Like you, we’re missing all of our favorite eateries, and although we had hoped that the coronavirus was calming down in our area, we were just issued a new mandatory mask order. Sigh. So this setback seems to have undone the progress we had hoped we made. I hope that things are starting to improve for you in Jakarta. All the best, Terri

    July 11, 2020
  14. It is strange how the pandemic has turned the bustling cities into literal ghost towns. Sounds like there is much less people out and about in Jakarta these days, and I am guessing there are less traffic jams now.

    Lovely to read about you and Bama’s visit to M Bloc, Kota Tua and Museum Bank last year. Sounds like a place that puts the spotlight on local, such as local designs and local food. The deep fried doughnuts made of instant noodles sounds like a local creation, and I would like to try that when I next visit. Oh and you had ice-cream after that – you had a good food day 😛

    Bama’s houseplants…I actually didn’t know you and Bama lived together and are roommates. That is so cool to live with your best friend, travel buddy and each other’s photographer. I am also staying at home during this pandemic in Melbourne. We’re going through a second wave right now and not sure when this will all be over. Meantime I guess we can look back on the times where we’ve been and visited. Take care, James 🙂

    August 11, 2020
    • I’d say the traffic situation in Jakarta is better than normal, but it’s definitely busier than it was back in April. It seems the government is hell-bent on reopening the economy and getting people back to work even while there are more than 500 or 600 new cases in Jakarta each day! Bama and I have been working from home since late March and I don’t think that will change anytime soon.

      You’re absolutely right. Looking back now, I’m really thankful that we took the chance to explore different neighborhoods before the pandemic. I’ve been reading about the lockdown in Melbourne and had moments where I wondered how you were faring … from your comment it sounds like you’ve been staying sane and positive, so that’s good! 🙂 Hong Kong has been going through a similar surge since the beginning of July, though there are encouraging signs that things are getting back under control. I think the count of new case numbers has fallen below 30 for the past five days. Take care as well, Mabel!

      August 23, 2020
      • It’s great governments want to reopen and get people back to work. On the other hand we’ve seen that places that opened up are closing because of the spread of the virus again. It’s a tricky time for everyone.

        It is very kind of you to think about me and Melbourne. I’m alright, and lockdown hasn’t affected me too much. Working from home has changed my outlook quite a bit…I love it! Take care James and also look out for Bama 😊

        August 24, 2020

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