A Jakarta Christmas
It’s been a little over two years since I’ve returned to Hong Kong to see my parents or my maternal grandmother, who is well into her 90s. The prospect of going through 21 days of hotel quarantine—on top of the likelihood of a sudden flight ban—means a family reunion in my hometown will not be happening for the foreseeable future. But I’m generally a glass-half-full kind of person; after joining Bama on a weeklong vacation in mid-December with his mom, I can’t deny that part of me was excited to spend the holidays in Jakarta for the very first time.
The lead-up to the 25th saw a Christmas market take over the main square in Kota Tua, the Dutch-colonial old town, complete with an impressive tree and a light show that projected kaleidoscopic patterns onto the façade of the former city hall. Bama and I weren’t able to go because most of the action took place on weekdays when I was still working, nor could we check out the caroling performances at several locations around the city center. Instead of jostling with crowds inside the usual air-conditioned malls, we agreed to explore the melting-pot cuisine of Jakarta’s Betawi people.
That appellation stems from the Malay rendition of Batavia, the official name of the city during Dutch colonial rule. The Betawi are the result of centuries of intermarriage between the indigenous Sundanese and various immigrant communities who arrived here – some shipped in as indentured laborers from parts of Indonesia, others from places farther beyond – starting in the 17th century. Over successive generations, this intermingling created an entirely new ethnic group with its own set of cultural markers: food, vernacular architecture, music, folk dances, and traditional dress. It also gave birth to a Malay-based creole language whose eclectic vocabulary infuses the 21st-century lingo spoken by Jakartans of all backgrounds.
But real-deal Betawi cuisine is increasingly hard to find in the city as Jakarta grows ever more worldly, as haphazardly-built kampung (urban villages) are torn down to make way for more high-rise apartments, office blocks, and yet more shopping malls. A great deal of Betawi residents have been forced to relocate to the urban fringes, displaced not just by new development, but also rising rents and the arrival of migrants from elsewhere in the country.
Bama and I headed out to the suburbs on Christmas Day, riding the spotless MRT to the end of the line at Lebak Bulus, where we switched to a ride-hailing service for the 20-minute drive to a no-nonsense Betawi restaurant just beyond city limits. Above the entrance, a banner and a much larger billboard, its colors badly faded after prolonged exposure to the tropical sun, proudly advertised “the rarest food in the world”. We opted for a low table by the window that called for a lesehan seating arrangement: taking off our shoes to dine cross-legged on thin mats, in this case covering a wooden platform raised off the ground.
Of course, there was no roast turkey with gravy and stuffing on the menu. Our Christmas lunch centered on pecak gurame, fried gourami fish dressed in roughly chopped chilies and shallots in a clear brown stock with a sour taste (courtesy of two kinds of lime) and hints of ginger and fingerroot. Bama’s prior research had clued us in on another version of Betawi pecak, featuring a more indulgent sauce made with coconut milk and fried peanuts or cashews ground into a thick paste. An even rarer Betawi specialty we tried for the very first time was the soupy dish sayur besan, traditionally served at weddings and other special occasions. Sayur besan piqued our curiosity because it uses the unopened flower heads of a species of sugar cane called terubuk (Latin name: Saccharum edule), an ingredient that has practically disappeared from traditional markets in Jakarta. Crumbly and cylindrical, the cream-colored terubuk flowers are often likened to clumps of fish roe, though I felt their flavor and mouthfeel were closer to a very tender baby corn.
But the biggest surprise for me was semur jengkol, which is a classic accompaniment to rice at tented street-side eateries across Jakarta. With a texture somewhere between a cooked potato and a shiitake mushroom, the large, disc-shaped jengkol seeds had been tinted black by the liberal use of sweet soy sauce. Jengkol’s English name, “dog fruit”, is something of a misnomer: the native Southeast Asian ingredient is actually a legume and member of the pea family. Most Indonesians either love or hate jengkol not because of the taste but rather the after-effects of eating this delicacy. Its high sulfur content is responsible for an incredibly foul smell when it passes out of the digestive system, while those who ingest too many of the mildly toxic beans risk being poisoned by naturally occurring djenkolic acid. Indonesian cooks get rid of the harmful substance by boiling, soaking the seeds in salted water, or burying them in the ground for a certain number of days.
A far more benign side dish that came with our meal was the Sundanese-influenced plate of lalapan, or fresh vegetables with chili sambal. This particular one comprised thick cucumber slices, lettuce, and sprigs of pohpohan, a vegetable I was wholly unfamiliar with. “Pohpohan tastes like young mango,” Bama explained. He was right; the leaves were deeply fruity, highly aromatic, and herbaceous. These refreshing greens made for a stark contrast to pepes ikan peda – salted and fermented short mackerel topped with shallot and garlic, sliced scallion, and fiery bird’s-eye chilies before being steamed in a banana-leaf wrapping. Bama and I also ordered individual portions of nasi uduk, Betawi-style coconut rice that has long been a favorite breakfast dish for many Jakartans.
In place of mulled wine or eggnog, we washed down our hearty Christmas lunch with tall glasses of bir pletok, a traditional Betawi drink so named for its resemblance to an amber-hued ale or lager. The concoction was originally conceived as a non-alcoholic alternative to beer that would also warm the body and improve circulation. Often featuring a layer of froth on top, bir pletok can either be hot or cold, but should always have a well-balanced blend of cinnamon and ginger, clove and nutmeg, pandan leaf, and lemongrass.
On Boxing Day, Bama and I decided to play tourist by spending the morning in the two-hundred-year-old commercial district of Pasar Baru (the name means “New Market”). Located just across a murky river from what was once Weltevreden, an elite residential area reserved for Europeans, its main drag is bookended by a pair of Chinese-influenced gateways emblazoned with metal plaques bearing the neighborhood’s Dutch-era name, PASSER BAROE, and the numerals 1820 – the year it was founded. Pasar Baru has always been home to stores selling textiles, clothes, and shoes, but these days, it’s also known for a number of old-school eateries that serve everything from bakmi noodles to fish-head curry to tutti frutti ice cream.
From a narrow road bisecting the high street, we turned down an alleyway and saw a riot of tropical fruits heaped in baskets or displayed on countertops: mangoes about the size of an American football, lipstick-red rambutan, deep purple mangosteens, and something else that instantly caught Bama’s eye. These were round golden kecapi, rare treats he remembered from his childhood. Cutting away the thick rind reveals five segments of white, cottony flesh that doesn’t separate easily from the seeds, so the best way to enjoy kecapi’s delicate sweet-sour taste is to suck on each piece like a candy. Bama couldn’t resist buying one and a half kilos of the stuff to bring home.
But first, breakfast was calling. We managed to secured one of the few empty tables in the spartan dining room at Bakmi A Boen, a family-owned neighborhood institution hidden in the crook of the same alley. It’s a popular place that began serving customers back in 1962. On the wall behind us, a vintage letter board listed more than 40 variations on bakmi (Chinese wheat noodles), bihun (rice vermicelli), kwetiau (hor fun), and locupan, or silver needle noodles. Locupan actually means “rat noodles” in Hokkien – traditionally the dominant language of Southeast Asia’s Chinese diaspora – and the unflattering name came about from their shapes: thick and tapered at the ends like the rodents’ tails.
The servers at Bakmi A Boen were patient, courteous, and friendly – something I could not imagine in a diner of the same caliber back in Hong Kong. And, though it was admittedly expensive by local standards, our food did not disappoint. The savory, springy bakmi noodles I ordered were clearly homemade and lubricated with just the right amount of melted lard; toppings included crimson char siu, pieces of crispy fried pork belly, sliced choy sum, and velvety straw mushrooms. No additional soy sauce was necessary. But in a telltale sign that my palate has become more Indonesian, I realized the bakmi was even tastier with a few small spoonfuls of sweet-spicy chili sambal.
Then it was time to go in search of some street food. Despite living in Jakarta for more than five years, I never had the chance to taste one of the city’s most famous snacks, kerak telor. Literally “egg crust,” the Betawi specialty is a thin omelet-like creation made with sticky rice, spiced coconut shreds, fried shallot, dried shrimp, and either duck or chicken egg. We weren’t able to track down a long-standing kerak telor vendor in Pasar Baru (likely because it was still too early), so Plan B was to look for a fairly well-known hawker at nearby Lapangan Banteng, the recently renovated park beside Jakarta’s cathedral. But where would we find him?
The directions I’d read online said his usual spot was next to the basketball court. Sure enough, just past the hoops on the other side of the perimeter fence, Bama spotted a simple set-up on the sidewalk that fit the bill. Jet-black charcoals sat in a terracotta brazier in front of a gerobak pikul: two lightweight wooden chests affixed to a carrying pole with rough-hewn timber frames. One had a countertop with pastel-blue duck eggs and ordinary chicken eggs piled up on a cardboard tray. Beside them stood sealed jars of crispy fried shallot and two kinds of serundeng (grated coconut sautéed with spices). Faisol Yusuf stepped out of the shadows as Bama placed an order for one duck-egg kerak telor. Originally from Probolinggo in East Java, Faisol learned the recipe from his Betawi wife but added his own touch, mixing in East Javanese spices to make the dish even more fragrant. I knew we were his first customers of the day because the brazier was still cold. With the flick of a lighter, Faisol set a rolled-up paper alight and dropped it into the blackened earthenware vessel, teasing the air with a flag-like bamboo fan until the coals glowed red-hot.
The fifty-something-year-old has been making kerak telor since the mid-nineties with the help of his eldest son. In those difficult early years, Faisol played a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the unsympathetic municipal police, who repeatedly confiscated his wares in the name of maintaining public order. Yet his continued presence at Lapangan Banteng and major local fairs paid off. It was only a matter of time before Faisol caught the eye of Jakarta’s tourism officials, who invited him to showcase the dish at culinary festivals abroad. The humble kerak telor vendor ended up sending his son on account of his English-speaking ability. “We have represented Indonesia overseas, in Morocco, Turkey, Thailand, and Malaysia,” Faisol told us proudly.
Kerak telor vendors have a unique method for making sure both sides are done properly: turning the cooking pot upside down. Since it isn’t lubricated with oil, the starchy coconut omelet holds fast to the hot steel. Faisol fanned the flames and allowed them to lick the upper side, leaving tiny char marks as it gradually turned golden brown. Eventually the kerak telor was flipped back over for a final bit of cooking and separated from the wok with a metal spatula. Faisol piled on generous toppings of darker, more heavily spiced serundeng and fried shallot, before allowing the finished product to rest on a sheet of food-grade paper. “This [kerak telor] is the best,” Faisol said cheerfully. Though I couldn’t see it, I could tell he was grinning beneath his mask.
Once Bama and I finished taking pictures, we took turns devouring thin slices of the treat. It was both crispy and moist, savory with a subtle sweetness, and I could detect traces of umami flavor from the dried shrimp. Why had I waited five long years to try something so delicious, so quintessentially Jakartan? Faisol had joked that kerak telor was Betawi pizza while slicing it up; being an anything-goes pizza fanatic (just ask Bama), I reveled in this unexpected Christmas gift. ◊
It never occurred to me there would be a Christmas Mart, and, as usual, your post revealed many new things for me, especially the food items.
Indonesia sure is full of surprises! I don’t know if it was the first large-scale Christmas market that Jakarta has ever held – in the past I was always out of town over the holidays, so I never made the effort to look.
It sounds like the perfect unexpected Christmas, James. You had me salivating at your descriptions of the food. Wishing you a joyful 2022 and many more wonderful food and travel experiences with Bama. It always sounds like you have a lot of fun together.
Thank you so much, Jolandi. May this year bring you good health, much happiness and success with the quinta, and even some adventures beyond Portugal (fingers crossed!). I hope it won’t be too long before you and Michael reunite with loved ones back in South Africa.
Thank you for your kind wishes, James. Fingers crossed we can see our loved ones this year. I’m not holding my breath as Portuguese bureaucracy seems to be very slow moving, but perhaps Michael can make a trip to SA. My dad turns 90 next year, so I would be okay if I can make it in 2023. I’ve learned to keep expectations low to avoid disappointment. I hope you will be able to spend some time with your family in Hong Kong. Fingers crossed for more ease of movement for all of us. Take care.
Intersting what is dog fruit? I love how every culture has their food. This plate makes me think of chile and mole from my cutlure.
I’d describe dog fruit as a large bean with a dense, slightly chewy texture. Sadly I’ve never had a real mole so I can’t say if there are any similarities in terms of the taste. Mexico is right there at the top of my travel wish list – if only it weren’t so far away from here!
Souns like I’d want to try it. Thanks for your replay and my cuiosity thanks you too.
My mouth is watering reading this and tempting me to revisit Indonesia. Although there are many Asian restaurants in my area, sadly there are no Indonesian places. Still, my Christmas dinner included seafood fried rice and gai lan—a vegetable I’ve become addicted to that I’m sure you’re familiar with from Hong Kong cuisine.
Absolutely, Mallee. Even with my family’s eclectic taste in food, I grew up eating tons of seafood fried rice and steamed (or blanched) gai lan at home. It’s strange that Indonesian cuisine is so little-known abroad. There must be a small Indonesian community in Metro Vancouver but I have no idea if there are any authentic places where the menu goes beyond nasi goreng.
There is one restaurant I’ve been to in Chinatown, but it’s not that good though if I’m in the area, I eat there—not at the moment though as we’ve been snowed under for weeks.
What great deliciousness you are sharing. Thank you for this enlightening post.
My pleasure, Cornelia. Wishing you a new year full of joy and at least a few opportunities to travel!
Thank you James , travelling is much needed at this point to get to see my family in Germany, which haven’t seen for 5 years.
I love that opening shot of kecapi, a playful twist on the more traditional Christmas baubles. Of all the dishes we tried at Dapur Betawi, I’m still surprised that you enjoyed semur jengkol the most! I didn’t grow up eating jengkol although my mother apparently loves it (the first time I had it was in Tasikmalaya when she bought a portion of semur jengkol to take home). “It’s too stinky!” she said to me, referring to how the toilet would smell the day after. On the other hand, pohpohan is among my favorite leaves in lalapan, exactly for the reasons you mentioned. Today I learned that it’s also very high in calcium, which is another reason to love it. Now I’m dreaming of the other version of pecak gurame.
I recall enjoying the gulai jengkol we had in West Sumatra back in 2015, which I thought might have been a fluke, but now I know for sure that jengkol is a food I love! Of course, the stink is an unfortunate side-effect, though it doesn’t bother me too much. As for the pohpohan, perhaps we need to do more of our shopping at traditional markets… it’s just so delicious on its own.
I don’t know when I will visit Jakarta, but while I wait I’m happy to read about all that I could possibly eat if I spend time there. I think what you call Kecapi should be available in India (although you may have to look hard for it). I’ve only seen mangosteen yet, but now I’ll be on the lookout.
I’ve just found out that kecapi is also called santol or cotton fruit – maybe those names will ring a bell. There must be quite a crossover between Indian and Indonesian fruits given the strong trading and cultural links throughout history. We had chiku ice cream one time in Chennai (thanks to fellow blogger Madhu) and Bama realized it was a very familiar ingredient he grew up eating with his parents.
I guess we share common fruits like jackfruit and mango. Kecapi/santol, like mangosteen, is not common, but available. Dog fruit I’ve never come across. I’m sure many of these have traveled, perhaps even many times, over the long history of common trade.
Loved this post! Brought me back to Jakarta and craving kerak telor, which I tried many years ago near Kota Tua.
It’s great to “see” you, Lydia! For some reason I never did try kerak telor on my various visits to Kota Tua or Monas. Fingers crossed you’ll have the chance to come back to Indonesia for a holiday in the next few years!
Such a richness to this post James, both in the glimpses of suburban Jakarta, and the descriptions of so many different dishes. I think my favourites would be the meal at Bakmi A Boen, and kerak telor, which looks delicious.(And you can keep all that chili spice stuff! 😂)
I still hope that one day I’ll get back to Indonesia and meet you two in person and have you be my guides!
Wishing you all good things for 2022.
Thank you for the New Year wishes, Alison! May 2022 bring you and Don good health, much happiness, and some eye-opening travels both near and far.
I can see why the chili-covered fish in particular looks intimidating. 😂 Bama and I checked out another Betawi restaurant just today – it served the other kind with a sauce made of coconut milk and fried peanuts. We both found this version much more well-balanced and hopelessly addictive, and I can tell you the chili was nowhere near as prominent.
I love Mangosteens, as well
Aren’t they fabulous? It’s hard for me to imagine why anyone wouldn’t like mangosteens.
Definitely a unique Christmas Day meal! The food items and even their names are so exotic to me. Sending happy new year wishes to you and Bama!
Thank you, Lex! Wishing you plenty of stellar hikes and cross-country trips for 2022, and lots of time spent with loved ones (especially the newest member of the big family). It’s probably over-optimistic to say this given the way things are right now, but I do hope this is the year your trip to SE Asia will finally happen!
Oh, me too, James! It is time to get moving again!
What a deliciously different Christmas treat! Intrigued by every dish you have featured but the humble roadside Betawi pizza sounds like something I could live on 🙂
We were in Goa pre-Christmas and I hugely regretted our decision to return before the revellers arrived. Was a wise decision on hindsight.
Wishing you a happy, healthy 2022 James.
Thank you, Madhu! May all good things come your way this year – I hope 2022 will be as mishap-free as possible and that you’ll remain in the best of health.
I’m glad you and Ravi managed a trip to Goa before things started going pear-shaped. We are watching the situation in India with real concern… if 2021 was any guide, our own surge will come around six to eight weeks later. It seems too good to be true that things are *almost* normal here when case numbers are exploding in so many other countries.
It’s scary James. We are exactly where we were last Jan with people still claiming our immune systems are better than those of western citizens! Praying we all get by lightly this time around.
What an exotic feast, James! And a very memorable Christmas menu of unique meals. So many of the ingredients were new to me, but we did have an excellent kerak telor when we were in Jakarta, and became addicted to the fried shallots we now use regularly. I’m so glad that Faisol Yusuf persevered and has gained his well-deserved notoriety.
James and I wish you and Bama all the very best in the New Year. ~Terri
Wow, Terri! I’m truly impressed that you and James have tried kerak telor – how long did you stay in Indonesia at the time? I feel much the same about fried shallots; these days I often mix them into pasta and noodle dishes. A store-bought jar of the stuff is a must-have in our kitchen.
Thank you so much, Terri. Wishing you and James good health, plenty of fun and laughter, and more than a few chances to travel again in 2022.
James, we were in Indonesia for two months – definitely not long enough! We’re big lovers of street food, and we took a couple of cooking classes, so we were able to sample an amazing array of dishes. We were in heaven. Your posts always take me back to great memories. Thanks! ~Terri
I got hungry looking at the food photos 😄
It sure sounds like you read this post on an empty stomach. 😆
What a great visit you made to Jakarta ~ and you and Bama did well with the food again, one of the great expectations when I read one of your posts there are photos and descriptions of some of the best foods around, well done 🙂 Also, I feel for you and the inability to travel to HK – it has been the same with me, two years since I visited and until they change the 21 days of hotel quarantine (and most important to me, allow freer travel into China), it will not be happening for the foreseeable future either. Wishing you a great Year of the Tiger ~
Thank you, Randall! May you have a fantastic Year of the Tiger as well. It’s always great to take out our cameras and view the city we live in from the perspective of a visitor every now and again – if it wasn’t for Omicron, Bama and I would be doing more of that on weekends. My hope is that border restrictions in Hong Kong will be rolled back later this year, but I’m not sure if that will even happen so long as it’s wedded to China’s Covid-zero policy.
Christmas away from your loved ones can be hard, especially if you haven’t seen them in a long time. Good to hear that you had a good Christmas and end of year with your very good friend Bama. A wonderful write up of your time and your photos are delightful in adding visuals so we can follow along like we are walking with you.
All the dishes you had sounded very flavourful. Really does sound like your palate has become more Indonesian as you said – more chilli for you always then 😛 The bir pletok sounded like a very refreshing non-alcoholic drink, and quite suitable for the season with a bit of local flavouring like pandan leaf. It’s a ‘beer’ I’d be eager to try since I don’t drink beer.
Really enjoyed reading about Faisol and he cooking the kerak telor for you. Very kind of him to let you take photos of him booking. It really looks like a local pizza. Wishing you a good year ahead. Happy Year of the Tiger 🙂
You too, Mabel! Wishing you good health and much happiness this Year of the Tiger. 🙂
Living in Indonesia has definitely changed my palate – to the point where certain dishes I ate when I last visited Hong Kong ended up tasting a little bland. Sometimes there was an undeniable urge to add chili sauce to spice up the flavor. It’s a shame bir pletok hasn’t made it to Australia just yet… I reckon a warm mug of the drink would be perfect during those cold and rainy winter days in Melbourne. 🙂
May you find chilli wherever you go, James. I much rather drink bir pletok on a hot and humid day. To me drinks tastes so much better when the weather is hot. Here’s to many more nice drinks 🙂
These extended quarantines are really messing up people’s plans. I’m glad you got to have a nice Christmas with friends and have a feast, even as you say, it wasn’t the traditional Christmas dinner. That kerak telor is a work of art, the presentation isn’t something you’d expect from a humble street vendor.
I loved how the vendor jokingly referred to kerak telor as “Betawi pizza” – and it was delicious! It looks like Taiwan will reopen to the rest of the world long before Hong Kong. My cousin is getting married in early September and there’s just no way I can make it back with quarantines still in place and a major work deadline looming just days before the event.