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. ◊