Despite calling Semarang in Central Java home, I only spent a brief 1.5 years in the city since I was born. Life had taken me to live in three cities in South Kalimantan (Borneo) and four cities in Java. Until a few years ago, the only memories of the delicacies of the city were from my mother’s cooking and my short visits to my uncle’s house when I was still little. However, since my parents moved back to Semarang less than five years ago, I get more chance to tuck in the dishes of the city where I was born.
Since I started this blog, I have written two posts on the food of Semarang, in 2011 and 2012. A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to go back to Semarang on a business trip. No visit to the city would be complete without tasting its wide array of local delicacies.
If you think a drop of Tabasco is hot enough, think twice before you try Mangut Belut – fried eels in chili and coconut milk soup. Its fiery soup will burn your tongue, and stomach. Nonetheless, that is what exactly most people are looking for when they try the dish. Kepala Manyung is another bizarre delicacy. The weird-looking head of the ariid catfish with its otherworldly head skull is truly a tough challenge for any chef who tries to serve it beautifully and elegantly. The skin is as chewy as a rubber tire, but the meat is tender and tasty.
For milder options to balance the rich and spicy flavours of Mangut Belut and Kepala Manyung, try the Dutch-influenced Javanese beef steak, Galantine, or the ubiquitous street dish, Tahu Gimbal. A cup of Teh Poci (tea served in a clay pot) with rock sugar is always a potent antidote to any food too weird for your palate to comprehend.
Amid the chaotic Simpang Lima surrounded by shopping malls and plethora of street food vendors, a big stage hosts a series of performing arts, songs and dances. Massive loud speakers and psychedelic lighting lead up to a quite impressive show of fireworks for the finale of the night’s hype. It’s the 466th anniversary of Semarang.
I am sitting on a plastic bench, devouring a simple serving of Tahu Gimbal with a generous amount of peanut sauce, all for less than 10,000 rupiah (roughly US$ 1). That is only a fraction of what people have to pay for the same dish in Jakarta, another factor which brings people to go to the capital of Central Java, and brings me home.