Part 4 of 4
For the longest time, Semarang was known as a place to rekindle one’s nostalgic memories of things from the past. Having traditional snacks that had become increasingly hard to find in other big cities and dining at vintage restaurants serving Dutch food were among the reasons for many to visit Central Java’s provincial capital. But that was kind of it. While other cities across Java – Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and even Yogyakarta – kept reinventing themselves, introducing new concepts and ideas to their residents which also attracted curious visitors from out of town, Semarang was moving at a much slower pace, as if it was trapped and unable to escape from its own past.
For sure, Semarang does have a glorious and fascinating history that it can – and should – be proud of. It was once a major port in the Dutch East Indies, as well as the hub of railway lines on Java. It was also a progressive city where intellectuals from many parts of the island studied and exchanged ideas – revolutionary ones. However, early 21st-century Semarang was a big city with a rather lackluster feel. It seemed like it was content with itself, regardless of how far it was lagging behind other urban centers on the island. But in the second decade of the century, the place seemed to be awakened from its long slumber as new businesses sprouted, exciting ideas poured in, and all of sudden this city of 1.6 million people became very trendy.
Many attributed this dramatic change to the revitalization of Kota Lama, the city’s former Dutch economic center. Without doubt, this part of the city has improved a lot and shed its reputation as a den of crime. Instead of drug dealers, prostitutes and gamblers, Kota Lama now attracts visitors who are keen on taking photos with a backdrop of handsome Dutch-era buildings. Although the recent development of Kota Lama appears to have steered it away from the initial goal of enlisting it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site by 2020, turning it into some sort of colonial-style theme park instead, at least the dining scene within the 31-hectare area does not resemble that of any amusement park – typically packed with the usual international fast-food chains as well as their local competitors.
First, there is Spiegel. Occupying a lofty, sensibly-restored late 19th-century general store, this restaurant offers a well-curated selection of Indonesian, Asian, Middle Eastern and Western dishes – including some interesting examples of fusion among them – in an airy, casual setting. The relaxing ambient music sets the mood before the mouth-watering and well-presented dishes arrive. On one side of the wall, the white plaster was peeled off to reveal the original red bricks, further accentuating the long history of the structure. The food itself is a departure from the standard steak and pasta, a pattern that is unfortunately repeated in many modern restaurants in Semarang. Its slow-cooked beef cheek in French mirepoix sauce drizzled with Japanese-style bonito flakes is an example of an exciting ensemble of foreign yet unpretentious dishes at the self-styled bistro. Then there’s hummus and pesto which provide a good introduction to those who are not familiar with the Levantine dip – but only if it hasn’t been taken off the menu, since I was told that getting the ingredients for hummus has become increasingly challenging for the restaurant these days.
Just around the corner from Spiegel, there’s another eatery that is an excellent addition to Kota Lama’s culinary scene. Javara puts a strong emphasis on Indonesian dishes made from organic and locally-sourced ingredients. Nasi telang empal suwir, despite its long name, is a great introduction to what this restaurant has to offer. The rice comes in a shocking blue color which is in fact what butterfly pea flower does to your food and drinks when you add it to them. It is topped with sweet shredded empal (beaten beef cooked with spices, herbs, coconut milk and palm sugar) and served with crispy tempe (also called tempeh outside Indonesia), sautéed papaya flowers, serundeng (sautéed grated coconut mixed with spices) and shallot sambal. They all together not only look pretty on a plate, but also taste delicious. Then there’s bandeng keropok, one of Semarang’s local dishes that, for some reason, I had never tried until I went to Semarang’s Javara last December. It’s a grilled bandeng (milkfish, which is quite common in Java’s northern coast) dish served with kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce), chopped chilies, shallots and tomatoes.
Exciting dining venues aside, there are other reasons why Kota Lama is such an interesting place to visit today in spite of the haphazard “restoration” work that has been carried out recently. Sitting unpretentiously down the quiet alley between Spiegel and Javara is arguably one of Semarang’s most exciting art institutions: Semarang Gallery. From the outside, it just looks like yet another Dutch-era building, except for the peculiar yellow pole outside with a toilet perched on top of it – teasing curious visitors to come inside and see the museum’s collection. It may not look like much, but its presence adds another dash of sophistication to Semarang, for it brings Indonesian contemporary art closer to local people.
On the other side of Kota Lama, a compact two-story edifice called Monod Diephuis that was only completed in 1921 stands gracefully in a much quieter setting. Although not as popular and prominently-located as Semarang Gallery, this building which was once an office now opens its doors mostly for cultural events – often in collaboration with the adjacent Soesmans Kantoor – including art exhibitions, a literary festival, traditional dance classes, musical performances and public discussions. It’s very encouraging to see the proliferation of not only restaurants, but also physical spaces that allow exchanges of ideas to happen more frequently both among the local residents themselves as well as between locals and those from other cities.
However, there is one more restaurant in Kota Lama that is worth mentioning as it is a perfect example of what Semarang has become in recent years.
In my past visits to Kota Lama, every time I walked on Jalan Cendrawasih one building always caught my attention, for it has two giant army ants sitting atop its roof. Conceived as a performance hall in the 19th century, at one point in its history the compound was purchased by a shipping company named Marabunta, which is how the structure has been called since then. But to me 21st-century Marabunta was that curious-looking edifice that seemed to always be closed every time I passed by. However, when I returned to this part of Semarang in October last year, there were encouraging signs that this long-defunct building was coming back to life. And two months later just before the end of 2020, the newly-renovated Marabunta reopened its doors again. James and I, as excited as everyone else, decided to check it out just a few days after its soft opening.
The day we went, it felt a little surreal to walk through the entrance of Marabunta, thinking that what was for a long time lifeless is now filled with energy and optimism. We were immediately impressed by the lofty dining area with beautiful ambient lights accentuating its distinctive characters. There are many architectural elements from the original structure that are well-preserved and beautifully highlighted, including the metal pillars and the wooden ceiling. Returning something to its former glory had never felt more real, as everything I saw took my imagination back to the days when this place was brimming with activities and art performances, when it was the place to be in colonial-era Semarang.
Now let’s talk about the food. I’ve mentioned that one of the reasons why I like Spiegel very much is because of the fact that it doesn’t fall into the boring pattern many modern restaurants follow by serving the same menu items over and over again. This path of offering something different is fortunately what Marabunta decided to do. We were pleasantly surprised to see tuna gohu salad in the menu as we really enjoyed this Ternatean dish when we tried it six years ago on Ternate, one of the small eastern Indonesian islands where clove originated from. Since then, James has been envisioning an elevated version of the humble dish, something he only had encountered once so far which was in Jakarta several years ago. To understand gohu, imagine raw tuna in an aromatic, citrusy dressing served with fresh herbs, chopped shallots and chilies. The one we had at Marabunta came with crushed kenari (pili nuts) as well. Then there was also salmon nyat-nyat, a dish that was inspired by a Balinese cooking technique of reduction – thickening and intensifying the flavor of a liquid mixture through evaporation. It came with nasi jeruk, which is basically rice cooked with coconut milk, lemongrass, salam leaves and thin slices of kaffir lime leaves which gives this rice dish its distinctive, fragrant aroma.
With all those dining and cultural venues sprouting in Kota Lama, it’s safe to say that this once-rundown district has become a beacon of progress in the formerly laggard city. However, having a trendsetting area is one thing. But seeing the trend being repeated in many parts of the city is what truly makes Semarang much more enjoyable and inspiring these days. New businesses are emerging, both in Semarang’s flood-prone lower area (also known as Semarang Bawah) and in the hilly terrain of upper Semarang (Semarang Atas). And despite the pandemic, the growth of exciting newcomers appears to be relatively unabated, giving me more reason to visit my hometown even more frequently.
Rays of hope of Semarang’s revival are bright and promising from its tourism, culinary and entertainment industries, as well as from its emerging art scene. But what about education? Although not in the top three best universities in Indonesia, Semarang’s Universitas Diponegoro is still considered one of the most reputable higher education institutions in the country. The city is also home to a number of good high schools with notable alumni including government ministers, prominent journalists as well as celebrated artists. However, in general there is still so much room for improvement to make Semarang what it used to be in the early 20th century: a gathering place for scholars and intellectuals from all across the country.
Warak Kayu is a microlibrary designed by Bandung-based architecture firm SHAU not just as a space for kids to play and learn, but also as a small community center. Daliana Suryawinata, one of its co-founders, was inspired to create microlibraries after seeing how a lot of kids in Indonesia associate reading with punishment, not something that is fun and natural as children have so many questions in their minds, and the answers can be found through books. Constructed in downtown Semarang near one of the city’s poorer areas, the impressive yet compact wooden structure is a nice addition to the changing cityscape that I wish to see more of. Providing spaces focusing on nurturing the curious minds of the youth is equally important as increasing the number of art galleries and good restaurants, because investing in the future of children is one of the best things leaders can do to ensure their cities’ continuous improvement.
The grande dame that is Semarang has now been infused with much-needed spirit to rejuvenate itself and make it more competitive, and this momentum has to keep going. As long as this positive trend is maintained, Semarang shouldn’t worry anymore about lagging behind other cities on Java. It can even show others the way to move forward.