When I began exploring places far from home more than ten years ago, cultural sights and performances were always high on my list of things to see and do. I can’t remember exactly when it started, but my interest in cultures that are different from the ones I grew up in is rooted in my childhood years as I loved reading about stories from faraway lands. Then I traveled and started taking notice of each country’s cultural practices. In Germany (or at least in the city of Duisburg in North Rhine-Westphalia), I saw how guests would bring plates to a wedding celebration and smash them right before entering the venue to bring good luck to the couple. In Saigon, Vietnam, I watched a puppet show performed on a stage filled with murky water to mimic the rice fields, and in Japan, I saw how age is not an excuse not to be energetic and productive, as shown by an older shop attendant who juggled different tasks with ease and extraordinary speed. These memorable moments illustrate why I fell in love with traveling: it broadens my horizons and gives me inspiration.
However, trying local dishes was something I never really did despite the fact that I always find joy in eating. When I went to Bangkok for the first time, I did think of sampling the local food – at McDonald’s. And when I was in Phnom Penh I only ate one Khmer dish and went to KFC; my default choice was the usual tourist fare. In the past, I always resorted to eating something that didn’t look too foreign. And why did I do this? I guess I was basically following what many people do when they travel.
This changed when I met James, a true foodie at heart who always makes trying local dishes one of the top priorities when he travels. On our first trip together to Laos, I had an amazing time sampling Lao cuisine which I wouldn’t have otherwise eaten had I gone there by myself. The more traveling I do, and the more local delicacies I sample, the more I realize not only the importance of food in different cultures, but also its ability to tacitly show us the history of a place. Take a look at the regional cuisines in Indonesia and they can tell you a lot about the past: Acehnese food usually incorporates a lot of spices, which is a testament to the area’s past connection with major trading ports along the Indian Ocean; Central Javanese dishes, on the other hand, have a distinctively sweet flavor thanks to the plethora of sugar cane plantations in this part of the island that were set up during the Dutch colonial period. In Jakarta, the local dishes are a result of centuries of amalgamation of culinary influences from different cultures, including Sundanese (the indigenous people of neighboring West Java), Chinese (due to the high number of immigrants from China when Batavia, as Jakarta was called, was an important trading port in the Dutch East Indies), Malay, Arab, Indian, Dutch and Portuguese to name some.
In short, due to its ability as a window to other cultures, food has now become one of the main reasons for me to travel. Through food, I can get a glimpse of how people from different cultural backgrounds have different ways of cooking, different philosophies concerning what goes into their mouths, and different perspectives on what food really means to them.
2020 had most of us grounded as borders were shut and traveling in general seemed to become something from a distant past. In 2021 we’re seeing how, to some extent, traveling is possible again, although it’s still nothing like how we knew it before the pandemic. So to satiate my craving to see the world, trying foreign cuisines in the city where I live is the closest thing to traveling that I can do for the time being.
Jakarta is not like New York or London where people from hundreds of different countries from all over the world live, which also means that you can find restaurants serving authentic food from all corners of the globe. But the Indonesian capital has been seeing a steady rise of businesses introducing dishes from faraway lands most Jakartans are not familiar with. In a post I wrote three years ago, I commended the city’s evolving food scene where now you can find Brazilian, Peruvian, Greek and Spanish restaurants in addition to those serving Japanese, Korean, Italian and Dutch dishes that had established themselves for quite some time. The pandemic has forced me to explore Jakarta even deeper, and because of that now I realized that there’s actually more to discover in this city when it comes to international cuisine.
Let’s start our journey in Central America – or one of Jakarta’s satellite cities to be precise. Situated in a compact commercial compound filled with uninspiring shophouses, Oh My Taco is a hidden gem in its truest sense. Inside the two-story venue – the upper floor was closed when we went – visitors are welcomed by a Honduran flag proudly displayed right above the serving hatch, while the rest of the dining area is decorated with Central American-themed ornaments. Owned by a Honduran who lives in the Jakarta metropolitan area, this restaurant serves dishes that may at first sound too strange for most Indonesians. Its plato tipico is a prime example for this; the combination of grilled pineapple and meat with pico de gallo, fried sweet banana, stewed red beans, avocado, rice and tortillas might not be something you come across every day. But if you are curious enough to give it a try, you’ll find out that mixing all those seemingly random components actually works. Add a little bit of everything, and the result is a beautiful balance of flavors that satisfies your taste buds. Of course, there’s no way for me to tell whether what I tried was authentic or if it had been adjusted for the Indonesian palate. But it sure was delicious.
Now let’s cross the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. On another day, James and I went to an unassuming eatery – which looked more like a canteen – in West Jakarta to try dishes from the western part of Africa. African Food Center Nwanyi Nnewi is one of very few places in the city that serve food from the continent. Hailing from Nigeria, the owner herself responded to my inquisitive WhatsApp message in a jovial and energetic tone when I asked her what dishes would be available on the day I planned to go there.
Prior to my visit, I’d watched quite a number of videos on YouTube about jollof rice, a dish that is popular in West Africa (and a source of national pride as each country has its own version of it) and had been curious to try ever since. When I finally tasted it myself at this low-key place, I was pleasantly surprised to find it even more delicious than what I expected. Its savory and umami flavor, with a little hint of sweetness and tartness, made it like comfort food that you just want to keep eating. We also tried nsala (a thick soup made from ground crayfish, yam, utazi leaves, pepper and other ingredients), egusi (a different soup made from ground melon seeds, red palm oil, meat and fish, and other ingredients that are foreign to me), and fufu (traditionally made from cassava, plantain or cocoyam, but the one we tried was made from wheat flour). There was something familiar yet foreign about the flavors of these Nigerian dishes, though they’re more peppery than most Indonesian food, but overall I quite enjoyed my first ever foray into the Nigerian/West African culinary tradition, ensuring a second trip or a repeat order in the future.
Still on the same continent, this time we travel across the vast Sahara desert to get to Morocco, or in my case to a restaurant called Marrakech in South Jakarta. James once told me how much he loved the lamb tagine he had at a Moroccan restaurant in Bath, England and how he wished there was a place in Jakarta that serves dishes from this North African kingdom. He did eventually find one on the internet, but apparently it was closed just months earlier as the owner decided to move to Bali to start another culinary business. It wasn’t until a few months ago when we finally came across the information on Marrakech and gave it a try.
When I had Marrakech’s lamb tagine, it truly was a revelation. The lamb shank which had been slowly cooked in saffron and cinnamon sauce was tender and succulent. Its sweet, savory and slightly tangy flavors will certainly be appreciated especially by Central Javanese (like me). Then we tried its couscous which was also served in a tagine – a shallow earthenware pot – that came with meat (lamb or chicken) and chopped vegetables (carrot, pumpkin, zucchini as well as chickpeas). It was also my first time having the North-African grain-like crushed durum wheat semolina which has this interesting texture that I liked. These tasty dishes and the fact that Indonesians don’t need a visa to travel to Morocco have put this country really high on my list of places I’d like to go to when this pandemic is over.
Now let’s move to the eastern Mediterranean region known as the Levant which also happens to be among the latest places we traveled to before the pandemic started. In 2019 on our separate trips to Lebanon and Jordan, we discovered the fresh, hearty and delicious world of Levantine cuisine. We adored za’atar (a dried herb or spice mix used in cooking in this region), savored manakish, and relished different kinds of salad, from tabbouleh to fattoush and Arabic salad. It was sad to leave these countries as we knew that there was no restaurant back in Jakarta that serves authentic Levantine cuisine.
Or that was what we thought until we learned about Joody Kebab in North Jakarta. Owned by a Jordanian and his Iraqi business partner, this restaurant had in fact been around for quite some time. In the middle of August last year, we decided to give it a try and in the end regretted not knowing about this place earlier. We ordered manakish drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar; moutabal (grilled eggplant mixed with tahini and olive oil); and tabbouleh, which all tasted like what we had in Beirut and Amman. They even served arayes, a dish from Lebanon that we tried during our stay in the Jordanian capital. Unfortunately, early this year we learned that Joody Kebab had to permanently close its doors just two weeks after our visit. It’s one of those sad stories I believe many of us have been hearing since the start of pandemic as many restaurants struggle to survive amid the dwindling number of customers.
But not all is bad as some did manage not only to survive the pandemic, but also to thrive during these difficult times. In East Jakarta a small joint specializing in Iranian cuisine belongs to the latter category. Kourosh Kebab introduces traditional Persian fare to Jakartans through dishes including koobideh (minced lamb or beef mixed with salt, black pepper, finely grated onion then grilled on a skewer), joojeh (chunks of chicken that are marinated in lemon juice, saffron and chopped onion and then grilled), ghormeh sabzi (a stew made from sauteed herbs mixed with kidney beans and other ingredients), and khoresht gheymeh (a stew made with meat, fries, yellow split peas, tomato paste and dried lime cooked with turmeric, saffron, salt and pepper). Despite their earthy appearance, I found these dishes more produce-driven, not spice-driven as I’m more accustomed to here in Indonesia. But I really enjoyed them all nonetheless. And it looks like I’m not the only one as a few months ago Kourosh Kebab opened its second restaurant, this time right in Kemang, one of South Jakarta’s trendiest areas.
While it’s been fun looking for new places to eat in and around Jakarta serving authentic dishes from around the world, I’ve also been exploring more Indonesian food during the pandemic and found one dish particularly intriguing. Laksa is a type of soupy dish popular in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand. Usually served with noodles, it varies widely from one region to another. Some use coconut milk, others have a prominent sour taste. It turns out that Jakarta has its own version of the dish, called laksa Betawi, which is surprisingly not easy to find.
We had to go to a modest eatery in a densely-populated, low-rise neighborhood in South Jakarta to find Laksa Betawi Assirot, a family-run business that has been around since 1972. They only do one dish, and they do it really well. Made from a mélange of spices and ingredients that include pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom, ginger, kencur (sand ginger), galangal, lesser galangal, turmeric, candlenuts, lemongrass, salam leaves, garlic, shallot, sugar, two types of chilies, and dried shrimp cooked in coconut milk, with coconut cream added toward the end of the cooking process, laksa Betawi tastes as rich as it sounds. Served with sliced ketupat (a type of rice cake) with your choice of protein (egg, beef or jengkol – a kind of pea native to Southeast Asia) and then sprinkled with fried shallots, kemangi leaves and chopped Chinese chives, it’s the kind of dish that will give you an explosion of flavors in your mouth.
In a more upscale setting in another part of South Jakarta, I found the joy of rediscovering Indonesian food through Javara, a brand focused on reviving lesser-known ingredients and culinary traditions. At their visually-pleasing shop, they sell a wide variety of products ranging from all kinds of flower-specific honey (clove, coffee, rambutan, mango), artisanal salt (produced using traditional techniques in Bali), heirloom rice (forgotten rice varieties that were common in Indonesia before 1970 when the government stipulated that only certain types of were allowed to be cultivated to intensify rice production in the country), coconut oil for different purposes, and the list seems to keep getting longer every time I check.
Sharing a space with the shop is their small restaurant serving Indonesian dishes made using Javara’s products. Here for the first time we tried West Sumatra’s ikan asam padeh, a sour and spicy soup with skipjack tuna. It intrigued me that this light and refreshing dish comes from the same region that produces rich and spice-laden delicacies like rendang and different types of curry-like dishes that can be found at eateries throughout Indonesia. We were also delighted by tumis jantung pisang (stir-fried banana blossom), tempe/tempeh nuggets (it was like eating usual chicken nuggets, but healthier), as well as mie pelangi tuna dabu-dabu (naturally-colored vegetable noodles with pan-seared tuna and chopped sambal/spicy condiment from North Sulawesi). If the name Javara sounds familiar to you that’s because I have written about its outlet in Semarang’s Kota Lama that serves different dishes from its Jakarta outlet but is still dedicated to Indonesian food.
If anything, exploring flavors of the world makes me miss traveling even more. I miss randomly going to a restaurant in a foreign land which often turns out serving some of the most memorable dishes I’ve ever tried in my life. I miss convincing local people that all I want to try is the same dishes they eat every day, not pasta or pizza as I can find them easily back in the city where I live. I miss learning about the spices, herbs and ingredients used by different people in their cooking which, though unfamiliar to my Indonesian palate, taste delicious nevertheless. I miss learning about cooking techniques not known back home. However, as I am (as most of us are) still waiting anxiously for the pandemic to end, I’m pleasantly surprised to find out that Jakarta’s food scene is becoming more and more diverse every day. And that’s one of a few good things that has come out of this global health crisis: I am getting to know my city better.
As always, all posts published in my blog are not sponsored. All brands and business names mentioned here are purely based on my personal preference.