To my international readers the name Tegal might sound distantly foreign, but those from Indonesia would almost certainly have heard of it. It’s a city in the western part of Central Java whose residents speak a dialect of Javanese that is so distinct compared to other varieties of this regional language. While most Javanese produce sounds in their mouth using their tongue, roof of the mouth, teeth, and lips, the people of Tegal and its surrounding areas use their throat heavily. The result of this is a version of Javanese that sounds… hilarious.
The TV industry capitalized on this really well and in the 1990s and early 2000s a prominent comedian with a thick Tegalese accent appeared frequently on screens over millions of households across Indonesia. Whenever she entered a scene and started talking, her fellow comedians would immediately laugh, and so would those watching her from home. I don’t know why the people from this part of Java talk like that.
Fast forward to 2003, a time I was already living on my own in Bandung during my university years, when one day I suddenly got a phone call from my mother who had something important to tell me.
“Bama, your father has been transferred to Tegal.”
Due to his job as a prosecutor for the government, moving around cities in Indonesia every six or seven years was something my father had to do, and my mother and I were used to it. What struck me most about my mother’s announcement that day was not the transfer itself, but rather where he would be stationed next.
Of all places, why Tegal?
Months after my parents settled into their new place, I visited them during the summer break. Of all my first impressions about this coastal city, one thing I remember most was the sultry air – it was so unbearably hot and humid I was very much in shock for the first few days. But you were born and raised in a tropical country, you may think. Well, yes. But the previous two cities where my parents used to live prior to moving to Tegal had more temperate climes where the mercury almost never rose beyond 30 degrees Celsius.
The other thing about Tegal I will never forget is how I had to look down most of the time fearing that I would offend anyone because I couldn’t stop laughing every time I heard the locals talking to each other. That accent is just so… comical.
Despite the oppressive heat, my parents tried to introduce me to what their new city had to offer. Tasikmalaya – their previous city – with a population of more than twice as much was significantly bigger than Tegal. But the latter already had two malls – considered a sign of progress in many places in Indonesia – and we surely checked them out not only to see what they had, but also to take advantage of the air conditioning.
My parents also made sure I sampled the local delicacies, some of which proved to be an acquired taste although I never had problems with any of them since my very first bite. “I really don’t like it, but you seem to enjoy it,” a close friend of mine from university who was in town said to me when we tried kupat bongkok. I can’t blame him. Among many other ingredients, this breakfast dish is made from over-fermented tempeh, which gives kupat bongkok its funky taste. It’s admittedly not for everyone.
Tegal was (and still is) a compact city and there wasn’t much to see. However, one building caught my attention and intrigued me for years since the first time I laid eyes on it. Whenever my father took me to the city’s train station to go back to Bandung, he always drove past this huge structure – much bigger than most buildings in Tegal – which appeared to have been constructed during Dutch colonial times. Its white façade always looked rather sad with patches of peeled-off paint and mold stains on its surface. The name of the local university was emblazoned above its main entrance, though I could only get glimpses of all these through the narrow openings between the big trees that stood between this structure and the street.
Such imposing Dutch-era structures are usually found in big cities like Jakarta, Bandung or Semarang. But then, out of nowhere, I saw one here. Of all places to build it, why Tegal?
It was not until several years ago, long after my parents had left Tegal for Semarang, that I finally learned about a railway company called the Semarang-Cheribon Stoomtram Maatschappij (SCS). It was one of three major Dutch railway companies that dominated train services on Java from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. All of them built their rail network from Semarang to different parts of the island: the NIS (the biggest of the three) connected Semarang with Java’s hinterland; the SJS served port cities to the east of Semarang; and the SCS focused on the west. While both the NIS and SJS were headquartered in Semarang, curiously the SCS was run from Tegal, some 70 km to the east of Cheribon (present-day Cirebon) and more than 150 km to the west of Semarang.
Why Tegal? Why didn’t the SCS build their headquarters in Semarang or Cirebon? This is a question for which I have yet to find the answer.
Over in Jakarta, Tegal is often associated with blue-collar workers as many of them who now live in the Indonesian capital hail from this Central Javan city. This includes taxi drivers, servers at local restaurant chains, domestic helpers, as well as those working at construction sites and cheap food joints serving low-wage employees. Because of this, to put it bluntly, Jakartans often look down on the people coming from Tegal, unfortunately.
But for my family, Tegal is a part of our memories, although I only went there on holidays. My mother recalls that Tegal was where my late father had the best time of his career, and I remember some of the delicious dishes she used to make there but are no longer cooked at home for various reasons. So, when she proposed to revisit Tegal, I easily said yes.
Last December, when Java was already well into the rainy season, I picked a day that – according to weather forecasts – seemed to have a good chance of turning out sunny. To make the most of our day, we left Semarang early in the morning and arrived in Tegal a little over two hours later. Our first stop was the area near the train station, for it is where the former headquarters of the SCS is located (locally known as ‘Gedung Birao’) and also where we would have our breakfast. After more than a decade, I finally tried the notorious kupat bongkok again. With a palate that has been exposed to a lot more different dishes, I can now appreciate this delicacy even better. The one we tried tasted just as good as my first time many years ago. I looked at James to see whether he liked it or not, and I was surprised to know that he actually didn’t mind the funky taste.
With reasonably full stomachs, we walked around the area which now felt more open and airy with an unobstructed view of the former headquarters of the SCS. Nearby is a water tower built in 1932 to provide the city and its surrounding areas with clean water. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the plaza stands the small but elegant train station which was quieter than how I remembered it, thanks to the ongoing pandemic.
If there was one thing my mother anticipated the most from this excursion, that would be sate kambing Tegal, a local version of satay (skewered meat) made from goat kids. She often tells people how much she loves goat satay, so much so that when she was pregnant with me she had it very frequently. And thanks to my father’s stint in Tegal, now she claims that no one does goat satay better than the Tegalese. Unsurprisingly, when I asked her if she wanted to have this dish for early lunch, she enthusiastically agreed despite the fact that our breakfast was only less than three hours earlier.
After a brief visit to the city’s Chinatown – which to my surprise has more well-preserved Chinese-style houses than those in Semarang – and taking photos of the nearby Dutch colonial buildings, off we went to our lunch place. My mother is usually a light eater as she easily gets full. But it was as if she was a different person during lunch for she was able to devour one skewer of tender goat meat after another. I must admit, this was the best sate kambing that has ever passed my lips. As opposed to many Indonesian dishes, this satay is not seasoned when it’s grilled, and it’s served only with kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce), chopped chilies, and some sliced tomatoes and shallots as a side dish.
Once we finished our satisfying lunch, we went to the house of a former colleague of my father’s to kill time. Still within the city, it’s a rather modest abode filled with a few decorative elements that are peculiar even by Indonesian standards. However, our host proved to be very hospitable. While my mother spent hours talking to her, reminiscing over the good old days when my father was still working in the city, James and I were happily munching on some snacks provided for us: tahu aci (tofu stuffed with seasoned tapioca flour, then fried), sliced star fruits, and the most delicious tea ever. Tegal is famous for its tea, but our host claimed that it’s the water that makes the tea in Tegal taste better than those from other places in Indonesia. “I always bring water from Tegal to make tea whenever I travel,” she added with a sense of pride on her face.
At a little past 3pm, we finally said goodbye to our kind host and got ready to return to Semarang. But not without stopping by one more place to try another dish I have been curious about: kupat blengong. Made from blengong (the naturally-occurring hybrid between Indian runner ducks and Muscovy ducks), this is one of the dishes that is unique to this part of Java as this type of meat is almost unknown or unheard of in other parts of the island. While the experience was interesting, James and I agreed that we should have had this before the sate kambing. The skewered goat was so insanely good our last dish in Tegal felt like a little bit of a letdown. Nevertheless, I’m glad we tried it before leaving the city.
Now, if anyone asks me of all places I could have gone for holiday, why Tegal? My answer would be as simple as, why not? It’s much more than just a small city where the people speak a very funny dialect of Javanese.