This coming June 22nd, Jakarta will be five years shy from turning half-a-millennium old. This megacity has come a long way from its humble beginnings when it was still called Sunda Kalapa, a port that was controlled by successive Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in the western part of Java since the fourth century CE. In the 16th century, the Portuguese arrived at its shores – the first Europeans to do so. They were on their quest to find the fabled Spice Islands from which highly-prized nutmeg and clove originated. The local Sunda Kingdom – among the last Hindu states on Java – which ruled over the port saw an opportunity in this. They forged an alliance with the Portuguese to help them defend Sunda Kalapa from the impending forces of the Demak Sultanate who were on a mission to spread Islam across the island. However, circumstances ended up favoring the latter who then renamed the port Jayakarta in 1527, a date which is now commemorated as the founding of Jakarta.
By the time the English and the Dutch entered the spice race in the region and set their presence in Jayakarta, the port city was already an important trading hub in Southeast Asia. In the early 17th century, officers from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) burned down a fort in the port that belonged to their English archrival – the EIC – and consolidated their power. Subsequently in 1619, the VOC christened the port city Batavia after the Batavians – the name used to refer to the people who had inhabited what is now the Netherlands since pre-Roman times. In the following centuries, Batavia grew further to become a big and bustling city, providing abundant business opportunities which attracted people from all over the Indonesian archipelago and beyond. Some arrived in the city on their own, while others were brought in by the Dutch as slaves or laborers. Many of them ended up staying and marrying local men and women, or fellow outsiders who decided to call Batavia home. Batavia was then renamed Djakarta in 1942, and eventually Jakarta in 1972.
When people move to other countries, they always bring some flavors from back home to their new lands. And when an intermarriage happens, different flavors from both sides are combined resulting in the creation of new dishes. And that is what Betawi food is all about.
In a previous post, I mentioned briefly about how the name Betawi came to be. As an ethnic group, the term Betawi only started to be widely used by the creole people of Batavia to refer to themselves around the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and it wasn’t until 1930 when Betawi was officially listed as a separate group in the population census. The cultures that had the biggest influence on shaping the Betawi identity today were Sundanese, Malay, Javanese, Arab, and Chinese. With sharp eyes, one can notice even their slightest footprints in Betawi culture, whether in the local architecture, traditional costumes, or the dishes.
Speaking of Betawi food, there are dozens of such dishes that originated in Jakarta’s Betawi community, while others may have been introduced from somewhere else which over time were then absorbed by Betawi culture. However, in my opinion originality should not necessarily be the focus when we talk about Betawi cuisine because of the history of Betawi itself as an amalgamation of different cultures. The discussion should otherwise center on how to preserve them, for some of these dishes are increasingly hard to find in the Indonesian capital these days. But isn’t that counterintuitive? Shouldn’t it be easy to find cuisines associated with Jakarta in Jakarta?
Well, not necessarily. When rapid development began in earnest in the city, a lot of Betawi-owned land especially close to the city center were turned into roads, government offices, skyscrapers, and high-rise apartments. Because of this, many Betawi families had to move elsewhere, voluntarily or not. A large number of them decided to restart their lives on the outskirts of Jakarta, although some managed to stay in the city. Over time, more and more people from all over Indonesia came to the nation’s capital and economic hub, a process which often sidelined the Betawi people for they were often seen as less competitive than the newcomers. They’ve become merely spectators, not actors, of their own city’s rapid growth – with a few exceptions. Today, the Betawi make up around 28% of the population of Jakarta, down from 36% in 1930. And if one goes to any Indonesian restaurant in the city, the likeliness of seeing Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, or West Sumatran dishes on the menu, rather than Betawi food, is generally higher.
After living in this metropolis for almost 14 years, I’ve come to a conclusion that there are three types of Betawi cuisines: those most people know about and are easily found in the city; those many people have heard of but haven’t necessarily tried; and those whose names people are unfamiliar with which will raise the question “what is that?”. However, the classification of dishes in these categories is based purely on my personal experience and does not reflect a general consensus.
Category 1 – The Most Common
Of all dishes often associated with Jakarta, nasi uduk is probably one of the most famous, at least among Indonesians. Although its origin is probably Javanese, nasi uduk vendors can be found all over the Indonesian capital, a fact which helps tie its identity to the city. By itself, nasi uduk is already delicious since it is essentially rice cooked in coconut milk into which aromatics (mainly lemongrass and salam leaves) and spices (typically cloves and cinnamon/cassia bark) are added. But traditionally it is served with a few side dishes that can be any source of protein (chicken and egg are the most common) or more carbs (rice noodles and potatoes) with the addition of all the usual condiments that are present in many Indonesian dishes: kerupuk (traditional crackers), fried shallots, and sambal.
Another popular Betawi dish is gado-gado, and it is arguably one of the most well-known among foreigners due to the fact that it’s usually available at most Indonesian restaurants abroad. One of many vegetable-based dishes from Indonesia, gado-gado typically consists of potato, lettuce, cucumber, beansprouts, cabbage, tofu, tempeh, and hard-boiled egg which are then smothered in a thick sauce made from peanuts (or sometimes cashews), palm sugar, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind juice, garlic, red peppers, and bird’s eye chilies, among other ingredients. However, in my opinion not all gado-gado are created equal. Some are tastier than the others, so therefore knowing where to try it is important.
The last dish in this category is soto Betawi, a local rendition of soto, an Indonesian soupy dish that come in many regional variations. Some soto have clear broth, while others (including soto Betawi) incorporate coconut milk in their recipes. Although in general I like the burst of rich flavors and the taste of umami in a bowl of soto – perfect for cold weather or just to lighten up my mood – there are some I can genuinely call my favorites. Soto Betawi is one of them. The soup is made from a mélange of different spices and aromatics which include cinnamon/cassia bark, cloves, nutmeg, pepper, coriander seeds, ginger, galangal, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, salam leaves, and kaffir lime leaves. All of the ingredients are first stir-fried to release their aroma, then mixed with a beef broth into which coconut milk or normal milk or both is then added. To serve, chopped beef brisket and offal, as well as boiled/steamed potato, sliced tomato, and chopped scallion are added into the soup, then topped with emping (a type of cracker made from melinjo seeds). Pickled cucumber, carrot, and bird’s eye chili, as well as sambal and a slice of jeruk limau (a small-sized citrus widely used in Indonesia) are usually served as condiments.
Category 2 – The Not-So-Elusive
One day when I was on the way to the office during my earliest years living in Jakarta, I stumbled upon a street vendor selling a breakfast dish I wasn’t familiar with. Called nasi ulam, it was plain white rice served with sweet beef jerky, diced cucumber, serundeng (grated coconut sautéed with spices), and kemangi (Indonesian basil) which together gave the dish a very pleasant aroma. However, it took me many years to eventually try this dish again, for it is not as widely available as nasi uduk despite its easier preparation. Recently, after looking for information about the best places to have authentic nasi ulam in Jakarta, I learned that there is actually one that is not too far from where I live. Tucked away in one of Jakarta’s kampung (a low-rise, dense neighborhood with close-knit communities that resemble those in villages or small towns), and just a short walk away from the skyscraper-studded central business district, is a hole in the wall that has been serving Betawi dishes for generations (it started in another place in the early 1950s). The portion was generous and I decided to have it with a fried chicken and telur balado (hard-boiled egg in chili sauce) on top of the usual condiments. I found it even more flavorful and fragrant than the one I had more than a decade ago, thanks to the copious amount of serundeng mixed with fried shallot as well as the sambal kacang (sambal made with ground peanuts) that came with it.
While it takes a little effort to have nasi ulam in Jakarta, there’s another dish that is probably more emblematic of the city but easier to find, only if you look for it at the right time. Kerak telor, literally “egg crust”, is one of the Betawi specialties that are always present during Jakarta’s anniversary. But when the celebration is over, also gone are most of the kerak telor vendors. Those who remain open all year round are usually the ones that have been in business for decades, selling this “Betawi pizza” whether there’s a festivity or not. When you do happen to find a kerak telor vendor, make sure to watch how the snack is prepared as opposed to just waiting for it to be served to you, and opt for the duck egg as it has a richer taste than chicken egg. The entire cooking process is a spectacle in itself, for it involves the person behind the small wok turning the metal vessel upside down halfway through to cook both sides of the sticky rice ‘pancake’. The finished product is a golden brown, omelet-like delicacy sprinkled with fried shallot and serundeng, and sliced in the way a pizza would.
Another famous classic Betawi dish is semur jengkol. It’s arguably easier to find than nasi ulam or kerak telor, but it is almost exclusively served at modest, street-side eateries – not at malls or hotels – for one reason: its high sulfur content is so potent it produces, to put it mildly, an unpleasant smell during one’s daily routine in the toilet the next morning. But apart from the after-effects, semur jengkol is actually quite tasty. Its texture is similar to that of a boiled potato but with a slightly mushroom-y bite. And the sauce in which it’s cooked is made of spices and aromatics with kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) to give it a sweet and umami flavor and a distinct dark color. A scene from a popular Indonesian soap in the 1990s about a young Betawi man illustrates how much Betawi people hold semur jengkol dear. When the main protagonist gets an opportunity to go to Switzerland for work, his doting mother tells him she will make semur jengkol for him to bring – which of course he doesn’t.
While I put gado-gado in the previous category, there’s another salad-like dish from Jakarta that in my opinion falls into the second category: asinan sayur. Its main ingredients are sliced cucumber, chopped cabbage, beansprouts, lettuce, and tofu that are served in a red sauce made from ground fried peanuts, cabai keriting (a type of long and thin red chili cultivar popular in Indonesia), palm sugar treacle, cuka (Indonesian vinegar), and salt. Right before it’s served, yellow and red Betawi-style crackers are added as toppings. While some of the components that make up asinan sayur sound similar with the ones in gado-gado, one of the main differences between the two is that the vegetables in the former are always raw, unlike the boiled ones used in the latter. But both are the same in a way that despite their initial impression as light dishes, they can actually be quite filling.
Category 3 – The Rarest
Now let’s talk about the rare ones, so much so that many people – even some of those who have been living in Jakarta for a long time – have never heard of these names or only have a vague idea of what they are. In a blog post from last year, I wrote about laksa Betawi, a local rendition of a soupy dish popular in parts of Southeast Asia. It’s not hard to imagine people loving this dish for its rich and satisfying flavors. However, strangely there are not many places that serve it, making this visually-appetizing Betawi specialty a rather elusive dish. To make matter worse, one of the few places in the city specializing in laksa Betawi seems to have closed down forever, a sad situation I only learned earlier this year when I went there to try their sate Betawi – an even rarer Betawi dish. “We only make them for special orders now,” a man explained to me and James as we arrived at the quiet place that has now been turned into a kiosk selling snacks and beverages.
We had better luck in our search of bubur ase, a Betawi take on the Chinese-influenced congee that has been transformed into bubur ayam (literally “chicken congee”), a much-loved breakfast dish with dozens of variations across Indonesia. The main difference between the latter and its Betawi counterpart, apart from the absence of ayam (chicken) in bubur ase, is in the ingredients used. The Betawi congee has pickled cucumber, asinan sayur, and beansprouts over which sweet semur soup with tofu and beef is then poured. Red Betawi-style crackers, emping, and fried peanuts are then added on top of everything before the dish is served. I grew up eating bubur ayam and love it for the combination of savory and umami taste with smooth texture that never fails to comfort my palate. That’s why when I first found out about bubur ase, I was both a little apprehensive (due to the sour taste from the asinan sayur) and curious. Luckily, my curiosity won so I decided to give it a try at a modest street-side food cart in Central Jakarta. When the first spoonful of bubur ase entered my mouth, I was confused for a brief moment, but then I soon realized that the flavor combination of all the ingredients actually worked. It truly was a revelation, but sadly the place we went to is among the last remaining bubur ase vendors in Jakarta.
While laksa Betawi and bubur ase incorporate ingredients most Jakartans are familiar with, sayur besan is on the other end of the spectrum. It’s rare mainly because one of the key components of the dish has become harder to find at traditional markets in Jakarta these days. Terubuk, also called tebu telur (literally “egg sugar cane”), is a plant that is related to the common sugar cane but is sought after for its tips or unopened buds that conceal the real treasure within. With a shape and color that resemble cylindrical tofu, this part of terubuk is what people use to make sayur besan, a Betawi dish traditionally served at weddings. (The word besan itself means in-laws, so when your child is getting married, the parents of your child’s spouse will be your besan – and you are theirs.) Many people liken the texture of this part of terubuk with that of the roe of terubuk fish (Tenualosa toli), hence the name. I personally have never tried the roe of this saltwater species, but in a way it did remind me of the roe of belanak (Crenemugil seheli, also known as the blue-spot mullet), a delicacy I used to eat as a child in Borneo.
Another rare dish I believe shouldn’t be this hard to find is gorengan kambing, fried goat meat served in a rich and aromatic soup into which gulati and emping are added. What really baffles me about this particular delicacy is the fact that the ingredients are actually quite common. Except for fenugreek which is needed to make gulati (in addition to cumin, ginger, galangal, nutmeg, garlic, and shallot to make this stir-fried green bean dish which is a key component of gorengan kambing), everything else is something most Indonesian cooks use every day in their kitchens. I have yet to find the answer as to why there are only a few people in Jakarta who seem to know about this and make it.
If sayur besan and gorengan kambing prove to be too elusive, pecak gurame is another Betawi dish that falls into the same category but is considerably easier to find. In general there are two types of it: one with a clear soup, and the other one with a peanut-and-candlenut sauce. In both variants, giant gourami (Osphronemus gouramy) is first fried before being smothered in the sauce/soup. On the clear soup side, one version of it has the distinct taste of fingerroot – a spice with which my mother makes her spinach stew – which is quite different from the emphasis on turmeric in the other version. On the other hand, the sauce for the second variety of pecak gurame is made from peanuts and candlenuts (to replace the more expensive cashews from the original recipe), red chilies, bird’s eye chilies, shallots, garlic, turmeric, sand ginger, and coconut milk. Special journeys to the far southwest corner of Jakarta as well as a place in East Jakarta were needed to try the former, but to have the peanut-based version, we went farther to the south of Jakarta near Setu Babakan – an area dedicated to preserving Betawi culture – to go to Rumah Makan H. Nasun, arguably the best place to have that particular kind of pecak gurame.
As a matter of fact, the very same restaurant is also known for another Betawi dish: gabus pucung. This delicacy is made from gabus fish (Channa striata) or snakehead murrel in English and pucung – the fermented seed of Pangium edule (which is highly poisonous in its raw form) also known as kluwek, keluak, kepahiang, and pammarrasan in other parts of Indonesia. The unique ingredient gives the dish its distinctive black color and earthy flavor, and is combined with many of the usual spices used in Indonesian cooking to create gabus pucung. While this dish isn’t necessarily the hardest to find, the reason why it falls into the third category is because it’s rarely available at Rumah Makan H. Nasun – reportedly the best place to have gabus pucung. On my first visit, they didn’t have it. And since then, every time I asked them via WhatsApp, they always said they couldn’t find the gabus they wanted at the market. I suppose it’s more because they have specific criteria for the fish which makes their version of gabus pucung stand out among others. In the end, I decided to go to another Betawi restaurant to have this dish, which turned out to be quite good but a little too salty for my liking.
(UPDATE: One hour after I published this post, Rumah Makan H. Nasun informed me via WhatsApp that they had gabus pucung. I immediately took the commuter train to get there and had their famous but notoriously rare gabus pucung for an early lunch. Oh my! The dish really lived up to its reputation. It was rich, spicy, but well-balanced with a hint of citrus — probably from kaffir lime leaves. And the fish itself was big and meaty. I have updated the post with a photo of this dish.)
Betawi cuisine is undoubtedly dominated by savory dishes. However, it also has a few sweet drinks and desserts which curiously are not easy to find in Jakarta. When beer was brought by the Europeans to Batavia in the past, the predominantly Muslim locals tried to replicate it and create a completely new drink sans alcohol with a color that resembles a dark ale. Using traditional ingredients including ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and secang bark (which gives the drink its dark red color), bir pletok was born. Today a handful of small-scale businesses still make it, with recipes that vary greatly from one place to another. My favorite, however, is one that tastes less gingery.
While bir pletok was inspired by beer, es selendang mayang is a Betawi dessert with apparent traces of Chinese influence. Usually served in a bowl, it consists of slices of three-colored cake (typically made from rice flour or mung bean flour) in light coconut milk with palm sugar syrup. Ice cubes are usually added before serving. While making it doesn’t sound overly complicated, finding it in Jakarta proves to be rather hard. By now, you will probably have noticed a recurring theme of how difficult it is to find many Betawi dishes in Jakarta, which is ironic given their origins in the community that was born in this city.
Most of the restaurants, food joints, and modest stalls where I tried some of the best Betawi dishes have been running their businesses for decades. Quite a few of them are still doing well, while others are struggling to survive – that sate Betawi place even closed its doors before I got the chance to try it. While it is encouraging to see more and more Betawi dishes making their way onto the menus of popular Indonesian restaurants in the city, this represents only a fraction of the entirety of Betawi culinary traditions.
Food is one of the most exciting and fascinating aspects of human civilization, for it provides a window into different communities and past interactions among cultures that resulted in a wide array of culinary creations. The disappearance of a dish is akin to the vanishing of a fragment of a culture. I believe there is still time to save many rare Betawi dishes so that decades from now people can still savor the flavors of gabus pucung, pecak gurame, bubur ase, nasi ulam, kerak telor, es selendang mayang, and their other Betawi cousins. There is still time.