Letter From Jakarta

WHAT can 5,000 rupiah (S$1) get you in Indonesia these days?

If you are looking for food, it is the bottom-of-the-barrel price for a meal in the warung – the poor man’s restaurant.

Seen everywhere in Indonesia, the warung usually consists of a rough wooden table and dilapidated benches with canvas sheets for walls.

In most cases, they are basically kaki limas or street-side pushcarts parked before worn-out mats laid out on the footpath for the hungry.

Often the food is as pedestrian as the warung. But it gives one the chance to snack through the archipelago’s diverse cuisine.

As Indonesia’s melting pot, Jakarta’s street food has specialties from all over the archipelago – srabi pancakes from Solo, satay from Madura, Sulawesi-style ikan bakar and bakso or meatball soup from Bandung.

One of the most popular Indonesian dishes is the humble nasi goreng. It may be little more than fried rice with a few scraps of vegetable to give it some flavour, but sometimes it includes slivers of meat for a higher price.

It comes with krupuk, made from shrimp and cassava flour, in slices that are fried to a crisp.

Then there is nasi gudeg. A Central Javanese dish, it is unripe jackfruit cooked in grated coconut and served with rice, pieces of chicken and spices.

Food buffs normally have their nasi goreng with es buah, a concoction of crushed ice, condensed milk, shaved coconut, syrup, jelly and fruit.

Vegetarians can turn to nasi pecel. It is made of boiled papaya leaves, tapioca, bean spouts, string beans, fried soyabean cake, cucumber, coconut shavings and peanut sauce.

Noodle-lovers can take heart from mie soto, meat and vegetable broth poured over Maggie mee, with sambal on the side.

For those looking to spend more than 5,000 rupiah, there is always Padang food.

Usually served cold, this western Sumatran “buffet” consists of rice and a variety of side dishes such as beef, fish, curried chicken and boiled cabbage.

The food is eaten with fingers, and one pays for the number of dishes consumed. Not many realise that half-eaten dishes sometimes go back into the pot to be served to the next, unsuspecting customer.

Indonesian cuisine reflects a regional cultural heritage with local influences lending refreshing, sometimes startling, notes to the overall fare.

For instance, Javanese cooking relies on fresh spices. While chilli figures, the overall effect is mild because of the mellowing effect of sugar. Sugar is a popular ingredient as the Javanese have a sweet tooth.

Sumatrans, on the other hand, blend fresh and dry spices to flavour the main ingredients. The Chinese influence is also strong, particularly in meat and seafood dishes.

Then there are dishes that are unique to a particular province, and may prove strange to foreign palates.

In Bali, the dragonfly is a favourite. The insect is caught with gummy sticks and roasted before you in the warungs. Locals like it well-done and crispy.

Another Balinese delicacy is ikan belut or eel. Children catch them in the rice paddies at night to be cooked the following day.

Manado in North Sulawesi is the place for adventurous and unconventional diners.

Regional delights include kawaok, translated into Indonesian as tikus hutan goreng or fried forest rat.

There is also gamy rintek wuuk or spicy black dog meat and lawang pangang which is stewed bat. The Manadonese normally have them with chilled Bir Bintang.

At harvest ceremonies and during funerals in Tanatoraja in Sulawesi, the locals dine on buffalo meat barbecued in bamboo tubes. They wash it down with tuak, an alcoholic beverage that comes from palm trees.

Of course, the more exotic fare like stewed bats and forest rodents are not readily available on the average street pushcart or warung in the capital.

One step up from the warung is the rumah makan or restaurants. Brick walls stand in place of canvas sheets and, of course, they are pricier too.

In many cases, the restaurant is likely to be an upmarket place run by ethnic Chinese.

For all the political problems that bedevil Indonesia today, food continues to be the great unifier that brings together hundreds of ethnic groups scattered across its 17,000 islands.

The pasar malam or night market is often the meeting point for warungs.

There, Javanese, Bataks, Manadonese, Bugis, Chinese and myriad other ethnic groups can be found tucking heartily into their nasi goreng.

This poor man’s fare may be common on the streets of Jakarta, but there are signs of change in what whets the Indonesian palate.

This can be detected in the “colonel and clown” sightings in the more affluent parts of town.

Despite the economic meltdown in recent times, Western-style fast food is catching on, especially among the younger, wealthier Indonesians.

Fast-food joints are a feature of the main cities, complete with air-conditioning, plastic tables and statues of the ever-smiling Colonel Sanders or Ronald McDonald the clown.

Indonesia also has a growing contingent of Pizza Hut, Wendy’s and Hokka Bento’s, located mostly in the shopping malls.

They are packed during the weekends, despite the 15,000 rupiah to 20,000 rupiah needed to pay for a meal of a burger, fries and soft drink.

For the middle-class and yuppies, the warung is no longer the place to hang out. Hard Rock Cafe, O’Reilly’s Twilight Cafe, Cafe Batavia and Jaya Pub have become the in-places for dining, drinking and good music.

To be sure, the local touches are still there. Nasi goreng, mie soto and bubur ayam are found on the menu along with hamburgers, steaks and fish and chips. And you can opt for es buah if you do not fancy having a milk shake or cappuccino or a Singapore Sling.

But forget the 5,000-rupiah bill at the end of the meal. This is not dining in the rough. You have to pay for the ambience too. Which is why the warung will be around for a long time to come in Indonesia.

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