63: A Menu For Everyone

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

*****

Beyond the air-con of the food venues in the malls, there is an unlimited number of off-site street food available and little eateries dotted all over the place – and I mean ALL over the place.

You will find aged grandmothers in Muslim dress on the busway overpasses crouched next to pans of rice and pots of sauces from which they spoon takeaway portions into little plastic bags they seal closed with an elastic band. There are also an assortment of traders sharing the same overpass selling all sorts of random handy goods as well as fruits and fried, doughy snacks

Every day sinewy, tanned, bicycle traders cycle their way in and out of the busy parts of town, a makeshift display cabinet propped on top of the handlebars of their modified mobile cafes from where they sell peanuts and various other bits of low maintenance, lightweight, edible nibbles. This is not an easy gig and my heart bleeds for these guys when I see them peddling back through the pollution and heavy traffic to whatever shack they live in having only made a few thousand rupiahs (10,000 IDR is less than a dollar) for their great efforts. But even the traffic congestion offers an opportunity for some of the poor locals to scrape an income of some sort together. You see men, women and children with little snacks bound with string and slung over their backs for sale to the stationary commuters stuck in traffic jams. Necessity really is the mother of much of life’s invention.

Whilst you can’t expect a great deal of hygiene from many of the tax-free street eateries, the food from warungs and the pece lele’s is often just as tasty, if not more so, as the overpriced mall food. I’ve also found that these street traders are a lot better at producing an accurate bill!

There really is a remarkable amount of food outlets around this city. It’s as if in the absence of a drinking culture an eating culture has developed. Hangovers don’t get in the way of appetites in Jakarta. Judging by the abundance of wobble and the copious amounts of junk-in-trunks on display, smoking doesn’t either. But if the lack of outlets for social drinking is down to the influence of Islam, I don’t get what Mohammed’s plan is. Cigarettes and sugary foods are as sure a way to heart failure, an early grave and an oversized coffin as pork products and alcohol. Furthermore, whilst all the smoking and sugar consumption is a sure way to bring you closer to God, you’re hardly going to look the part as you wobble up to the pearly gates with your big gut, chafed thighs, bad breath and nasty teeth. If hell is crowded it’s only because there’s no room left in heaven; it’s full of all those good Muslims who abstained from alcohol but, addicted to sugar and hydrogenated fats, gorged themselves on milkshakes, bubble teas, cakes and ice-cream after massive Halal feasts. Meanwhile the Catholics and Christians must be sat at a bar in purgatory getting drunk with the Sikhs and Hindus whilst the Jews are stood outside the pearly gates, bemused and affronted, insisting that as God’s chosen people they should be on the guestlist.

Religious irreverence aside, there are a couple of things you may want to know about eating Indonesian food: First of all, food is eaten with a spoon and fork instead of a knife and fork. Rather than cutting up chunks of food and impaling the mouthful on the fork, the people here use both utensils to scrape and peel away a mouthful of what is on their plate before scooping it into their mouths with the spoon.

Secondly, that tasty looking food that you see inside the glass display cabinet is cold, and it is served that way. If you want your food hot (panas) then you have to ask, otherwise, a packet of hot rice wrapped in a banana leaf is the only thing that will add some heat to that cold fried fish or meat. Also, Indonesians like a lot of sambal, hot chilli and spices to accompany their cuisine, so go easy on those condiments if you’ve got a sensitive tongue.

The drink of choice here is iced tea. If you order a coke or lemonade it will likely be one of those little chaser cans you normally get in a bar, and you’ll need at least three of those to douse that red-hot chilli fire.

There is one other thing that’s worth noting; there are no smoking restrictions in public places in Indonesia. This means that if you go out for something to eat, unless the restaurant specifically has a no smoking section, you are probably going to have to tolerate smoke and tobacco fumes. Like in Spain, the tobacco industry is very big in Indonesia and many of the people here do like to smoke.

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