I Prefer My Food With Pollution

Smoking it up at the sate stand (photo by Tri Saputro)

One of the greatest things about living in Jakarta is the food. If I wander down to the end of my street there are so many warungs set up ready to serve a thousand different varieties of food. I can hear the sounds throughout the day of food being wheeled outside my house. The bakso banging on the bell, the call of the roti (rotiiiiiiiiiiii), the ice cream jingle and others only a true local will recognize. The mixing pot culture of food reaches a peak in Jakarta.

Eating is of course an essential part of the human experience, but here in Jakarta, the love of food and knowledge of food is mind blowing. From the moment I arrived here I felt how removed my life has been from the process of understanding and really enjoying food. Everyone seemed to know if a dish originated from South Lampung or East Java. Every time I would visit a different place, a friend would say “jangan lupa oleh oleh” and make a list of the special foods from the area that I could bring back for them.

Here, all social gatherings revolve around eating. It doesn’t matter if you have already eaten, when you arrive you have to eat more. People are always sharing food. People will drive hours through traffic to a little warung that specializes in sate kambing. Every morning at work, the Indonesian staff sit around laughing and sharing their fried goods, while the bules race around anxiously preparing for the day and sucking down coffee, or swallowing down a bowl of muesli as they miserably try and stop the kilos piling on (and thinking ‘how can they eat all that fried food and still be so skinny? Grr unfair!’).

In Indonesia, it is even okay to attend weddings just for the food. You shake hands with the bride and groom and their family who stand on the stage all day, and then you rush off to the more important business of eating. Of course, rice is the essential ingredient and without it, no Indonesian stomach is really satisfied. In my life, rice was something that you put in a saucepan and boiled, and sometimes fried, but here, rice can be prepared in a million different ways. As for the enormous quantity of rice that any man, woman or child of Indonesia can digest (and still be thin! How? How?) this will forever remain a mystery to me.

When I first came to Indonesia, the only Indonesian food that I was aware of was nasi goreng. We ate a lot of it when we were growing up – though it was called fried rice and had more of a Chinese slant to it – in that it had big pieces of bacon in it. In fact, fried rice was the only rice dish that our family ate. We were more of your typical ‘meat and three veg’ family – a very common meal style at dinner time in Australia – which for the uninitiated into the Australian palate basically consists of peas, carrots, potatoes and some form of plain meat. This can range from ham steak, sausages and meat loaf to rissoles or steak. The only sambal on offer is tomato sauce – not the spicey kind. And maybe some table salt. This kind of meal is fast to cook, and growing up in a single-parent family with a working mother who had popped out 5 children quickly catholic-style, it was more of a matter of survival rather than trying to prepare gourmet meals.

The other great Australian meal is the barbecue, and I have spoken to many Indonesian friends who upon visiting Australia, got to sample this vaguely disappointing meal type. The description goes something like this “so they just put sausages and big, fat pieces of sometimes-still-bloody or else burnt black steak on my plate with a bit of sauce and a piece of bread, sometimes a piece of lettuce if I was lucky, and that was it. It was a…cultural experience I guess”. Needless to say, before leaving Australia, our tastebuds had barely felt the burn of spicey food, or strange food combinations such as warmth + banana = pisang goreng.

Living in Jakarta has certainly changed all of this. I remember the fear when I first came as I stared at menus while sitting in restaurants alone, searching for something that I might recognize – more often than not eating nasi goreng, and then attempting to branch out by choosing at random and then being presented with a strange looking piece of meat which could only be some kind of organ or a bowl of ‘kulit’ floating in a delicious looking sauce. That meal brought on the purchase of a dictionary and the constant reminder in my brain “kulit equals skin. Kulit equals skin. Don’t forget it. Don’t order it. Dear God, don’t let it happen again”.

After having the pleasure of going to dinner with Indonesian friends who always had the patience to explain things to me, and now my boyfriend who only has to say “no, you won’t like that” for me to know to stay clear, I am forever exploring and discovering amazing new tastes. A personal favourite, which has apparently been voted the most delicious food in the world, is rendang. This has been followed up with sate ayam, gado gado (sedikit pedas please), siomay and ketoprak sayur – but only the type sold in the warung, because as a friend said “it tastes the best when it has pollution in it”. And I have to agree.

There also seems to be art form for an Indonesian to eat their meal – if I have a meal with my friends they add a little of the juice to the rice, or the rice to the juice, a little sambal here, a little piece of chicken there, while I put it all together and mix it up – just like I did with my peas and carrots as a child. I always ate the food I liked the least, first, and saved the good bits til the end – it was my only knowledge of food combination. And still is.

Whether Indonesian friends eat with their hands or the fork/spoon combination, it is always me left with food all over my face and over the table. This is why I don’t eat at warungs and choose the bungkus option. Firstly, it must be a rarity for a bule to eat in a warung so people have a tendency to stare in wonder, and as I battle with the noodles and hot water of my soto ayam splashing over my face or attempt to cut my boney chicken with a spoon, I certainly don’t want an audience. I have almost perfected the art of eating my sate ayam straight off the stick, but the amount of peanut sauce stuck to my face means it must remain a private spectacle. It was bad enough going to a friend’s house back home who had decided to serve spaghetti, let alone a warung (trying not to freak out about the rat hanging out in the open drain and the cat making a screeching sound at my feet) with people looking and wandering about the strange bule alien creatures who appear to prefer to eat like savages – food flying here and there, splashing onto the people who are sharing the same bench, who were engaged in toothpicking their food from their teeth before I gave them a mandi soto.

The only point of contention between Indonesians and food, seems to me, to be whether you like durians or not. The rest is good for all.

So, while often taking the option of a ‘bule fix’ and frequenting western style cafes, there is no doubt that potentially the best food option is being pushed by a kaki lima past your house right now. This is why you shouldn’t live in an apartment if you can help it. From the 26th floor, you will never hear that sound of the bakso bell being rung and the elevator won’t be fast enough to get you there if by chance you do. But this is an issue for another time. For now, it’s time to let my mind wander as my stomach starts to keroncongan. Hmm, mau makan apa?

9 Responses to “I Prefer My Food With Pollution”

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  1. Bima says:

    You wanna know how we eat plenty of rices everyday and stay thin? Drink plenty of water. Doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold, as long as it’s water.

    That’s pretty much it, I’d suppose. We don’t usually eat anything routine (like rice meals) with anything other than water. So no soda-based or coffee. Even tea is only sometimes. Imo, tea is good, but you can’t take a gallon of it everyday–it’ll make your stomach feels funny. Ditto for coffee. But water? You could never have too much water. The more the better, even. Especially with/for routine modern diets and unhealthy habits. It’s good for cleaning up your system and helps with the digestions.

    I think.


  2. Ken says:

    I really enjoyed the way you tell this story….funny yet yummy : )….

  3. calvin says:

    ergh. I always recommend all foreigners to prepare a norit or two before eating in jakarta. apparently their stomach is not strong enough to handle the food here 🙁

    • welovejakarta says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Calvin… I thought I was being so careful with what I ate when I first arrived in Jakarta but still ended up being sick for my first six weeks in Jakarta, unable to eat or drink or anything until my stomach settled! It wasn’t my best ever experience but it was definately memorable!! It seems we have sensitive stomachs coming from the West! Anyway, as long as there’s nasi putih, tempe and tahu around I am happy! 🙂

  4. Dhani Chagi says:

    Hi Treen & Tasha!
    I like to read your blog and continuously scroll down the mouse to read older posts. Sometimes i laugh when read funny things that you see in Jakarta, such as karaoke kelining :p
    Btw have you ever tried mie bakso Sido Mandiri in Pejaten?
    The best es kelapa muda and bakso in Jakarta 😀

    • welovejakarta says:

      Oh that karaoke kelining will never disappear! It ended up on a commercial and now even my students at school have seen it and walk past me singing in pretend microphones! Haha. I have never tried the mie bakso there, but I will try it for sure as I live so close. Thanks for the tip and thanks for reading.

  5. Aldi says:

    Hi Ladies

    I could not agree more with your post, I used to live in jakarta for 14 years, since moving to sydney 3 years ago I really missed the warungs, kaki lima. I’m looking forward for my short trip next week,can’t wait to eat sop padang blok M, sate kambing perbanas, ketoprak ciragil and many more ..hope you’ve got tips for my culinary adventure 🙂

  6. I love to eat, and when I’m in Jakarta, is the only thing I do. Indonesia people, truly live to eat 😉
    Very nice article.
    Salam from Barcelona