By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

WHILE JAKARTA, Indonesia may not be a top favorite on lists of the best foodie places in Southeast Asia, three friends embarked on a journey to the capital city without any concrete plans at all — except to discover and devour Indonesia’s best food.

Words, history, and traffic
This AFP picture taken on Oct. 22, 2013 shows a timed-shutter exposure of evening gridlock traffic in Jakarta.

Famished after the five-hour plane travel from Manila to Jakarta on a Friday night, my friend, Nina, and I decided to leave our hotel room to check out the nearest food stops. There were no Mini Stops or 7-11s in sight and the food chains we have back home like Starbucks, J. Co Donuts (which is Indonesian), and Ya Kun Kaya Toast were already closed. But not too far away from Mentang, the Jakarta district we were staying at, was a small section late-night hawkers. The setup was like our popular food markets Banchetto and Mercato Central. There were many choices: tokua (tofu), satay (skewered meat) in a choice of goat, chicken, or beef, and some unidentifiable items with forgettable names because they were tongue twisters.

Manila and Jakarta, both capital cities, not only share a love of street food, but also some words: tokua, kambing (goat), gunting (scissors), kanan (right), lima (five), and mahal (expensive). But the similarities are limited, and sign language was the best option. So we pointed at the tokua in a glass-framed kiosk and were surprised to see the vendor using his bare hands to pick out tokua from the pile. Still barehanded, he seasoned it with onion and garlic, and chopped it up on a makeshift wooden chopping board. In the Philippines, street food vendors use tongs, sticks, or gloves when handling food. We asked ourselves: “Should we eat that?” In the end, our grumbling stomachs insisted: “give it a try.” There was nothing special to it except that the sauce was too spicy and too sweet. We called it a night.

The next day we made another food discovery: Indonesia does not serve free or service water. The many times we ate out, whether in full-sized restaurants or small eateries, we had to pay for bottled water that cost at least 15,000 rupiah. (We were millionaires in Indonesia; $100 is 1.1 million rupiah).

According to Jakarta Post’s “Coping with water scarcity in Indonesia,” the nation is not a water-scarce country. “In fact, water resources in Indonesia represent nearly 6% of the world’s water resources and about 21% of total water resources in the Asia-Pacific region, or more than two trillion cubic meters of natural renewable water per year.” But there is a shortage of potable water because of overpopulation and poor sanitation, among many reasons. Java Island, where Jakarta is, has less than 10% of the country’s water, but 140 million people — nearly 60% of the country’s total population — live on the island. Another Jakarta Post article said only 50% of the population in the city has access to clean piped water.

Words, history, and traffic
Jakarta Specials: Lapis legit, a layered cake sells for a song at 45,000 rupiah — Photos by Nina Magdalen Diaz
Words, history, and traffic
Jakarta Specials: street vendors in an open kitchen cook nasi goreng, a traditional Indonesian dish — Photos by Nina Magdalen Diaz
Words, history, and traffic
Jakarta Specials: martabak manis is a must-try when in Jakarta — Photos by Nina Magdalen Diaz
Words, history, and traffic
Jakarta Specials: Indonesians always have kerupak (crackers) in their dishes like this nasi bakar cumi cabe ijo (steamed rice wrapped in banana leaves) — Photos by Nina Magdalen Diaz

An Indonesian friend warned us of their street food, especially if it has ice. “Don’t trust the ice if they are crushed and not in cube shape,” she said. A cup of iced durian, which is like our version of iced scramble, would have been perfect for the sunny weather, but we did not dare.

While the sanitation is seemingly questionable, there is no question that the food in Jakarta is good. There is a strong fusion of flavors, techniques, and ingredients because, like the Philippines, Indonesia was once colonized. The Dutch controlled the archipelago from the 16th century until Indonesia’s declaration of Independence Day is on Aug. 17, 1945.

An example of the Dutch influence is the generous serving of hagelslag — chocolate sprinkles invented in the Netherlands in 1936 — which is poured on a martabak. Martabak — a stuffed pancake or pan-fried bread — is common street food in Singapore, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia and can be both savory (martabak telor) with beef filling and sweet (martabak manis). The Arabic word mutabbaq, which is one of its name variations, means “folded” in English. The martabak manis in Jakarta was a bit of heaven: grated cheese, hagelslag, and Wijsman, a Dutch butter brand. Its sides are toasted and crispy while the inside is fluffy and gooey. An order costs 45,000 rupiah.

Indonesians love layered cakes. There is, for example, lapis legit, a traditional layered cake which the Dutch introduced. It is made up of 18 thin layers of cake with chocolate, cinnamon, cheese, or prune filling in between the layers. CNN called the dessert “one of the best and most delicious cakes in the world.” A box of lapis legit costs at least 55,000 rupiah.

Words, history, and traffic
Street Food: a vendor waits for customers at a food stall — images from AFP
Words, history, and traffic
Street Food: a stall owner prepares goat satayimages from AFP
Words, history, and traffic
Street Food: a vendor peddles his treats along the streets of Jakarta. — images from AFP

The food strips in Jakarta have fewer hungry mouths to feed on weekends, said our tour guide, Hans, from the Jakarta Good Guide. (We joined a guided foodie tour). He said weekdays, especially after work hours, are the peak times. The food hawkers mostly sell satay, durian, martabak, nasi goreng (fried rice), siomay (steamed fish with peanut sauce and soy sauce), and kerupak (crackers), among others.

“Most of the people eat their dinner here after work while waiting for the traffic to ease,” he said.

A refrigerator magnet we found in a pasalubong (gift) center reads: “Jakarta is traffic, but it’s still fantastic.”

Well, Jakarta and Manila are the same, yet different at the same time.