J is for Jam. Not the sweet, syrupy breakfast spread, but the horrible, exhausting, inexplicably omnipresent, and maddening traffic jams that clog all of Jakarta’s main roads. I’ll be honest. I actually like Jakarta. It has some pretty amazing food. Some cool shops and shopping areas and some interesting new developments. But I can’t stand its traffic problems. Getting from one building to another, even if the latter is just diagonally across the street, can sometimes take as long as 20-25 minutes. I once sat for 40 minutes on a stretch of road I could have walked down in 5 minutes. It’s crazy that you have to allow anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours to get somewhere depending on the time of day you’re travelling. That said, Jakarta, is worth visiting, if only to visit a few selected shops and food stalls.
Last week, I followed my wife S as she made a quick business trip to Indonesia’s very crowded capital. She was there to launch a cookbook that she helped conceptualize and that she edited. Inside the Southeast Asian Kitchen: Foodlore & Flavors was commissioned by the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) and published by ArtPostAsia, a Filipino publishing company best-known for its works on arts and culture. As the book’s Managing Editor, S had to select authoritative contributors from each of the 10 ASEAN member countries. The book is a pretty remarkable collection of essays about and recipes from across this region. Some of the “big guns” who contributed to the work include Singapore’s Christopher Tan, Malaysia’s Chef Wan, and Indonesia’s Sri Owen. Regular food blog readers will also be thrilled to know that Cathy of A Blithe Palate contributed to the chapter on Vietnam. The best thing, to me at least, about the book is that it created a new respect and interest in the cuisines from the region that I’d otherwise ignored. I’ll admit, for example, that I’ve never proactively taken an interest in trying Burmese or Filipino food, but after reading the essays and recipes in Inside the Southeast Asian Kitchen, I can’t wait to taste mohinga, shwe yin aye (golden heart cooler), and bringhe (coconut glutinous rice with chicken), just to name a few dishes. Of course, it helps that all the dishes were deliciously styled by Christopher Tan and beautifully photographed by Neal Oshima. (The book is launching here in Singapore at the end of September 2007.)
The Jakarta launch was held over two days via live cooking demos and talks in the gorgeous Miele showroom. To help S, the folks at ArtPostAsia and Miele roped in one of our friends and also one of Indonesian’s most famous, most beloved and most knowledgable foodies, William Wongso. Because this trip was S’s first to Jakarta, William also very kindly offered to take us on a quick, half-day (morning) tour of some of his favourite places to eat. We started our culinary adventure bright and early, meeting William a little after 9am, at his favourite soto ayam restaurant, Soto Ayam Ambengan. I have to admit that I was completely tickled by the fact that the owner of this small chain of soto ayam eateries has plastered his face everywhere… on his namecards, on his billboards, and even on his plates. I wanted to ask William if they had souvenir T-shirts with his picture on them, but was afraid S would smack me on the back of the head. The soto ayam was delicious. Eaten with some rice, and it was richly satisfying.
Next, we headed to one of Jakarta’s most popular cult satay stalls. Simply called Sate Ayam, this smoky stall on Jalan Kyayimaja is always busy. We got there around 10am and ended up waiting almost an hour for our two plates of chicken satay. But what satay it was! Easily some of the best I’ve ever had. Grilled over hot charcoal, the meat was deliciously moist but also charred, with crisp, fatty bits dotting the meat. While the satay was amazing, it was a tad disturbing to see just how much smoke this stall was producing. It all but covered the street in front of it.
Our third and last stop was a modest seafood restaurant on Jalan Cideng Timur called Pondok Aroma Laut. The restaurant has two seating areas. The downstairs area is un-air-conditioned, slightly smoky and a tad dark. The upstairs room is bright and air-conditioned. Unfortunately, I only discovered this at the end of a very hot and humid meal, when I ventured upstairs to use the little boy’s room, i.e. ask for a seat upstairs. The food at this humble restaurant is fantastic. We had a grilled milkfish, a deep-fried pomfret, some deep-fried and then grilled river prawns that were bursting with roe, and marinated then grilled squid also stuffed with roe. Everything was outstanding, especially the highly-addictive prawns and the super crispy pomfret. The flesh of the prawns was full of flavour, rich, and moist. The heads were full of roe and the most amazingly powerful and heady juices. The pomfret, similarly, was a marvelous contrast of textures and flavours. A few bites and I was hooked for life.
As mentioned at the start of this post, Jakarta’s not an easy town to deal with. The traffic is a nightmare. But it’s also a city with amazing food. The trick is finding it. Or finding someone like William who can show you where to find it.
Soto Ayam Ambengan
Wolter Monginsidi No 28
Kebayoran Baru, Jakarta
Tel: (021) 72793057
Jalan Kyayimaja No 21
(In front of Rumah Sakit Pusat Pertamini Jakarta Selatan)
Pondok Aroma Laut
Jalan Cideng Timur No 51
Tel (021) 3440322