Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Eating Outside The Box in Jakarta

A few weeks before the event, mysterious-sounding invitations for people to share a meal on a Saturday morning in Jakarta were sent via text and e-mail.

The messages included information about the group hosting the event, how one could become part of it and the date and the time, but did not say where the event was going to be held or what was on the menu.

A cryptic clue, however, was provided: “Approximately five kilometers from Pasar Senen [the venue] is a place where the rooster meets the centipede.”

The people behind “Underground Secret Dining” label the event as such because it conceals the precise locations of its dining activities, right until the very last minute.

Similar groups can be found worldwide, including in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro.

In most of those cities, the events are held in people’s homes and are kept a secret as a way around strict health regulations.

Here in Jakarta, best friends Lisa Virgiano and Sari Hartono — who have been passionate about eating out since they were teenagers — initiated the group to expose people to dining events they might not otherwise find by themselves.

The day before an event, a follow-up message confirming the meeting place is sent out to guests.

“Except for Hong Kong, we are the only underground secret dining society in Asia,” Lisa said.

In keeping with their concept, the hostesses requested that the Jakarta Globe not use the real names of the participants.

Over the weekend, about 30 people gathered at the Antara Gallery in the Pasar Baru shopping district, Central Jakarta, for the group’s fifth dining event.

They were dressed in comfortable clothing, walking shoes and sunglasses, as they were told to do in the invitations that had been sent out.

It was a cloudy morning, but as guests entered the venue and were greeted and introduced to others by the hostesses, a feeling of excitement was in the air. The noise from the Pasar Baru shops faded into the background as participants shared stories and experiences about their own culinary adventures.

For this event, guests were separated into two groups: the halal group, with pork excluded from the menu, and the non-halal group, for which the invitation stated that pork would be “the main star.”

“For me, it is better to look at the history of the respective area before you decide to sign up for the halal or non-halal group,” said Founda, one of the participants.

“The Pasar Baru area is just like Glodok, the Chinese have been here for so long. So I think it’s better to sign up for the non-halal group, just so you can see the way they cook their authentic food.”

At 10 a.m., Lisa addressed the group to give them a peek into the morning’s itinerary, which would be a guided food tour. She would be leading the halal group and Sari the non-halal.

“And whatever happens, please remember that no one here cares who you are or why you’re here, so please, just eat,” Lisa said.

I joined the halal group and we headed off as the briefing for the non-halal participants began, with explanations provided in English for participants who did not speak Indonesian.

We started walking down Jalan Pintu Besi. Pasar Baru was built by the Dutch in the 1820 as a center of economic activity and used to be a prestigious area, with stores lining the alleyways.

Lisa guided us to the Model Cantik jewelry store and told us a Chinese restaurant was located on the second floor.

“I was going to bring you guys here [to eat], but unfortunately the restaurant is under renovation and won’t be finished until November,” she said.

“The ginger chicken is really good here, so try it out some other time.”

A little further along, we stopped in front of a traditional beverage stall selling delicacies such as coconut ice and cendol (sweet glutinous ice), which has been around for more than 20 years.

Lisa, who has been a regular customer since she was a child, said the family business was now run by the original vendor’s children.

At an intersection further on, Lisa turned to face us.

“There was a time when the economy in Pasar Baru was very low,” she said. “The Chinese believe in myths, so some Chinese merchants in the market went to see a feng-shui expert to ask about this.”

The feng-shui master told them that Pasar Baru is shaped like a centipede, with the alley as the body and the stores lining it its numerous legs.

Near the market stands a church, with a rooster weather vane out front. The feng-shui master said it was only natural that the centipede was afraid that the rooster, in the form of the weather vane, would eat it.

This explains the hint in the original invitation, Lisa said.

Because of this, the feng-shui master recommended that the merchants build a statue of an eagle to scare away the rooster. We were standing at the spot where the eagle had been.

“After they built the statue, believe it or not, the economic conditions got better, and more customers came to the market,” Lisa said.

The statue was taken down when the owner renovated the building, but the eagle logo, adopted by a store called Popular at the venue, serves as a reminder.

After the quick history lesson, we continued to Jalan Krekot, which had a signage on which was written, “Passer Baru, 1820.”

Lisa pointed. “That is the rooster weather vane,” she said.

Once everyone had taken photos, we were led to a small street stall with three long wooden tables and plastic chairs.

“This is our first stop,” she said. “We are going to have hao-hao noodles, and they will only use freshly steamed ayam kampung [free-range chicken].”

Bowls of noodles tossed with shredded chicken in an aromatic broth and glasses of iced tea were brought to the tables by an old woman. The woman wakes at 2 a.m. to prepare her noodles and chop up the chicken. “We only use chicken, no pork. And we make our own noodles,” she said.

Her parents used to run the stall and she started helping out when she was still a teenager. The stall has been there for about 40 years and the woman’s daughter also sells Palembang-style pempek (fish cakes in a sweet-and-sour sauce) there.

The stall is usually open for breakfast and closes at about 10 a.m., but Lisa and Sari had ordered ahead for our group. “On the weekend, we serve about 200 people,” the owner said.

Our next stop was Aneka Soto, a soup stall located in the Metro Atom building. The stall is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. “This is actually a personal preference,” Lisa said. “This soto [soup] stall serves not only soto with coconut milk, but also with clear soup.”

The soto with coconut milk was tasty, and the ribs were especially tender.

“It’s good that we’re sharing, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to taste them all,” a participant said.

Rini, another participant, said she loves street food, particularly noodle soto.

“I am fussy and a critic when I go to a restaurant, but when it comes to street food vendors, I never complain because I can’t cook the dishes,” she said.

The day was getting warmer as noon approached and our group walked back to Pasar Baru for the next stop, at the underground market.

Tek Hui is a small stall in the dark, hot market that sells quality spices and other ingredients.

Here, Lisa challenged us to a cracker tasting.

“One of these emping is better than the other,” she said, as she held out two plastic containers filled with thin, crispy, yellowish crackers made from melinjo nuts. “Eat them slowly and pay attention to the texture, the crispness and the smell.”

“I think it’s the second, it has a stronger taste and smell,” someone said.

“I prefer the first, it’s mild and tender,” another said.

After everyone picked their preferred cracker, Lisa informed us the second was the better quality one and the merchant buys it from Serang in West Java.

Most of the ingredients at the stall are ordered from outside Jakarta. Suta, one of the participants, was quick to buy some spices and a bottle of arak — a fruit wine.

Our last stop was the Soen Yoe noodle shop in Sutek alley, but our group was not there for the noodles.

“We are going to have lobi-lobi ice,” Lisa said about lobi-lobi, the dark red sour fruit that was served with syrup and ice.

She explained that lobi-lobi was a rarity these days. The owner orders it fresh from Banten.

At the end of the tour, each participant was given a bag of emping crackers and another bag of deep-fried tofu skin from Sumedang, West Java, an area popular for its tofu.

Lisa said the underground dining group was for passionate people seeking inspiration.

“It began with only food, but actually, it is more than that,” she said. “You get to meet people, make new friends and learn the culture.”

She said the goal of the group was to introduce local people serving traditional dishes to food enthusiasts looking for a culinary adventure.

“For example, the owner of the Tek Hui shop, he is almost 80 years old, but his children encourage him to keep working so he won’t become lonely and senile,” Lisa said.

“We all know that Jakarta is a tough place to live in, with all the traffic jams and pollution, but passionate people are a precious find.”

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