Sunday, June 8, 2008

Good Food City

I don't know if it's just a god-sent hazard, but I met in the last few days 3 people who admitted that the crazy city of Jakarta has transformed one of their long- favorite pastime into a real obsession: eating. Turns out, it's also one of my passions... and perhaps the most fulfilling (filling) actitity you can indulge in in the Indonesian capital.

This was pretty surprising for me at first, because our first encounter with Indonesian food was not the most thrilling. You have to understand: we were living in Thailand at the time, where cooking has been transformed into a God-inspired art. Then we went on holidays in the small (and poor) island of Flores, in Eastern Indonesia, where we thrived on nasi goreng and mie goreng (fried rice and fried noodle). It is the de facto national dish, but not that good when served for breakfast, lunch AND dinner in tiny restaurants where it is assumed that if you pay, you're supposed to have rich food, i.e. drowned in oil. Bof.

Then you arrive in Jakarta. As you're in Southeast Asia, everything is ridiculously cheap, therefore no restaurant is out of reach of your expat wallet. And good, classy, yummy restaurants abound.

Then recently I discovered a treasure of tantaliaing morsels: the Jakarta Good Food Guide: a truly independent guide, very well done and extremely complete. You eat its 611 pages without the slightest hint of indigestion. Bravo!

The author has even been through the trouble of sampling street food throughout the city. Because, as you would have no doubt already guessed, the average Indonesian cannot really afford French, Japanese, Morrocan, Indian, Turkish, Chinese, Thai, Italian... fine food every meal. Me neither, come to think of it. So you find at every street corner little eateries called "warung" who serve any dish from throughout the archipelago. And there are a LOT of different specialties, considering the vastness of the country and its varieties of culture.

Then you even have a kaki lima section. They are these little vendors who ply the streets of Jakarta with their carts, generally offering one specialty only: here on your right you have a gado-gado guy, an indonesian specialty of vegetables prepared with peanut sauce; just on my street, in a distance of approximately 200 meters, I have every day: a fried tofu vendor, fruit vendor, gado-gado, fried noodles, as well as a warung offering grilled fish.

There is only one problem with these guys: very often they don't help with the infamous traffic jam situation of the city; it is not rare to be stuck on a narrow street because a guy is walking in the middle while pushing his cart.

Even side walks are not really supposed to be for pedestrians to walk on. I met recently with the newly elected governor of Jakarta, who was apologizing for... well, a LOT of things that are not running smoothly in the city. He said for example that he had meetings with kaki lima guys, who insisted they wanted more sidewalks in the city - a rare commodity. But it's only because then it becomes a very conveninent spot for their shops. Adds to the city's local flavor too!