I have a bittersweet relationship with Jakarta. Whenever I return home from my adopted city of London, I'm confronted with many cultural differences between the two cities. On a transient level, I find that the social atmosphere in Jakarta can feel transactional – perhaps something that can be attributed to most fast-paced capitals.
Yet, on my last trip, the gift of food from a new friend arrived on my doorstep, and instantly I was reminded about what I love about this place. Where intimacy lacks, food truly is Jakarta's love language. It's ingrained into the heart and soul of everything Indonesians do – so many activities go hand-in-hand with a meal. In the diversity of its cuisine and the subcultures around it, Jakarta offers many related phenomena unique to the city. I can recollect so many memories intertwined with food culture. Here are some of my most treasured to give you a taste.
As you browse through the endless stores at Thamrin City – the go-to destination for traditional Indonesian textiles – a man carrying a tray of potato donuts approaches you with a warm greeting. You exchange a few bills for some perfectly fried, chewy, bouncy donuts that come with little sachets of icing sugar. You snack on these while you continue the rest of your shopping, making the experience all the more enjoyable.
Where intimacy lacks, food truly is Jakarta’s love language
It's a busy weekend, and you find yourself in Kemang, South Jakarta. It's well known for its carpet stores, but it's not only the carpets you're there for. You're there for the turmeric-infused rice porridge. These retailers are notorious for serving porridge for you to enjoy while leisurely browsing the upholstery. You'll find yourself visiting these stores when seeking a warm and comforting meal on a lazy weekend.
As if a blow dry at a local salon isn't already indulgent enough, it's also the norm to ask your hairdresser to grab a meal from the local street vendor. It could be bakso (meatball noodle soup), nasi goreng (fried rice) or whatever is available locally. As always, 'How spicy?' is the question of first priority, your answer ranges from 'very' to 'medium' to 'mild' – which, ironically, is likely still spicy to the untrained palate.
After a hard morning of sifting through clothes and bargaining at Pasar Baru, a favourite market complex to thrift clothes, it's near-ritualistic to reward yourself with some bites. Tucked away in an unassuming side street, the long-established Chinese-Indonesian Bakmi Kelinci is a favourite spot for a bowl of noodles, plus the steamed cakes at the stalls in Pasar Atom.
Pasar Kue Subuh Senen (Senen Dawn Snack Market) is home to a wealth of snack wholesalers and operates from the early hours of 3 am. You'll find an array of sweet and savoury snacks like steamed layered cakes and glutinous chicken rice in banana leaf parcels straight from the maker. Often, housewives will come at dawn to stock up on fresh snacks, which they either share with loved ones or re-sell as a side hustle.
After an evening of partying in South Jakarta, your night would not be complete without an after-hours meal. Where London offers late-night kebab and chips, the streets of Jakarta await you with a range of feasts to choose from. You can go for Blok M's gultik (beef curry), or Gandaria's nasi lidah (ox tongue rice), Fatmawati's roti bakar (grilled bread with various sweet and savoury fillings), Indomie (our nation's pride) cooked with quirky toppings including corned beef and cheese, and everything in between. All of the above is to be eaten in the humble dining set-up of a foldable table and plastic chairs, or in the comfort of your own car.
As if a blow dry at a local salon isn't already indulgent enough, it's also the norm to ask your hairdresser to grab a meal from the local street vendor
Speaking of cars, one of the things you'll quickly discover about Jakarta is its notoriously heavy traffic. Yet, a silver lining in this predicament are the heroic kaki lima, which directly translates to the 'five-feet' that keep the street carts standing. These are food vendors that make their way through the traffic, shuffling in between vehicles on their mobile carts selling handheld snacks – the perfect accompaniment to the slow journey. A personal favourite is bakpao, a steamed bun filled with various flavours like red bean, chicken, mung bean and chocolate.
At the warungs (streetside eateries), the polished Mercedes-Benz will park next to the shabby motorbike, the woman in a two-piece business suit will sit across from the bike courier, punk rockers feast next to the young creatives of south Jakarta. They are all there to enjoy the same RP 15,000 (£1) nasi campur (rice platter meal).
People often say, 'Wherever there is an opportunity, a warung will be opened.' This endearing entrepreneurial spirit has gone on to warrant brilliant memes – warungs being opened around the 2021 Suez Canal ship blockage, for example. These eateries specialise in unpretentious and well-loved cuisine. The warung is a haven to all Indonesians with a shared love of food. While London is my home base, these are the charms that keep me coming back.