Merge & Al's Excellent Adventures

7 min read

Exploring Jakarta’s street food scene

I (Merge) had an opportunity to spend five days in Jakarta with Al in August 2019, during which we managed to get a lot of city touring done.  So when I visited again in November 2023 during my cruise ship adventures on the MS Westerdam, I was not very inclined towards hanging out at the usual tourist haunts.  Instead, I decided to do something different.  My mission – to explore Jakarta’s varied and exciting street food scene.  Not brave enough to try foods without at least some guidance, I met up with Emir who took me (and another couple) on a half-day walking/eating tour within Jakarta’s Old Town.  Our meeting point was at Fatahillah Square (also known as Old Batavia), a historic site that was once the center of governance during the Dutch colonial era. Today, it is a vibrant cultural hub, surrounded by museums and fine colonial architecture, and a perfect place to start my food adventure.

These beautiful young women greeted me just outside the MS Westerdam
Bicycles for hire in Fatahillah Square (Old Batavia)
Searching out Jakarta’s best street food …
Options on every corner …
Siomay batagor – both steamed and fried

Our first stop was a street stall on a busy corner that sold siomay batagor.   Siomay batagor is a popular Indonesian street food that combines elements of Chinese and Sundanese cuisine. The name batagor is an abbreviation of bakso tahu goreng, which translates to fried tofu and meatballs. This dish typically consists of tofu stuffed with fish paste, sometimes mixed with shrimp or other seafood, which is then either lightly steamed, or deep-fried until golden and crispy.   The fish of the day was mackerel, and we tried both the steamed and the deep-fried versions.  It was served with a peanut sauce that is savory and slightly spicy.  In addition to ground peanuts, this sauce contains kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), chilies, garlic, and tamarind juice for the tangy flavor.  Emir told me that this street food has its origins in Bandung, which is in western Java.

Next, at a small café, we tried pempekPempek is a famous Indonesian fish cake delicacy originating in Palembang, South Sumatra. It is made from fish (mackerel again) with egg and tapioca flour, and was served with a dark, rich sauce called cuko, which is made from tamarind, chili, and palm sugar.  Cuko is made primarily from tamarind, combined with palm sugar for sweetness, and garlic, chili, and sometimes vinegar to add depth and heat to the sauce.  I thought the pempek was a little chewy, but Emir assured me that this is the correct texture.  In fact, it is this chewy texture and savory taste that has led to its wide popularity throughout Indonesia. 

We then made our way to another streetside stall at another busy corner, this time to try rujak.  This is very similar to the rojak you find in Malaysia and Singapore, but of course with an Indonesian twist.  It is essentially a salad containing a mix of raw fruits and vegetables.  Our version that afternoon consisted of unripe mangoes, pineapples, cucumbers, bengkoang (jicama), water apple, papayas, watermelons, starfruit, bananas, and others. These were cut into bite-sized pieces and mixed together. But the dressing is what truly made rujak my favourite dish of the day.  Made from palm sugar, tamarind, ground peanuts, chili, terasi (shrimp paste), it was all ground into a paste and then mixed thoroughly with the fruits and vegetables.

The rujak cart. Emir is explaining the different fruits and other ingredients to me.

Next on the food agenda was pancong cakePancong cake, also known as kue pancong, is a traditional Indonesian snack popular in the Jakarta region. The two main ingredients are rice flour and grated coconut.  As I watched, the street chef made the batter by mixing rice flour, grated coconut, a bit of salt, and diluted coconut milk. He then poured it into a special pancong mold (kind of like a muffin tin but with half-spherical molds), which was heated over charcoal.  They were cooked until they were golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside.  As I bit into one, sprinkled with a pinch of sugar and still warm, the inside was soft and moist.  Despite the pinch of sugar, it wasn’t very sweet.  And the texture was more like the cake had been steamed rather than baked. 

Since cake was on the menu, we also tried cempedak cake.  This is essentially cake that has incorporated the pulp of the cempedak fruit, which is related to the jackfruit but has a stronger, sweeter flavor and a more intense aroma.  The batter was fairly typical – flour, eggs, sugar, and butter – but the fruit pulp gave it not only a distinctively tropical, fruity flavor but also moisture, making the texture quite soft and dense.

The pancong cake being cooked in the special molded pan
Now just waiting to be eaten!
The nasi gudeg with kreckek masterchef
The finished dish!

Desserts done, we went back to the main course.  Perched on an empty plastic milk crate on the sidewalk, I tried nasi gudeg with kreckek, a dish originally from Yogyakarta.  The central component is gudeg, made from young unripe jackfruit, known locally as gori. The jackfruit is slowly cooked with palm sugar, coconut milk, garlic, shallots, coriander seeds, galangal, bay leaves, and teak leaves, which give it a brown color. The result is tender jackfruit that is both sweet and savory.  On the side was crunchy krecek, a spicy accompaniment made from crispy beef skin cooked with sambal sauce, a mixture of chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes and other spices.  Stewed cassava leaves were also included and these gave a green, bitter contrast to the rich, sweet gudeg and the spicy krecek.  All of this was served with a side of steamed rice.

At this point, I was pretty full, but Emir told me that we still had a few important foods to try.  Ever the trouper, I steeled myself and followed him.  It was time to try telor gulung, a popular after-school snack enjoyed by children.  Apparently these little foodcart vendors set up outside schools all over the city.  Telor gulung translates to “rolled egg”, and watching it being made is half the fun.  Eggs are whisked and then spread thinly over a hot griddle, much like making an omelette or a thin crepe. Chopped spring onions, salt, and pepper is added.  Once the egg was partially cooked and still pliable, it was rolled up into a tight cylinder using a spatula. The roll was allowed to cook through until slightly crispy on the outside, and then skewered on a bamboo stick.  We were offered a variety of dipping sauces – spicy sambal, sweet soy sauce, and a peanut sauce.

Telor gulung in hand
This is a favourite after-school snack for children!

We then walked for almost 15 minutes before we stopped again.  Emir told me it was because he was looking for a vendor that sold kerak telor, but I certainly appreciated the opportunity to work off some of what I had already eaten, in preparation for the next course.  Eventually we found what Emir was looking for.  Kerak telor is specifically associated with the Betawi, the indigenous people of Jakarta. It is both a popular snack and a cultural symbol, often featured in festivals and celebrations in the city.  It is made from a base of glutinous rice, which is cooked with coconut milk to give it a rich, creamy texture. The rice is then combined with duck or chicken eggs, which act as a binding agent and seasonings such as shallots, garlic, salt, and pepper.  What makes kerak telor really unique is its cooking method.  The rice and egg mixture is spread thinly against the hot wok and cooked over charcoal, which imparts a smoky flavor.  When the bottom becomes crispy and golden brown, it is folded over, resulting in an omelette-like dish.  But before the stall owner folded it over, he added shredded coconut, fried shallots, and dried shrimp.  Before he handed it to us, he garnished it with bawang goreng (fried shallots) and serundeng (spiced coconut flakes).  The rich smoky flavour was the most unique aspect of this dish. 

The kerak telor street vendor’s stall

Finally, Emir had me try mie ayam, a noodle dish featuring seasoned chicken served over wheat noodles. Boiled fresh wheat noodles were tossed with oil, and topped with chicken that had been stir-fried in a mix of garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). It was garnished with green onions and fried shallots.  I was offered bok choy, a boiled egg, dumplings, sambal and a side of broth as add-ons, but I turned them all down.  I’ll be honest, I took one bite and had to leave the rest.  Not because it wasn’t delicious (it was!), but because I was just too full!

I couldn’t finish the mie ayam!

We were done eating, but Emir had one last treat in store for me – a walk through the local market.  Boy, did that walk feel good after all that eating!

These are jambu air, or water apples
Sea cucumbers, anyone?
Fishheads make a delicious broth, I’m told.

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