Betawi cuisine, a culinary
journey through history

Maria Endah Hulupi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The capital's rich and diverse history can be traced not only in a tour of its museums, but also in its kitchens.

Unfortunately, many traditional Betawi, or native Jakarta, dishes are slowly dying out.

Most Jakarta residents would probably name kerak telor (a glutinous rice cake cooked with egg and served with shredded coconut and a dried shrimp topping), soto betawi (beef entrail soup with diced tomatoes and slices of fried potato) and asinan Jakarta (pickled vegetables) as Betawi dishes.

They may also know about rujak juhi (vegetables served with shredded dried squid and peanut sauce) or bakso (meatball soup).

The dishes are popular in Jakarta, but that is no guarantee they were first cooked up in the city.

""Not many people know about Betawi dishes, and many consider dishes like soto betawi and asinan Jakarta as 'authentic' Betawi dishes simply because they have the words Betawi or Jakarta attached to them,"" said culinary expert and restaurant owner William Wongso.

""But that's not necessarily so.""

William explained that nasi uduk (savory rice cooked in coconut and served with several side dishes) may be a local version of the Malay dish nasi lemak, and sop kaki kambing (a rich lamb soup) is considered a Betawi dish simply because it is not found anywhere else.

However, the origins of the rest are not very clear.

The cuisine evolved with influences from various cuisines brought by waves of newcomers to the city.

From the small port of Sunda Kalapa, it grew into an active hub of international trade, primarily involving Indian and Arab traders.

Drawn by the spice trade, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in the early 16th century, followed by the Dutch later in the same century.

The small but important ethnic Chinese community also left its mark on local cuisine.

Since foreign communities were kept in enclaves under Dutch colonial rule, the culinary concentration grew in each area: Tanah Abang for Arab cuisine, the Kuningan area for Chinese food and Tugu in North Jakarta for Portuguese.

With knowledge gleaned from the communities, Betawi people created such culinary hybrids as Portuguese-influenced pindang serani Marunda (a fish dish with vegetables), Dutch-influenced semur jengkol (a type of pungent-smelling vegetable stewed in a soy sauce) and sayur papasan (mixed vegetable soup), as well as a local variation of chicken curry.

""Some Betawi dishes can explain the past condition of Betawi people in Jakarta,"" said gastronomy expert Suryatini N. Ganie.

Kerak telor, she said, was created due to the low quality of local glutinous rice, with the egg and other toppings added to make it more tasty and satisfying.

Soto tangkar, which is a meat soup today, was mostly made from the broth of bones in the past because meat was expensive.

Each mayoralty in the city developed its own version of a dish; for instance, the nasi uduk of one area was slightly different from another. Migrants from within the country who flocked to one area of Jakarta would put their own culinary stamp on the dishes available there.

""It's not uncommon that the name of the place is attached to the famous version of the dish, like nasi uduk Slipi (from West Jakarta) or semur jengkol Kramat Jati (East Jakarta),"" Suryatini said.

As notorious as durian for its odor, jengkol, when properly prepared and well-spiced, is considered tastier than meat by many Betawi, she added.

There are also traditional cakes known as kue basah, including kue pepe (a sticky, sweet layered cake made of glutinous rice flour), kue ape-ape (a soft-centered cake with a flimsy but crisp crust), kue gemblong (a coconut cake), kue pancong and dodol (a sticky confectionery made of coconut, glutinous rice and brown sugar).

Most of the cakes can still be found in traditional markets, such as Pasar Mayestik and Pasar Senen, both of which open at 3 a.m.

Some popular Betawi one-meal dishes, like ketoprak (rice noodles, bean sprouts and tofu served with peanut sauce), soto Betawi, soto tangkar, kerak telor and asinan Jakarta are sold from pushcarts or at sidewalk food stalls.

Sadly, many other dishes can no longer be found in Jakarta as the Betawi community were pushed out of the inner city to the suburbs in the wave of development under the Soeharto government.

Still, Suryatini said, the Betawi continue to serve traditional mainstays at family celebrations, such as roti buaya (a pair of crocodile-shaped loaves of bread, which is a symbol of loyalty and monogamy), pesor (rice cake wrapped in banana leaves) and pesmol (a fish dish).

The mildly spiced and nutritious sayur papasan is commonly served to warm and strengthen the mother's body after giving birth.

There is also bir pletok, which is not, as its name would suggest, an alcoholic drink but made from the bark of the secang tree.

But today's culinary scene is populated by gourmet restaurants and fast-food eateries. While food from around the country, especially Manadonese, Sundanese and Central Java, have made the transition to more upmarket franchise restaurants, Betawi food remains the domain of small family-owned operations and sidewalk stalls.

William said that popular Betawi food, like Jakarta-style fried chicken and semur Betawi, could undergo a culinary makeover to suit more eclectic palates.

""The adjustments include replacing ingredients with strong flavors and aromas, like jengkol or pete (a small, pungent green bean) or innards and substitute them with other ingredients or meats,"" he said.

""As for asinan Jakarta, it can be served with shrimp as an interesting cold salad.""

As with its development throughout history, Betawi food may need to change with the times.

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