I have tried several Sundanese eateries in town, but they all are disappointing, with all due respect to the chefs who went to the utmost trouble preparing an exclusively Sundanese meal. It seems the establishment had just miss the point. A Sundanese meal will invariably feel off when served in a dining hall with air conditioning, fluorescent lights and state-of-the-art decoration.
Eating out the Sundanese way isn't just about eating food prepared in a particular way. Most of all, the occasion should allow the mind to dwell in a typical Sundanese atmosphere. So after visiting a village museum at the other end of Tasikmalaya in West Java, four of us were a little surprised when we saw a sign board reading "Manjabal Sundanese Restaurant".
Luckily, the attendant behind the receptionist desk was quick to guess what we longed for and guided us through to a dining area with low tables and a straw mat over the wooden floor. The diners hut is built on stilts over a lake stocked with gold fish. We could not wish for something more ideal. With the cool breeze sweeping around us and a view over a wide expanse of rice field, with farmers still working there, we were blessed with the most beautiful panorama imaginable to dwell upon while sipping on a glass of refreshing fruit juice.
As Manjabal is meant to be a Sundanese eatery, it goes without saying that grilled fish is the main dish. The waitress brought us three sauces to match our dishes, which we found great. One of them was popular shrimp paste, which comes in a traditional stone mortar (cobek) After some hesitation, the waitress suggested we try today's braised genjer (a vegetable). Genjer is taken right from the paddies and belongs to the watercress family, although is less leafy compared to the kangkung but more crisp.
Farmers often use it in their daily meal and substitute it for the kangkung. Genjer grows easily among young paddies, with farmers usually weeding them out and plant them over in a different bed.
Although braised genjer is not an exclusive Sundanese dish, we took the waitress' suggestion but also ordered vegetables cooked in tamarind juice (sayur asem). The Sundanese love to accompany a plate with steaming rice, particularly during hot days.
Tamarind is known to stimulate blood circulation and refreshes the tired body.
The dish also comes with a plate of fresh greens as is customary in Sundanese eateries. While waiting for our meal to be served, we had the luxury to allow our mind roam freely over the tranquil and peaceful landscape.
Three waiters disrupted our reveries by bringing plates with grilled fish, steaming rice in small bamboo buckets and bowls with vegetables. We immediately tucked in, using our fingers to pickup the soft flesh of the grilled fish, dipping it in the lime-flavored shrimp paste and placing it on the steaming rice.
All applauds to the chef who presented us with this delicious grilled fish. The 1.5-kilogram fish was cut open for the grill, cooked to crispness on the outside but left soft and succulent inside.
The cool breeze that swept over the fishpond added to our appetite and the melodious flute music vaguely wafting in the breeze provided the apt atmosphere for a Sundanese dining experience.
A Sundanese meal is in essence the same as a farmer's meal consumed against the background of a tranquil landscape after a day of hard work.
We continued savoring our dishes, dipping the white flesh into soybean sauce garnered with peanut brittles. The peanuts add a rich flavor to the sauce, which is a good alternative to the lime-flavored sauce.
The third sauce, which we were all eager to dip our food in, has a lime flavor but is mote tangy. Vegetables cooked in tamarind soup can have slightly different flavors, but the Manjabal variety obviously has preserved the flavor of uncooked tamarind, which is also all right.
I am a fan of lime basil, so my portion quickly disappeared from the plate.
Next came the cucumber and tomato slices but I had to skip the boiled cassava and labu siam, as I simply had no room left for them. With five varieties of greens as a side dish, Manjabal deserves our compliments.
It was a satisfactory meal that we consumed in the cool breeze and with the wide expanse of rice fields as our decor.
If an eatery is judged by its food and atmosphere then Manjabal deserves a top grade for both.
The service was also pleasant, which helped us give it a satisfactory rating. The meal comes to Rp 35,000 (US$3) per person, certainly not expensive, especially given we arrived here with stomachs rumbling.