The Napoleonic Wars in Europe in the early 19th century reverberated in the small towns of the East Indies: though only for a short time, the British took over the colony from the Dutch.
The Governor General was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. He ordered the construction of sidewalks along the main streets of Batavia of a certain height and width: 1 foot (33.5 centimeters) by about 5 feet.
Little did Sir Thomas know that sidewalks would become a very lively place for trade and commerce in the future. His 1-foot high and 5-foot deep sidewalks became known as the kaki (feet) lima (five), or the kaki lima.
Actually the Malay translation was not correct: 5 feet should be lima kaki. The mistranslation may explain why conventional wisdom holds that the city’s pedagang kaki lima, or street vendors, take their name from pushcarts with 3 feet and the two-footed vendors who push them.
The kaki lima in Indonesia offered a potpourri of goods such as socks, blouses, pots and pans. The fact that nowadays sidewalks are occupied by small eateries and stands was probably outside the realm of consideration for Raffles.
Though sometimes not travelling on paved sidewalks, kaki lima vendors have remained peripatetic since Raffles, stopping at the request of a patron or moving in search of a strategic place.
Slowly, kaki lima became connected with food. The food served became known as makanan kaki lima, or sidewalk food.
Don’t assume that Jakarta’s sidewalk cuisine typifies local food. Perhaps that was true 30 years ago, but not today.
A good example comes from vendors from Tegal, a small seaside town on Java’s north coast. The food they sell has nothing to do with local Jakarta food, but their warteg (or warung tegal Tegal-style foodstalls) have become a local institution.
The people from the Sundanese highlands working out of similarly named warsun are another example, offering sayur asem, lalap, pepes ikan and other dishes from distant lands.
When trying kaki lima food, choose items that are constantly boiled over flame, such as bubur ayam (chicken porridge), which is typically sold by an kaki lima vendor and enjoyed for breakfast or late at night. The vendors’ iced drinks are not for those with weak stomachs, nor are drinks made with santan (coconut milk).
In defense of kaki lima food, there are many other types of food you can (safely) enjoy while strolling along the city’s bustling sidewalks.
The food sold by kaki lima vendors no longer reflects local foods reflecting the nature of Jakarta’s melting pot. Jakarta is home to the Betawi people, but finding authentic Betawi (I prefer to say Jakarta) food is difficult due to the influx of other regional, and even foreign, food.
Local Jakarta delicacies such as nasi uduk and its special side dishes such as semur tahu or semur jengkol are now more geared to the taste of non-Betawi people. For instance, semur jengkol was a must-have side dish for the people of Condet and Ciganjur on the outskirts of eastern and southern Jakarta.
Some locals who thought they were true nasi uduk connoisseurs changed semur jengkol into ayam goreng (fried chicken) and semur daging because jengkol, with its strong aftertaste, was considered an inferior foodstuff not fit to serve to non-Betawi.
Semur jengkol was previously made according to the availability of the ingredients and in spacious gardens where the jengkol tree was always present. Traditional sop kambing (goat soup) can know only be found in very special places such as Tanah Abang and in Menteng area. Kerak telur — in my youth the most well-known sidewalk food and a true Betawi speciality — is now only available as a delicacy at Betawi food festivals!
Now hamburgers, hot dogs and donat (doughnuts) await Jakarta’s hungry masses — as does pempek from Palembang, pecel lele (milk fish) from East Java, gudeg from Yogyakarta and the city’s ubiquitous warteg.
Hygiene remains a problem for sidewalk dining as clean dish washing is seldom practiced due to a lack of running water.
When exploring kaki lima foods today at up-market establishments, consider the history of the region and the introduction of food from other areas.
Here with the recipe of onde-onde: Soak 100 grams mung beans overnight until the skin can be discarded. Fry in 150 milliliters (ml) cooking oil until done. Drain, pound with 100 grams sugar powder.
Mix 500 grams fresh glutinous rice flour with 100 grams sugar powder, 1 tsp vanilla powder, a pinch of salt and 100 ml water. Mix until smooth. Take 1 Tbs glutinous rice flour mixture, flatten. Fill with 1 tsp pounded mung bean, form balls. Roll into 150 grams sesame seeds. Fry in 500 ml cooking oil until brownish.