Clandestine Culinary Adventure
Deanna Ramsay, WEEKENDER | Thu, 06/23/2011 11:53 AM |
Shhh. Going underground to taste traditional Indonesian cuisine is proving a hit among restaurant-jaded Jakartans.
The email went out at night, giving an address in West Jakarta’s Kebon Jeruk. The next day, those on the list entered the high-rise apartment building, passed a Grecian-style pool and then slipped into a specially marked room.
Inside, guests were already gathered, milling about amid steaming dishes set out on a long table. On the dot of 2 p.m., one of the organizers called for attention and began reeling off details of the buffet, in this instance cuisine from Bangka Belitung province.
This clandestine operation is known as Underground Secret Dining, a regular event for food lovers in Jakarta. All that curious diners know in advance is that they will join the organizers “as we embark on a scrumptious adventure around Indonesia with fellow food aficionados”.
Lisa Virgiano and Sari Hartono began organizing these dining experiences in 2009. Their guests register in advance through the group’s website and pay Rp 148,000 (US$17), for which they receive only a hint as to the theme and the location of the next meal.
Underground Secret Dining has proved wildly popular, its 40 slots every month usually filling up, and it was even voted “Best Event” by Time Out Jakarta in 2010.
And it is abundantly clear why. The events hold elements of secrecy and surprise, as a group of strangers are brought together through a shared interest, with a delicious meal to top it all off.
Lisa and Sari, who have been friends and food lovers since high school, says they are not chefs and do not know how to cook.
But then, as Lisa puts it, “All you have to have is passion for what you do.”
They are clearly passionate about food and, more specifically, the cuisines of Indonesia.
“We both like to travel a lot,” Lisa says. “When we are traveling we like to savor local food, trying to find the most authentic food in a certain region … After all these journeys we found the best food was home food, local food, the food we discovered from house to house.”
Holding to this conviction, the two chose to structure their events around Indonesia’s many regional cuisines – including foods people may have never been exposed to.
For the May 8 event, Lisa emphasizes, she had asked the chefs to prepare food one could not get at a restaurant but rather to make only dishes that could be found in family kitchens in Bangka Belitung.
After the guests had eaten their full, Lisa brought out the cooks, Aan and Jeni Ho, who have run a restaurant in Kebon Jeruk since 1997. They received resounding applause from the sated diners and a plaque from Lisa, thanking them for their willing participation.
Part of Lisa and Sari’s mission with Underground Secret Dining, aside from introducing Jakarta’s residents and visitors to the diversity of regional Indonesian cooking, is to help support local restaurant owners and home cooks by making them known by potential new patrons.
“We like to give them something, like very simple knowledge; here you have the demand, you just have to manage the resources. Here is your market,” Lisa says.
“It’s very good for them because we can show [them] economic empowerment.”
The goal is appropriate, as eating is intricately tied up with both pleasure and economic conditions. Most of Lisa and Sari’s guests at the events are middle class Jakartans, the pair say; they believe rising income levels and Indonesia’s emerging middle class are contributing factors to the popularity of their events and the resurgent interest in food in the city.
Attending Underground Secret Dining is also part educational experience; the organizers describe the food and cards are laid out in front of each dish listing ingredients. At the May event, the resounding favorite was a mushroom dish, lempah kulat, described as “sauteed local mushrooms with coconut milk, free-range chicken, lemongrass, galangal, onions”. Lisa explains that the mushrooms were local to Bangka Belitung and cost somewhere between Rp 1 million and Rp 2 million a kilo.
Sari says that they learned from early experiences to keep their discussions of the food to a practical minimum.
“We just want to give them the basics,” Lisa says. “If they are interested they can go Google or ask the cook. If you’re willing to learn more we provide the way.”
Underground Secret Dining experiences to date have offered attendees numerous opportunities to learn: a Bali-themed event complete with angklung accompaniment; a meal featuring contemporary Indonesian fare such as oxtail consommé and Batavian soda with ginger, cardamom and cloves; a Ternate feast based on ingredients difficult to access in Jakarta; and “carnivore culture”, with dishes created by a homemade sausage entrepreneur.
Sari said one of their most memorable events – in which slots to attend were auctioned off – took place at the Petamburan cemetery in Slipi, among the mausoleums. Guests were introduced to the teas of the world while sitting amid the gravestones. Proceeds went to a non-profit organization that helps to preserve heritage buildings in Jakarta.
Underground Secret Dining events are announced through an English language website, www.azanaya.com (Lisa and Sari say that having their site in English allowed them to tap into an international network of food lovers). Lisa adds that a group in London saw their site and contacted them, and now Underground Secret Dining is included in a guidebook to secret dining clubs throughout the world.
Passion for food, economic empowerment, historic preservation, edification, adventure and secrecy – Underground Secret Dining offers much to those on every side of the dining table. As Lisa notes, “Jakarta is a melting pot”, and their venture is certainly contributing to that glorious amalgam that is present-day Jakarta, while they also reach out to a larger world.
A recent New York Times article reported an underground dining event that took place on the New York subway, with diners eating on makeshift tables as organizers brought courses in at every stop. While a TransJakarta event may be a long time coming, Lisa says they wanted to “trigger people’s curiosity”, which means they will continue to strive to provide memorable and unique experiences for the food lovers of Jakarta.