Eat, Walk, Life
Melanie Whitmarsh, WEEKENDER | Tue, 04/03/2012 3:08 PM |
Go on foot to find local food, secret ingredients and unsung chefs.
Wearing brown batik and a trilby, Aki pushes a wooden cart along a narrow lane in the BendunganHilir neighborhood in central Jakarta.
“Wayhoo!” he sings. In response, a chorus of doors open and women bustle from their homes in baggy dresses with babes on hips. Aki knocks the kick-stand of his vegetable cart as the women prod the morning produce.
Aki’s mobile market is a fresh feast of salad greens, beansprouts, tomatoes, oncom (fermented soybean), peppercorns, prawn crackers, coconut milk, tofu and dried noodles. His cart resembles a wheeled sideboard. Layers of clear plastic bags containing long and bitter beansdrape one side of the cart like fish scales.
“He comes every day,” pipes an elderly lady. “Stops right outside my house.”
There is no hurry here: The women have one eye on the vegetables and an ear out for the daily gossip.
A mother spoons puree into the pout of her eight-month-old daughter. “It’s difficult to make her eat,” she sighs. The baby’s bare thighs are splattered with sauce. A dappled cat trots past. “Puss,” coos the mother. “Meow. Where’s he going?” The baby remains tight-lipped.
“Have you got chicken liver?” a woman asks. Aki opens a door within the body of the cart. In the gloom a single yellow chicken foot claws upward from a pile of bagged entrails. “I’ve got fish, chicken, beef and prawns,” Aki lists.
The women berate him for his prices and the haggling begins.
I wander on, wending through the residential maze. Cats forage in litter nooks. The lane narrows, houses hard up against one side, their contents spilling onto the path: toys, colanders, kettles, buckets. A naked girl with long dark hair sits on the curb beside a tap amid crockery and potted plants.
“Hey! Good morning!” a man calls, sliding off the seat of his parked motorbike. He stretches out a hand and I cross the cultural space between us. He drives an ojek, a motorbike taxi.
“Where are you going?”
“Photographing street food.”
“You should visit Benhil during Ramadan, the fasting month: there’s food everywhere.” He mimes hand to mouth. “How about photographing our pondok instead?” he suggests. “It has an upstairs! We built it!”
The pondok is a tidy two-story bamboo hangout spot standing at the junction. Plant tendrils and a wind chime sway across the façade.
“We have TV and audio!” he adds.“It’s the best pondok in the area: it’s just like the kampung. Come and have coffee.”
But I have spotted a cart across the road selling fruit soup. Sop buah is a medley of melon, grape, strawberry, pear, apple, dragonfruit, cubed agar, jelly and condensed milk.
“It’s a specialty from Cirebon, on the north Java coast, and my secret ingredient is – avocado,” reveals the vendor, wiping a bowl with a rag.
He shops at Palmerah market and has been selling on Jl. Benhil for 10 years, attracting 50 customers a day. “It’s a flexible dish: you can have fruit soup in the morning or night, before or after rice. I’m comfortable in Benhil; people know where to find me. But I don’t eat fruit soup myself anymore, I’m bored of it. I prefer chocolate martabak.”
The neighborhood is poorer on the Tanah Abang side of the Kali Krukut river, which flanks Jl. Benhil. The houses are wooden, pieced together with urban flotsam. A man pushes his motorbike along the soggy path, panniers bursting with vegetables. Another has a motorbike laden with brownies and cake. A woman with a red lipstick smile touches my arm.
“Where you going?”
“Looking for food. You?”
“Looking for work. You need someone?”
A bare-chested man strolls from the dark interior of a riverside house holding a sheet of greasy brown paper, clumps of rice clinging to the oil. He tosses the litter into the brown river. Down in the water, thigh-deep, two men with suction cups taped to the end of wooden poles trawl for saleable trash.
Here too the kitchens spill across the alleys, creating the impression that the path cuts through the heart of the home. Woks and pans steam and bubble.
“It’ssiomay,” says a one-eyed woman as I peer into the hot vats. Siomay, steamed dumplings, is an Indonesian version of Chinese dim sum. The lady has five round trays of neatly formed, shell-shaped, bite-sized dumplings, an urn of steamed potatoes, cabbage, eggs and tofu, and a fiery slurry of chili.
An old man with a ballooned stomach shuffles forward. “In England they don’t have siomay,” he tells the gathering children.
The family makes siomay for sale within the Atma Jaya University complex on Jl: Sudirman.
“You want to try some?” invites the woman. Beside her stands a man wearing a T-shirt reading “F**K Terrorist” with the date of the first Bali bombing.
Nearing the bridge to re-cross the Kali Krukut river, I pass a house with half a dozen people sitting on a smartly tiled porch twisting long pale leaves into pretty parcels. These plaited pockets will be filled with rice, then steamed and sold with ketoprak: a dish of vermicelli, tofu and beansprouts.
“We make more than 1,000,” says a woman, sitting cross-legged as she deftly weaves the leaves. She tosses the completed parcels onto a growing mountain of food craft. “Two thousand!” she bids. They sell the leaf packets at the Benhil market, but I notice two idle ketoprak carts parked beside their porch as well.
Back on Jl. Benhil, it’s time for refreshment. Shaving a block of ice with a dangerous grater of dark nails is a man making es cendol, an iced dessert drink containing coconut and condensed milk, black rice, palm sugar, and green cassava jelly worms.
“I get between 20 and 30 customers a day, most in the afternoons,” he says, dropping the ingredients into a plastic cup.The ice block drips slowly onto the road as he affixes the plastic lid.
“Do you still drink es cendol?” I ask.
He throws back his head and laughs. “Every day! I like it very much!”