Jakarta taste test: Street food vs. flashy cuisine

Jakarta taste test: Street food vs. flashy cuisine

Cheap, cheerful street dishes take on their refined, more expensive adaptations. Does newer mean better?

As Indonesia’s economy grows and its earners start demanding more for their money, its traditional street-side eats, sold out of stalls called warungs, are being given a contemporary spin in modern restaurants.

But does that make these new, revamped dishes superior?

Here, locals compare the old with the new, to find out whether paying more means tasting better. The ratings are based on scores given by the tasters in each case. 

 

Nasi goreng

Fried rice with sweet soy sauce

nasi gorengFried rice good, fried rice with peanut sauce and chunky chicken, better. Rating: Old = 8, New = 8.25

Price: Old = US$1.75, New = US$5.25

Conclusion: Thumbs up for a shake-up
Nasi goreng, the omnipresent Indonesian staple.

“People need something they’re comfortable with,” says chef Erlene Susanto, who spoons peanut sauce over a chicken filet as her form of innovation.

The most traditional recipes remain home-cooked secrets, so we compared another long-time favorite nasi gila -- literally crazy rice -- with Susanto’s twist from The Goods Cafe, a gathering spot for Jakarta’s creative who’s who.

“I like the combination with the peanut sauce and the chunk chicken,” says bank employee Anita Mochsen. “The traditional is also good, but it’s just plain old fried rice.”

Another customer, Karina, agrees. “Every nasi goreng I eat is like this,” she says, pointing to the traditional. “I like the idea of using peanut sauce so the taste is richer.”

Her sister, Nataya, dissents. “The peanut sauce is OK, lah, but the rice is really sticky.” She prefers the older version largely because it smells of burnt rice, a nasi goreng signature.

When it comes to flavor, however, Susanto’s dish won over the majority. “You can take a tradition and mix it with something different and that makes it more interesting,” says designer Ardan Hanafi. “It’s still fried rice, even if you mix it with avocado.”

The Goods Department: Jalan MH Thamarin, Plaza Indonesia, 4/F, +62 (0)21 2992 3628

Nasi Gila: Jalan Cokroaminoto, near Formule 1 Hotel, Menteng

 

Satay

Grilled meat skewers served with peanut sauce and packed rice cakes

sateOld-style satay appears to be more about the culture than the quality. Rating: Old = 4.6, New = 8.75

Price: Old = US$1.65, New = US$9.25

Conclusion: Out with the old
People know Sate Pertamina from the smoke wafting out onto the street. For nearly 50 years the family restaurant has been grilling up its signature dish, but with such high volumes at rock bottom prices its reputation sometimes trumps its quality.

“The street satay uses a cheaper cut –- you can see the fat,” says Petty Elliott, the author of a cookbook on regional Indonesian cuisine.

The modern version, made by Ranch 99, uses the same cooking technique, but it marinates the meat in spices and serves it with a crunchy peanut sauce that is low on oil.

Edward Irwan, the manager of Western-style eatery Tin Pan Alley, found the modern satay tender, and surprisingly true to traditional flavors.

The street satay was “a little burnt, a little tough,” he says, qualities now associated with the traditional dish. But sometimes tradition is also about the experience. “Sometimes it’s not about the food anymore but the culture.”

Ranch 99: Jalan MH Thamrin No. 1 Grand Indonesia East Mall, L/G floor; +62 (0)21 2358 1199

Sate Pertamina: Jalan Kyai Maja No. 21, in front of Pertamina Hospital; +62 (0)21 722 1164

 

Gado-gado

Boiled vegetables draped with spicy-sweet peanut dressing 

gado-gadoIf we wanted a salad we would order a salad. Rating: Old = 7.25, New = 6.25

Price: Old = US$1, New = US$4

Conclusion: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Ipan makes gado-gado from a three-wheeled cart behind a bustling, mall-ringed traffic circle in central Jakarta. He sells around 100 plates of the signature street dish each day, and his cart boasts a giant stone mortar that he uses to grind the spices for his sauce –- the key to authenticity.

At TeSate, meanwhile, gado-gado is served in glass bowls that mimic the stark, minimalist décor, the dish comprises iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cubed potatoes and soybean croutons. A thick, sticky sauce rounds it off.

“It’s a bit like caramel,” says one diner, Anggraini, who prefers the sauce she knows. She notes the freshness of the ingredients, over the boiled veggies in the original, but still says the contemporary version is too much like a salad for her liking.

Moniek Sagita, a public relations executive, agrees. TeSate’s version is more suited to a Western palate, she says since it lacks the nutty flavor and signature kick of gado-gado.

Other taste testers are more open to the modern dish. “The sauce is a little too buttery, but overall it’s an interesting bouquet of texture, color and flavor,” says Mia Iskandar, a graphic artist.

For the majority, however, TeSate has pushed the envelope too far.

TeSate: Jalan Asia Afrika, Plaza Senayan 4/F; +62 (0)21 572 5521

Ipan’s Gado: Jalan Indramayu, behind the Deutsche Bank building

 

Rendang

Beef chunks coupled with spicy gravy

rendangThe old rustic style is too heavy-handed for some. Rating: Old = 7, New = 7.33

Price: Old = US$4.75, New = US$8.25

Conclusion: Willing to walk the line
The true taste of rendang is captured in the gravy, a thick coconut-milk base rich in ginger, turmeric, lemongrass and chili.

The beef stews for hours until the sauce has almost boiled away. Slow cooking is key, since it allows the meat to tenderize and absorb all the flavors.

Seribu Rasa, a refined fusion restaurant serving food from Southeast Asia, gets the meat right. But Surya, a hole-in-the-wall eatery that draws crowds throughout the day, has the sharper, traditional flavor that taste testers like.

“I’m Indonesian, I like the spice,” says Widya Narsi, a program officer for an aid agency.

She dislikes the steak-like consistency of Seribu Rasa’s rendang, but Lely Cabe, the manager of the German Cultural Institute, says the meat from Surya is too tough (some warungs reheat day-old rendang or used old cows to cut costs).

“The modern version is less oily and the meat is obviously cooked to an international standard,” she says. And despite lacking the perfect sauce, it still has that indistinguishable flavor.

As long as rendang stays true to its spices, it seems alternative versions are more accepted. Rumah Kopi Café mixes its rendang with French fries, a concept those who have tried it call a very good idea.

Seribu Rasa: Jalan Haji Agus Salim 128; +62 (0)21 392 8892

Rumah Makan Surya: Jalan Bendungan Hilir 5; +62 (0)21 573 1474

 

Mie ayam

Noodles topped with chicken and fried shallots

mie ayamA squid-ink infusion is a squirt too far. Rating: Old = 6.25, New = 4.75

Price: Old = US$1.20, New = US$4

Conclusion: Stay true to your roots
Bakmi Blo’on, the name for a host of noodle stands stationed for more than two decades behind St. Theresia Cathedral, is a favorite among students. Bejo, a vendor who serves up to 200 bowls each day, says they like it because it’s cheap.

“The noodles are too sticky,” says retail worker Natasya Prameswari, who likes the chewy texture of the modern twist from Miitem, which infuses its noodles with squid ink.

Olivia Wongso, whose father invented the recipe, says the aim is to present an Indonesian taste in a different package. But Sinta Sujarwo says the black noodles are just too strange.

Others say they are bland –- lacking the robust flavor Indonesian palates require. The alternative, however, is simply too boring, say most, giving credit to Miitem’s concept.

“The idea is a 10,” says Prameswari. Though for now this staple seems tied to the look and flavor people know best. “Even the modern generation still likes our traditions,” she adds.

Miitem: Jalan MH Thamrin, Plaza Indonesia 3/F; +62 (0)21 3983 8787

Bakmie Blo’on: Jalan Gereja Theresia, across from No. 23

 

Sara has lived in Thailand and Cambodia and currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She likes to keep moving and uses these pages to write about the exciting things she learns along the way.

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