J A K A R T A
And so, finally, to Jakarta. Riding along Jalan Thamrin in a rare moment of traffic flow, we are discussing Indonesian food. "I wonder what Detlef Skrobanek thinks about it," I say. "Pity he's in Singapore." Our host reaches for the cellphone, and a few seconds later passes it back to me. "Here's Detlef," he says, "ask him."
I have visited Jakarta many times, but never stayed for long. This year is no exception; four or five times we fly in, stop a few nights, see people, depart. The road from Soekarno-Hatta Airport, twenty-odd kilometres out of town, becomes familiar. There are the swampy flatlands that stretch away to the sky, and the huge illuminated signs that advertise new high-security housing projects with their own golf courses. Inside the city limits, there's the multifarious architecture of new and old buildings crowded up against each other, the bowls of TV parabolas like wire sieves, the sleek fast cars stuck patiently in their jams with every window shut. Everyone is airconditioned now, and almost every car window has an inner skin of tinted plastic. The old world, where everyone lived more or less in public, has vanished. In the street, the sellers of newspapers, cigarettes and peanuts, and the occasional beggar, hang around near traffic lights, hoping to see a window go down. The city is not as rich as Singapore, not as car-choked as Bangkok, not as polluted as Manila, not as poor as Calcutta, but it scores highly on all these counts. It can shred the nerves if you let it get on top of you, but it has tremendous energy and a confidence that can be infectious. It is politer and more patient than London, and nowadays it feels safer.
Detlef Skrobanek was Executive Chef, later Resident Manager, at the Jakarta Hilton. He was a major contributor to a book called The New Art of Indonesian Cooking, which tackled some of the problems I have been working on in London and in this book, though from a rather different point of view. He describes the work that he and his team of twelve Indonesian chefs did as "applying modern cooking methods to what is essentially a village cuisine." We were to meet, eventually; but on an early visit I found to my delight that Prahasto Soebroto, the F&B Manager at the Hilton, had laid on a banquet for us, with a menu de dégustation based on the work done by Detlef and his team.
The list included Duck Breast on Peanut Sauce; Clear Prawn Soup with Lemon Grass; Yellow Tail Fish in Sour Turmeric Sauce; Lamb with Spicy Veal Stuffing; Roast Javanese Beef Fillet; and Tropical Fruit and Fermented Rice, gratinated with Cinnamon Sabayon and Coconut Ice Cream. It was a memorable meal. But it was a very special occasion, because few of these dishes have gained permanent places on the menu. They are European dishes with an Indonesian flavour, but they have not established themselves with the wealthy Indonesians who eat here. To my mind, Detlef has gone a little too far in internationalizing this food. For example, he cooks all his meat very rare, which is quite alien to Indonesian tastes, and all his sauces are passed through a fine sieve, so that they lose the rough texture that Indonesians expect in a sauce. But these are matters of taste. The food was by any standards extremely good as well as original.
Another guest present at the dinner was William Wongso, on whose cellphone I had earlier talked to Detlef in Singapore. William, always addressed and referred to by everyone as Pak William, Father William, is one of the most impressive people we met on the Indonesian food scene, as well as one of the most hospitable. He gave a dinner party at his house at which we had ate dishes from Java, Sulawesi and Maluku, some flown in specially, some cooked in his own kitchen, while yet others were made by Tanya Alwi, daughter of the celebrated Des. Father and daughter were both present, and that is where we laid our plans for the trip to Banda.
Pak William also gave me a long interview in his office above the bakery and pastrycook's shop that he runs; he invited us to a dinner of the Jakarta Chaine des Rotisseurs, of which he is President; at his Italian restaurant we had food that would have been regarded as outstandingly good in a smart restaurant in Milan; he introduced us to Dr and Ibu Ratulangi in Menado; and he told us all about his newest venture, the Sarinah Food Court, in the very centre of Jakarta.
Sarinah is one of the city's big department stores. In the 1980s street food vendors were allowed, or perhaps encouraged, to set up their stalls in Sarinah's car park every evening, when the building itself was closed and empty. Pak William, with some influential backing, has now leased a large part of the Sarinah basement, which was still being fitted out as a food court at the time we returned to London. It has since opened for business. Like the Amanda Food Center in Bali, but on a bigger scale, it provides facilities for regional food to be cooked, sold and eaten in hygienic conditions. For a start, people who handle food don't handle money - this seems to me one of the fundamental rules of food cleanliness. Some food is cooked on the spot, some is flown in from distant parts of the country - where, we must assume, cooks are as pernickety as Pak William is about hygiene.
On our second or third evening in Jakarta, in the Hotel Indonesia, we saw at the entrance to the bar a sign that said, "As it is New Year's Eve, there will be no happy hour tonight." So we went to bed early, and on a grey New Year's morning Pak William took us on a drive into the empty streets of Glodok. This is the old heart of Jakarta. In side alleys we found open-sided restaurants whose customers lifted the lids of aluminium cooking pots to help themselves from the contents - mostly seafood and offal. A man with a barrow was selling kue pancung, which are doughy cakes of glutinous rice flour, smothered in shredded young coconut flesh and sugar. They were freshly cooked and we all burned our tongues on them. This is the area near the waterfront, where the Dutch established themselves in the seventeenth century and a few colonial buildings survive. Not very far away the fishing boats and trading ships from other islands tie up at the quayside. The descendants of Chinese immigrants from Dutch times still live and do business here. Glodok therefore is, and has always been, the place to find the best Chinese food, though nowadays I don't think I would go and look for it unless I had someone with me who knew the area well.
Chinese influence on Indonesian cooking is deep and wide: fried rice and noodles are only its more obvious traces. The most successful Indonesian restaurants in other countries are mostly Chinese-run, notably in the Netherlands, though we once came across a very good one in Taipeh. Indian influences have been assimilated so completely that you might hardly notice them at first. Indonesians, for example, use the word kare, curry, but the resulting dish is quite different from any Indian curry that I know of. The Dutch legacy is mostly in sweets and cakes. The American fast food chains and their imitators flourish, and the Japanese are now entering the market strongly at several levels. In most shopping malls, that is to say in the smartest and most modern parts of town, you will find branches of Kurumaya, who serve popular versions of standard Japanese dishes in cheap and cheerful surroundings. These places are extremely popular with children, and therefore with families, since it is usually the children who dictate where everyone will eat.
But there is also good, expensive Japanese food. The best meal we had in the Hotel Indonesia was in the exquisite surroundings of its Japanese restaurant, where our lunch was cooked in front of us by an Indonesian chef who had trained in Tokyo. The number of such places is increasing and so is the quality. Korean food is popular, though what used to be my favourite Korean restaurant, at the top of the Bank Bumi Daya tower, seems to have gone out of fashion and is not quite as good as it used to be. The view from its windows is still breathtaking. Entrepreneurial Thais are opening up small, unassuming but good restaurants, such as the one that a friend took us to in Jalan Cideng Timur, selling food that is in some ways so similar to Indonesian food, and in others so different.
One big difference, which is not directly a matter of cooking, is that Thais approach the whole business of running a restaurant quite differently from Indonesians. I don't think Thais are necessarily better business people, but they are, as William Wongso said, "fifteen years ahead of us" in the food trade. David Thompson, the genius of Thai cooking in Sydney, suggested to me that it had something to do with the fact that Thailand was never colonised by Europeans. Whatever the reason, a wealthy Indonesian very rarely decides to open a restaurant as an investment. He can get a surer return on his capital elsewhere, and knows that even a good restaurant would give him none of the prestige that he might get in a big western city. At the same time, there is no tradition of restaurant-going in Indonesian small towns. People eat out only when they have to. A cook, on the other hand, who wants to start a restaurant finds it hard to get training or financial backing. Cooks have always had low status and low pay. Kitchen and front-of-house staff don't have the tradition of training that would motivate them to think creatively about what they are doing. And there is the old problem of lack of confidence in the real worth of their culinary tradition.
But things are starting, gradually, to change. There has been for some time a serious monthly food magazine, Selera (Taste). There is an Indonesian Chefs' Association, IJUMPI, and a lot of the chefs I talked to said that they thought their status had improved and would continue to do so. Most important, the market for good food is developing as people become better off, travel more and work in offices. Good medium-price restaurants are often located close to office complexes; shopping centres tend to attract fast food franchisees. Fish restaurants do particularly well, because Indonesians have always eaten more fish than meat. There is no real excellence yet, by international standards, but in ten years there has been a huge improvement in the quality of the average upmarket eating house.
Every new shopping mall has its food court, though you feel that some of the people who have leased stalls in them are still testing the market, not quite sure yet what their customers expect from them. Many of the most attractive eating places are located in the inner suburbs, where rents are much lower than in the centre and the surroundings quieter and greener. Of course, everyone in Jakarta who can possibly afford a car has one, and takes it for granted that work, play and social life will require frequent long journeys across the city. You have only to try to approach or leave a new shopping mall on foot to realise that the new Jakarta is not intended for pedestrians. The streets are thronged with people walking, but they are not the ones the smart shops want to attract.
We went back to Soekarno-Hatta yet once more to spend a day on the premises of Aerowisata Catering, a subsidiary of the national airline, Garuda, and a sister company of the one that owns hotels like Pusako, Senggigi Beach and Preanger. The catering operation has a large modern building on the edge of the airport, one of four centres that prepare over 20,000 airline meals each day. As in many of the top hotels, the Executive Chef is European. The company supplies not only Garuda but all airlines using the country's four "gateways". On international flights, you are offered a choice between Indonesian and European food, and I was pleased to hear that demand for the Indonesian menu is always high, even among non-Indonesian passengers.
Even if food on aeroplanes is improving, it remains true that Indonesians eat better at home than anywhere else. At the start and finish of our journey of more than four months, we spent a day at the house of relatives in a Jakarta suburb. On the way there, the first time, we stopped at a street vendor's stall and spent a long time choosing six perfect durian as a present for our hostess. Lunch was rice, vegetables and half-a-dozen fish dishes cooked in the styles of West Sumatra and West Kalimantan. Our dessert was nasi ketan, black glutinous rice, with coconut milk delicately flavoured with the flesh of slightly unripe durian. This of course is in a household where food is highly valued, and there is enough money and leisure for the family to eat well.
Like many fast-growing capital cities, Jakarta has very few dishes it can claim as its own regional specialities. People come to the city from the provinces, bringing their cooking with them. The selection of recipes in this section, therefore, represents the common property of these incomers rather than a local tradition. A bus ride through the town will show you what the popular dishes are at the street food stalls and small cafés: soto, nasi rames, bakso, pecel, sate. The recipes that follow include most of the "clichés" that my Australian friends complained about, but I am glad to include them because they can all be made well (or badly), and most give scope for variation and experiment.
The population of Greater Jakarta today is estimated at somewhere round twelve million people, and the city is growing fast, its commuter belt spreading outwards into West Java as that of London spreads over south-east England. Within this area, Indonesians are learning to be city dwellers and suburbanites, a fate which befell very few of them in the past. Jakarta is so far the only "world city" they possess. At the moment, it is hard to see any other Indonesian place reaching the same levels of size, complexity and energy. I am forced to realise that if I were ever to settle again in my native country, I would go to Jakarta, however reluctantly I was drawn to it. But the small towns, the villages and the countryside - especially the mountains - will be the real Indonesia, and Jakarta will look to them for its ideas and its inspiration, in food and cooking and hospitality as in everything else that makes life enjoyable.
The day before we left, Tanya Alwi came up to our room on the twenty-somethingth floor of the Grand Hyatt to say good-bye and give me some recipes. After days of rain, the air was rinsed clean of diesel fumes and smoke, the sky was an untroubled blue and the afternoon sun lit up every detail of the streets and buildings below us. Far away, we could see the trains running on their elevated track in and out of Gambir station like toys. "Look!" said Tanya. "You can see why Menteng is such an expensive place to live. They've still got all the trees."