Friday, November 24, 2017

Jakarta, je t'aime

If you don't like being overwhelmed by choice,
Padang food may not be for you
I just got back from a two week work trip to Jakarta, and the city has warmed its way into my heart and list of favorite places. I have to confess I wasn't too excited about the travel as I was starting out - just back from a couple of weeks of intense travel, I really wanted to stay put in Bombay for a bit, and none of the friends and colleagues who had been to Jakarta had called it exciting. The image in my head was of a city struggling with mad congestion and pollution but managing to stay cheerful with great street food.  On experience, that image proved correct, but also incomplete. To anyone who says Jakarta traffic is impossible, I say pooh, please come to Bombay, will you!  So here I am, a huge fan of the city, and here's a list of things I love about Jakarta, in random order of priority:

Padang food. My food experiences in Jakarta could a fill a book, and Padang food would be its longest chapter. So here's what happens when you walk into a Padang restaurant and get seated: two, sometimes three, servers come over and start putting bowls of colorful curries and stir fries on your table while you go "Whaaaat's going on?". Then you notice that they're carrying the multiple bowls, not on trays or trolleys, but piled up as pyramids on their arms! They continue the process until you can't see the tablecloth on the table. Then your Indonesian friend explains: you choose whatever you want to eat, take it in your plate, and at the end of the meal, tell the server what you ate and get billed for just that. If the bowl of redang had two pieces of meat, and you had one, that's all you pay for. The rest of the food goes back into the community pots and pans for the next set of guests. "But what if I lie about what I ate and pay less?" That questions causes a lot of amusement, turns out the system works. I loved it - quite apart from how delicious the this region's cuisine is (spicy, coconut-based gravies), the whole process is so affirmative and communal.

Martabak. This is difficult to write about because I'm struggling to ignore my watering mouth. Think soft, thick pancakes smothered in butter, cheese, chocolate and cream - and that's just the basic version. You then have the tough task of choosing toppings. This snack, which comes in sweet and savory versions, is something locals are very passionate about, with restaurants dedicated to it. But like most things, the street version is the best.

A screenshot of the Gojek app,
courtesy my friend Fauziah
The bike taxis. Sure, we have them in India but they're a tiny handful. In Jakarta, they're a critical part of the city's fabric, as ubiquitous as India's auto-rickshaws (Jakarta has those too, and guess what they're called? "Bajaj's", pronounced as "Bajai's"). They're fast and make you feel like a superhuman as you wind through traffic, and they're so easy to use! I used Uber, but they have so many (Grab, Gojek, maybe others too) And I'm an absolute fan of this Gojek thing, which must have started out as a taxi service provider but now has such a delightful list of bells and whistles to it! Imagine combining Uber with Grofers, Chaayos, Ferns&Petals, BlueDart, Flipkart, Bookmyshow, Home salon and maybe a few more things, and you'll have some idea of what Gojek is. I don't know any startup in India that has become a verb yet. My hospital colleagues spoke of "gojecking" documents to each other.

The food. I know I've listed Padang food and Martabak, but how do I not mention the five different types of sambal, the tahu gejrot (spicy tofu) that made my eyes water, all the satays and nasi gorengs. The street food is as amazing as you expect, and none of the restaurants I stumbled into disappointed me. A place called Dapur Bapah Elite was especially unforgettable - fabulous food in a hundred year old house. There's also a growing coffee shop culture - perfectly brewed coffee in relaxed, warmly lit rooms which have good wifi connections. My personal favorite among the cafes I worked out of - Watt coffee in Kwitang.

Transjakarta. If the BRT corridor in Delhi had worked out, it would have been like the Transjakarta. A fast, convenient way to travel in a city where unpredictable traffic is a way of life. I've decided that on my next trip, I will choose a hotel next to a transjakarta station as much as possible.

The people. I don't know what it says about me that I thought of the affection I feel for Indonesian people only after mentioning the food and transport. I did say my list was going to be random. How is it that in my two weeks in the city, I did not meet one grumpy human being?

The "Good guide walking tours". I cannot praise these guys enough! I went on two walking tours with them (old town walk and street food walk). They're everything that you expect a good walk tour to be - well informed, chatty, amusing, and then something more - political and passionate. They don't tread gently around issues they care about, and I found that wonderful. And it's pay as you wish.

Special mention: Indomart and Alphamart. These are supermarket chains like 7-elevens, and it might seem a little silly to mention them, until I tell you that they double up as coffee shops, so you can find really good coffee at practically every street corner. The larger ones even have small tables right next to the shopping aisles. There is something indefinably whimsical about enjoying unhurried coffee surrounded by bright boxes of detergent and listening to employees singing as they stack merchandise.

There's one additional fact that also deserves special mention: Indians are visa-exempt! Not visa on arrival, visa exempt! Now I know how people with Australian passports feel in half the world.

And here's an eight-second video of martabak being made - sheer poetry in motion!

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