One of the reasons we wenttoJakarta last month was to research gado-gado Betawi (Jakarta-style gado-gado). The result appears in today's Wall Street Journal Asia 'Weekend Journal'.
This is the fourth 'The Dish' article that we've done for the publication. These are short, focused pieces that hew to a pre-determined rubric. Nonetheless, I enjoy working on them because they offer an opportunity to delve into local history - culinary and otherwise - and to get out and talk to local 'experts' about the cuisines they grew up with. I always learn something, and I usually end up trying something new. In the course of research for these pieces our palates get 'educated'. While I wouldn't recommend eating three gado-gados in twelve hours, as we did in Jakarta, I returned home with a new appreciation for this stalwart of the overseas Indonesian restaurant menu.
What did I learn about gado-gado? Well, for one thing, it's not the super-sweet peanut-buttery, gloppily dressed poor excuse for a vegetable dish that it usually is outside of Indonesia. While gado-gado Betawi is on the sweet side (as many Javanese dishes are), a good version features a real balance of sweet (from ground nuts), sour (from jeruk, regular lime, tamarind, sometimes even white vinegar), salty (from trassi, Indonesian shrimp paste), and hot (from chilies).
And the sauce dresses a true salad, not just a token pile of potatoes and flabby cabbage and green beans. There's also blanched water spinach, sweet corn, blanched chayote, and sometimes bitter melon and young jack fruit as well. The vegetables, cooked only to crisp-tender, are toothsome. Many cooks fold in strips of curly lettuce right before the dish is served. There's deliciously nutty tempeh, steamed or deep-fried, or tofu - fried or not. Or both. As one of my interviewees told me, gado-gado varies cook to cook, and that's the beauty of it - you can include (or exclude) what you like, and make the sauce to your own taste.
Another something interesting - for this version of gado-gado (there are many, throughout Indonesia and especially on Java) a sauce made with cashews, rather than peanuts, is 'authentic'. Who knew? Cashews, as we found, make for a lighter, slightly less sweet sauce; with a less aggressive flavor than peanuts, they create 'room' for the flavors of the other ingredients to really come through.
Quite frankly I returned from that trip to Jakarta having had more than my fill of gado-gado. But this article's appearance has brought on cravings. I think I see a date with a pile of cashews and my Indonesian stone mortar and pestle in my near future.
A tip that didn't make it into print: one of Jakarta's best versions can be had at lunchtime at the Peacock Cafe in the upscale Sultan Hotel. But call ahead to ask if Aisha is in the kitchen; otherwise - says a local gourmand - don't bother.
A couple weeks ago a reader sent me an email asking about eating in Siem Reap (and Bangkok and Laos) which said, in part):
I really want to do some food exploration, but am
concerned about eating fresh veggies and fruit. What are your thoughts
on the matter?
It wasn't the first such email I've received. The food-focused traveler's conventional wisdom says: if it's not hot and cooked don't eat it, unless it's a fruit or vegetable with a peel you can remove yourself. We flout that rule wherever we go.
Fresh tropical fruits, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces and sold from a cart are one of Southeast Asia's manyedible pleasures, as are blender drinks made with fresh fruit and ice. If you're eating in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand, staying away from fresh veggies means denying yourself a key component of the local cuisine. Room-temperature curries and other not-ot cooked foods eaten with rice are par for the course.
Do we get sick from street food? Not often at all, considering the amount of grazing we do. Is that because we've built up 'immunities' in our years in Asia? I tend to doubt it. We're both in excellent shape (according to the results of recent physicals) and try to stay that way when we travel, and I think that gives us a leg up to begin with (we've also had the requisite vaccinations).
On the rare occasion that we do get sick from food there's no pattern to it, no easily identifiable source. And when one of us gets sick the other never does, even though we eat from the same plates (even if we're not sharing he tastes mine, I taste his). To me this indicates that getting ill from street food often comes down to the luck of the draw. All it takes is one little speck of nasty matter, which might originate in the food you're eating or with the vendor who dishes it up. It might be lurking on the plate it's served on or the chopsticks or silverware you eat with. Or, it might just float in on a breeze and settle on your spoon right before it enters your mouth. A crap shoot, in other words.
Which is not to say practicing some common sense doesn't increase the odds of staying healthy. We look for crowds - locals get sick too, after all - and for vendors who strive to keep their tables clean and shoo away flies. We avoid the last dregs of anything (if something's obviously been sitting around for hours and hours, why tempt fate?) andtry to do the same with hideously dirty surroundings.
Try. That's the operative word. After arriving in Siem Reap we headed straight for Psar Loeu, a big and, yes, awfully dirty wet market about 10-15 minutes by tuk-tuk from the center of town, in search of something to eat. Soaking rains had left its surrounding lanes a sea of mud. It was 3pm and the row of rickety food stalls out front were open but quiet, flies buzzing unimpeded around the ingredients on display. We went inside, where the only stalls still open were those dealing in gold, currency exchange, and dried meats and fish.
And exited at the rear, where we ran into a group of women cooking a kanom krok-alike coconut and rice flour treat.
Next to their table, a pile of reeking refuse - one of the market's binless 'dumpster' areas. It was mostly vegetal matter, but it stank to high heaven. The dishes looked dodgy.The ladies were serving their specialty with bowls of coconut milk seasoned with prahok, so getting a bag to go was out of the question. Dave and I looked at each other: 'Should we?' we asked each other, a couple of times, as we'd done in similar situations countless times before. The answer is always the same. I'd like to say that we perform some sort of logical calculus, carefully weighing pros and cons, risks versus rewards. But this is how it goes: here is an appetizing, unfamiliar food. Or a familiar food served in an unfamiliar way. A street food we might not see again.
How could we not? So we did.
It's an inspired combo, coconut milk and prahok (the Cambodian equivalent of bplaa raa, Thai super fermented fish sauce), rich sweetness playing off salty fishiness. A spoonful of garlic-laden chili sauce from the jar on the table jazzes things up a bit, and the lot is a fine accompaniment to the crispy-outside, chewy within coconut milk-rice flour balls. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I put one in my mouth, ours were cold - the vendor had chosen them from an old batch instead of taking them off the griddle. (I take full responsibility for inattentiveness. I know better.) Risky, perhaps, but the thing was already in my mouth, and scrumptious.
Emboldened - because that's how it works for us; once we've breached that Should I?-Shouldn't I? barrier we figure well, what the heck, if we're gonna get sick later anyway we might as well eat what we can before it happens - we munched our way through Psar Loeu's late-afternoon offerings, mud squelching into our sandals as we walked (that's what showers are for). There were thin crepes rolled around coconut-scented sticky rice into tubes the size of our forefingers, slices of fresh mango bagged in plastic, and the tastiest green papaya salad we've ever eaten.
By the time we'd traced a path back to the front of the market the previously sleepy stalls were hopping. We stopped in front of a crowded table where, on our way in, Dave had eyed a platter of what looked like snow-white earthworms. A few minutes later we were diving into a mound of fantastically chewy rice noodles char-fried with heaps of Chinese chives and bean sprouts and served with a Chinese chive-stuffed fried rice dumpling (deep-fried taro cake was also an optional accompaniment), as greasy (in a good way) as it was delicious, especially with a blob of vampire-chasing garlic-chili sauce on the side.
On our way out of the market we stopped for another brilliant snack food, long beans wrapped in fish paste and deep-fried.
Bagged with a splash of fish sauce, a dab of chili paste, and shredded fresh cucumber and herbs, these were reminiscent of Thai tod man bplaa (deep-fried fish cakes). The beans, shriveled from their bath in the hot oil, were intensely vegetal and the flavorful fish paste crispy and rubbery at the same time.
The bottom line here? In two hours at Psar Loeu we ate five delicious street foods that we probably never would have encountered if we'd limited our eating to Siem Reap shops and restaurants (we were on the ground only 3 days this trip). Were the surroundings dirty? No doubt. But we came through with no ill effects (though we certainly can't guarantee the same for others), spied a stall that would prove the source of a wonderful dinner later that night, and returned again another morning to sample more equally worthwhile market treats. Risk has its rewards.
Simply put, you haven't experienced Penang, not the real Penang, until you've eaten on its streets. And the same, I would argue, could be said for any other place in the world that street food still exists.
Street food naysayers miss the point. When it comes to eating on the street it's not only about the food. (And it's not about proving your traveling cohones either.) Be open to the whole experience, and a street food meal will give as much insight into a place and a culture as any guidebook intro. Plus, you get to fill your belly at the same time.
Yesterday, after a workout long and hard enough to cleanse the sins of Saturday night (homemade cheese enchiladas and beer in front of the TV) from our bodies, Dave and I headed to our favorite restaurant in KL, braced for a scolding. When we started eating at Sek Yuen last year the staff held us at arm's length, but over time they softened. Nowadays we're gently berated if we let more than two weeks go by without a visit. We hadn't been since July.
On our way in we paused, as usual, to admire the wood-fired kitchen and bask in the delicious smells wafting from its woks and steamers. After choosing a photo-optimal table we looked around for our usual waiter, the bespectacled of the three owner brothers Fang. One of the older female staff appeared with plates, forks and spoons, and saucers of soy sauce and pickled green chilies.
'What you want to eat?' she asked. Then added 'Spectacles passed away.'
'What?!' we gasped. Spectacles' brother, the tall, lanky one, ambled over. Heart attack and kidney trouble, he told us, it was very sudden. He said it matter-of-factly, but with tears in his eyes.
'Rice or noodles?'
That's how Spectacles, the first of Sek Yuen's staff to warm to our presence in the early days, greeted us. Like his brothers he wore a uniform of shorts, thin white t-shirt, and slip-on sandals. His gnarled legs were roped with varicose veins, his glasses Coke-bottle thick, his head halfway to hairless. Big ears framed a lopsided smile.
'Rice,' we usually answered, and then got down to ordering. Sek Yuen has no written menu, but experience had proven that in Spectacles' hands we were golden. Once we'd shown ourselves to be able eaters he delighted in introducing as-yet-untried-by-us specialties: star anise-fragrant red-cooked beef stomach and tendons, gelatinous stuffed pig trotters, old-fashioned chicken aspic doused with mustard-sesame sauce, an exquisite fish head soup made with four kinds of mushrooms, dried orange peel, and Chinese medicinal herbs.
'Pork?' he queried on our last visit. 'Fried pork, but different. Not like you have before.' It was five-spiced, greaseless, impossibly piggy.
Afterwards, even though the all-but-licked-clean platters on our table said it all, he asked, 'How's your lunch?' '
'Delicious, as always,' we replied, as always. He nodded, smiling at the floor. As always.
We never called him by name. And for ten months he didn't know our names, not until we gave him a copy of the May issue of Time Out Kuala Lumpur which included our ode, in words and photos, to Sek Yuen. For almost a year Dave had been stalking the restaurant's dining room and kitchen. Spectacles and the others were incredulous, then increasingly bemused as he set up lights and tripod, stood on chairs, interrupted customers in the middle of a meal to ask to take photos, and requested that finished dishes be held back so he could get a shot.
'Why don't you show us some pictures,' they asked. Now, here they were. And Spectacles was, in his understated way, touched.
'Sanks,' he said, looking not-quite-directly at us. Before we left he shook Dave's hand and grabbed his shoulder. 'Sanks,' he said again. 'Sanks a lot.'
Our food arrived: fried rice, perfect in its wok-charred simplicity; big chunks of lightly battered fish in piquant sweet and sour sauce; incredibly flavorful bone-in chicken cloaked with soy sauce and black beans; and crisp-tender baby gailan, the dish we never needed to speak because Spectacles knew it was a standing order.
We ate slowly, methodically, in near silence, the desk where Spectacles calculated accounts on an abacus monopolizing our side vision. Our appetites, raging on the ride over, had ebbed. But we finished everything.
My neck aches. I've spent a good part of the last three days staring at a computer screen. I've got deadlines stacked up to hereand right now I'm feeling their weight on my shoulders. Work, too much work.
But in truth, and relatively speaking, not much work at all. This is work, real work, the sort of back-breaking labor you don't see much of in parts of the world where most everything is mechanized.
These guys are loading cargo at Sunda Kelapa, a Jakarta port that dates back hundreds of years. It's the docking spot for mammoth wooden cargo boats known as Bugis pinisi schooners (after Sulawesi's Bugis, who still craft them by hand) the likes of which have been plying South East Asian waters for centuries. We're not mariner types, but these beautiful craft left our jaws hanging.
Back in the day - way back in the day - they might have carried tons of nutmeg, cloves, and peppercorns bound for Jakarta (or Batavia, as the Dutch named it in the early 17th century) and, eventually, Europe. Now they carry less romantic cargo: building supplies like cement, boxes and boxes of crackers. Most of the boats here were bound for Kalimantan, on Borneo.
As awed as we were by these boats, their crews left the strongest impression. While a small number of boats are loaded and unloaded by forklift, the majority still depend on manpower - the arm and shoulder and leg muscles of men who've already spent hard days at sea - to move cargo. We spent two mornings at Sunda Kelapa talking to and photographing these guys. They come from all over Indonesia; we met Sumatrans and Kalimantanese and Sundanese and Javanese. Most sail, repair the boats they work, and move cargo for five straight months before returning home for a few days. And they feel it's good work - hard, but good, in that it pays well enough to support their families back home.
Sunda Kelapa is like a little village, with one-person businesses geared to the crews' needs (there are also aggressive guides and a few laid-back kitsch sellers who attempt to waylay the few tourists that wander through). Beverages, obviously, are big sellers; one vendor was particularly pleased when we depleted her stock of everything liquid to thank these guys for their patience with the photographer.
Raw eggs - duck eggs in particular - are also in high demand.
They strengthen shoulders and knees, this man told us. While his fellow laborers limited themselves to one, he downed two at one go.
Duck eggs aren't delicious, he said, so a candy or gum chaser is essential. And then it's back to work.
There may be something to it. This guy loaded one and a half bags of cement to every one bag his colleagues brought onto the boat. We hung around this crew for about two hours under a ferocious late-morning sun and none showed the slightest bit of fatigue. Dave figures together they carried about two tons of cement onto the boat between them.
As we were leaving another cement bag-packed truck pulled up to the gangplank.
Hard as it is for us to believe, it's been nearly three years since our first post. And we gotta tell you, this site was feeling O-L-D.
It's time for a change, or a bunch of changes, but we're not sure what the final product will be. We'd like to showcase Dave's photos better, and to make EatingAsia more user-friendly. White background? Black background? Colors? Fewer sidebar items? Clean and simple over bright and colorful? At this point we don't know - today's new design and banner is just a little something to get the ball rolling - so don't be surprised if the look of EatingAsia changes regularly as we try new 'outfits' on for size. Dave's photography site was something like 6 months in the making and it's still a work in progress. We really hope the next version of EatingAsia it doesn't take that long.
In the meantime - what would you like to see on a new and improved EatingAsia?
[Googlers: if you got here with 'Jakarta wet t-shirt contest' you're in the wrong place. Move on.]
One night in Jakarta we, an American journalist friend, and a few of her Jakarta-resident buddies hired two taxis and headed out to Muara Angke, an amazing seafood market somewhere in the northern reaches of the city. Rather than a 'market' Muara Angke might more accurately be called a seafood neighborhood, because though it's anchored in a large building the market itself leaches into all surrounding streets and lanes. We seemed to drive past blocks and blocks of 'market' before we even reached the market.
And it is not for the faint of heart. Muara Angke is not a tourist market. It seems to exist primarily to service greater Jakarta's wholesale needs. A lot of fish move through here everyday. Situated somewhere near the quite un-pristine coast and surrounded mostly by slums, its aurally challenging. We could smell the place from blocks away. It's not pretty and it's not tame, but it is truly fascinating.
We didn't go just to gawk, but to eat too. Outside the main building are rows of vendors selling small allotments. There is incredible seafood to be had here: giant mantis prawns, ruby red lobsters, plump prawns, bamboo clams, whelks, pristine squid, firm, red-gilled snapper and other fish. If you're willing to bargain, that is. There's no escaping it; these guys are hardened businessmen and unless you're willing to throw up your hands and be fleeced to high heaven, bargain you must.
Once you've purchased dinner (or breakfast or lunch - we're told the market is open 24/7) you can take your seafood to one of any number of nearby warung, where they'll cook it to order.
While our companions were hemming and hawing over purchases Dave and I slipped inside the main building for a look. Everytime I enter a market I feel a little frisson of excitement, but this place just took my breath away. Crowded, manic, loud - absolute chaos. Or so it appeared to us.
The entire market seemed to be on fast forward. Voices were high, seafood was being moved in and out, and from one end of the market to the other, at warp speed. If you're in the way here - and we definately were - move the heck aside, because no one's got time to stop what they're doing so you can find a safe place to stand.
We made our way, through aisles of ankle-deep, ice-cold, god-knows-what's-in-it black water (note to self: next time wear wellies instead of tevas) to a relatively empty selling platform in the middle of the market where I could catch my breath and Dave could set up his tripod without danger of being run over.
Here, as elsewhere in Jakarta, folks were incredibly friendly, if a bit puzzled as to why we'd want to be hanging out in a fish market.
We could have lingered here for hours (with proper footwear), but dinner called, so we headed back outside and followed our hostess her favorite warung (they all looked the same to us). On the way she stopped to pick up an appetizer of otak-otak, which turned out to be a sort of smoky grilled fish sausage somewhat similar to southern Malaysian otak-otak - perhaps a bit sweeter and with more lemongrass, and with lots of black pepper substituted for chilies.
Everything here is grilled over coconut husks, and the cooks at our place really knew their way around a barbecue.
Unfortunately, by the time food arrived to table we were too ravenous to pause for photos. Our meal included, among other items, a mound of perfectly deep-fried squid (low on grease, high on crunch), a huge spice-rubbed grilled whole snapper, and lots and lots of skewered and spice-rubbed grilled prawns, well more than enough for 6 of us. With a lot of beer and some accompanying pickles and dips and veggies, the tab came to about 50,000 rupiah (that's less than 7 US dollars) per person. We actually ended up paying more for beer and prep than for the seafood itself.
Then it was time to push on back to downtown. A great feed and a great evening. We will return - both for the market and the vittles.
To prove or disprove the latter (and because I may not have time today to write a proper post) I offer here indisputably cute photos of our latest addition. The stats will not lie. (Also, they might suggest that Dave should launch a second career in studio pet portraiture. Pugs, anyone?)