January 5, 2009

Hola, amigos!

No, this post isn't about Spanish or Mexican cooking. Although it's the Spanish word for 'friends', I learned a new meaning for amigos when I moved back to Jakarta, and it has nothing to do with friendship.

AMIGOS here stands for "Agak MInggir GOt Sedikit", loosely translated as "off to the side of the road, near the sewer". It aptly describes the setting of most street food 'establishments' that can be found in every part and neighborhood of Jakarta. These ubiquitous open-air food stalls usually go up in the evening (though some are also open in the daytime), erected on parking lots or other unoccupied corners or sidewalks as the sun goes down each day. The locations aren't exactly prime real estate: there's usually an open sewer/drainage (got) nearby, presumably to expedite cleaning up. They're nothing more than an open, portable kitchen, with tents on poles covering a cluster of rickety folding tables and plastic stools that have seen much better and cleaner days.

If you're a stickler for hygiene, this won't be your cup of tea. These amigos dives will definitely give any restaurant inspectors the heebie-jeebies. (Brings to mind the scene from Ratatouille when the Parisian food inspector unexpectedly walked into the kitchen and found hundreds of rodents staring back at him. Well, it's not that bad, but you get the picture). Food safety health code? (never heard of 'em!) Keeping food at safe temperatures? (huh? Note: although most dishes are cooked to order) Kamikaze flies the size of your thumbnail? (ambiance!) And I also find that any food stall worth its reputation will have a few wild cats slinking through the table legs (and yours), waiting for scraps.

There's not much for atmosphere (unless you count the noise and the exhaust fumes of passing vehicles and cigarette smokes from other diners as so), but that's not why people still flock to these places. And don't be mistaken, their customers come from every level of society: from those who could only afford to eat out at these stalls' rock-bottom prices, to the ones who drove up in their latest, newest luxury cars.

One of the best sop buntut (oxtail soup) we ever tasted
is served at a stall in Sunter, North Jakarta.
A complete meal consisting of this bowl of steaming, fragrant broth
full of falling-off-the-bones meat, a plate of rice
and a glass of tea cost about Rp.32.000 (~US$3).
It would cost at least twice that in a restaurant.

People come because some of Jakarta's best foods are served in these food stalls and they get the most bang for their rupiah. They come here simply for the food, at prices stripped of many overhead costs of proper dine-in restaurants, where similar meals can cost about twice as much, if not more. Most stalls specialize in one type of dish or meal: ie. sop buntut (ox-tail soup) only, or just nasi uduk (coconut rice complete with side dishes), or seafood, nasi goreng (fried rice), es campur (shaved iced over mixed fruit), satay, roti bakar (grilled sandwiches), etc. But if you want variety in your meal, it's no problem either, because there are usually many other stalls nearby, so you can hop from one to another, or simply have the other vendor bring your order to your table.

Sate ayam (chicken satay) with peanut sauce, ten skewers for Rp.8000
(about US$0.80 ... no, it's not a typo)

So if you can get over the 'ick' factor of eating out amigos style, and there are plenty of 'ick' if you are not familiar with it, there is truly a world of food to discover in the nooks and crannies of this city. In fact, street food was just about the only thing I missed about Jakarta during all my years living in Los Angeles, which, despite being world-famous for many other things, doesn't have any street-food scene to boast about. The closest thing there would be the food carts at seasonal county fairs, but then those 'street' grubs aren't exactly easy on the wallet either (five bucks for a plate of funnel cake? Gimme a break! My vote for cheap 'street' food in LA goes to the $1.50 quarter-pound hot dog at Costco, and that already includes as much soda as you can drink! Anyway... back to the subject).

Beyond the obvious economical benefits of eating out amigos style here, there's a more ingrained reason: it has been a part of the fabric of life and culture for as long as anybody can remember. The simple make-shift tents are as much a part of Jakarta's dining scene as the newer, cleaner, glitzier restaurants. I simply can't imagine living and eating in Jakarta without them. So as far as food goes, I have the best of both worlds.

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