Chinese food has never failed to comfort a weary soul, entice the palate and satisfy every hunger pang.
Jakarta is a paradise for street food. One district, however, has long stood out for being the only place in the city where authentic Chinese-Indonesian cuisine can be found. This district is called Kota.
In Kota, a smorgasbord of local favorites awaits, whose flavor and cooking techniques have been developed for hundreds of years according to generations-old recipes. Some of the cuisine at Kota originated from Medan and Pontianak, two major cities in Indonesia, allowing Jakartans to enjoy the famed Chinese cuisine from other islands without having to travel.
Most of the food stalls are family-run. So even if two food stalls appear to serve the same noodles, each one serves it differently according to secret family recipes. Such variability enriches the whole experience of dining out in Kota, and has spurred a loyal following of diners looking for comfort food in this district.
Food from every part of Indonesia is a product of cultural assimilation whose history can be traced back to ancient times. The Chinese-Indonesian cuisine in Kota, Medan and Pontianak is not excluded from this. Long before the Dutch built Batavia in the 16th century (known today as Jakarta), Chinese people resided on the Eastern part of the Ciliwung River not far from the port. These merchants made a livelihood through trade with arriving immigrants who stayed in the harbor for a time. When the Dutch conquerors arrived, the local Chinese people were moved to Kota in concentration so that they could be easily supervised. Meanwhile, the Chinese had migrated and stayed in Medan since the 17th century. The ethnic makeup of the city consisted mostly of the Hokkian tribe, whose growing population and influence transformed the food in Medan. In Pontianak, the Chinese ethnic population has an even longer history that can be traced back to the 14th century, when trade between ancient Indonesian kingdoms and the Chinese empire took place. The troops and workers of the Chinese empire inhabited West Kalimantan before it was known as Pontianak, and assimilated with the locals. The most celebrated result of this assimilation in Kota, Medan and Pontianak is arguably the Chinese-Indonesian cuisine, which is now prolific on the streets of Kota.
Routes to Goodness
There are three streets worthy of thorough exploration within Kota, namely the JalanHayamWuruk, JalanManggaBesar and JalanPecenongan. Each street boasts a distinct culinary and night scene. The three streets come to life at night, with crowded food stalls rubbing shoulders with love hotels and nightclubs. At times, the cacophonous atmosphere is intensified with the symphony of blaring horns from the vehicles on the street when the heavy traffic becomes unbearable. Inside the food stalls, however, diners pay no mind to what’s happening outside. The cooks are immersed in their own universe: a rush-rush-rush grind of taking orders and preparing food to a soundtrack of boiling water and a sizzling wok.
It would be wise to visit the JalanManggaBesar first – the busiest of the three aforementioned streets – to drink in the essence of eating out in Kota. The key to finding the best food stalls is to look for those most thronged with customers. One stall in particular, the BasoAkiaw 99, is always crowded and often there is a long queue. Although most of the dishes here taste great, our favorite is the kwetiawsapi. The flat rice noodles still have that white, almost translucent color with a mild taste. It’s served with a bowl of broth with small, thin pieces of savory beef. We’ve always liked savoring it with a glass of cold soymilk. Our other favorite stalls in the area are the Bakmi Medan Chongsim and the KwetiawSapiManggaBesar 78. Chongsim is the champion when it comes to seasoning as well as the texture of the noodle. This bakmi (noodle) dish is so rich, served with a generous garnish of minced pork meat and crisp fried shallots on top. It’s enjoyed with a small bowl of broth with pork dumplings. Wash down the dish with a glass of cold Liang Teh, a black tea made from flowers and Chinese medicinal herbs. Akiaw serves more premium food in larger portions compared with the other two stalls, but at KwetiawSapiManggaBesar 78, you can try the heavenly mung bean drink.
HayamWuruk, unlike ManggaBesar and Pecenongan, is a main road, and most of the pop-up food stalls here are open only at night. During the day, the streets are used either for parking or as pedestrian walkways. The first of our top four destinations along HayamWurukstreet is Lung Kee. This food stall offers bakmi dishes, which, while not as fancy as Chongsim’s, has a quality way above its price. The dumplings here are generously stuffed with pork meat. The noodles are our guilty pleasure and have an intense savory flavor, and their slight oiliness makes them even better. Diners can choose to have either chicken, minced pork or both as a topping for their noodles. As for the side dish, the siomay dumplings with pork and shrimp fillings are totally recommended. BakmiKadut is another list-topper for Chinese street food, offering a slightly similar menu to Lung Kee. The next stalls to visit are KwetiawHayamWuruk and Aheng, located right next to each other, for their delicious flat rice noodle dishes. KwetiawHayamWuruk serves the famed kwetiaw siram, a flat rice noodle dish served with gravy, whereas Aheng doesn’t. Aheng’s noodle dishes are delicious and cheaper, but lacking in variety.
Among the food vendors on this street, only two stand out. Kwang Tung is an old eatery and is more like a restaurant than a food stall. However, its most famous dish, which is “bubur” or congee porridge, is a street food staple of Jakarta. But the 24-hour restaurant offers a lot more than just its famed crab porridge. Its compendious menu features Chinese dishes such as steamed seafood and a hainam chicken rice dish. Bar hoppers love to visit this place, open all night long, to enjoy some comfort food and sober up before heading home. Another famous vendor on Pecenongan street is the Martabak 65A. This vendor is said to be the pioneer in introducing martabak, or pan-fried stuffed pancakes, to Jakarta. The outlet has been serving one of the best martabak in the city since 1970. In August 2013, Martabak 65A launched a new menu that has become an instant hit among sweet tooths in Jakarta: a premium martabak with a Toblerone or Nutella stuffing. While other martabak vendors have tried to copy the wining recipe, there have been no worthy contenders, since the secret to its goodness lies not just in the stuffing but the batter.