The best local foods to try in Jakarta mostly comprise the traditional cuisine of the people of ‘Betawi’ (Batavia), who themselves are a rich creole mix, with Asian and European influences as well as hints from different Indonesian islands within the region such as Malay, Sumatran, Javanese, Balinese, Sulawesi and Ambon. This blend made way to a distinct food culture, with dishes that range from spicy soups to sweet treats.
Here is a list of the most popular Jakarta food you can find and sample while in the capital, available at street side stalls and some popular mainstays at Indonesian restaurants within five-star hotels. Some of these heritage dishes are presented as highlights during Jakarta’s annual ‘Pekan Raya’ fair. Enjoy this compilation presenting a variety of interesting textures and flavours; dishes and drinks that are actually handed down over centuries and through generations.
This popular Jakarta dish is widely considered Indonesia’s parallel to Korea’s kimchi. And just like kimchi, asinan comes in several variations. Generally, the refreshingly salty and sour dish comes as a mix of pickled vegetables, namely bean sprouts, tofu, lettuce and Chinese cabbage, doused in a sauce blend of spicy, sour and sweet. Toppings vary, usually combining peanuts and shrimp crackers that balance this surprisingly flavourful delight.
Usually, bir translates as ‘beer’ in the local tongue. Interestingly though, this drink has no alcoholic content whatsoever. Rather, it is considered a healthy herbal drink which blends several spices and ingredients known for its remedial properties. These include ginger, aromatic pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius), lemongrass and sugar and salt to taste. Batavians usually drink bir pletok in the evenings for a warming sensation. For further effect, cinnamon, pepper and the red bark of kayu secang or sappan wood (Caesalpinia sappan) is added, known for its anticoagulant properties.
Bubur or congee, which clearly has strong roots in Chinese cuisine, is widely consumed throughout Indonesia as a breakfast dish or snack at any time of the day. Betawi’s own version is served with clear soup added, and is rich with toppings. These usually comprise small dices or shreds and strips of chicken and fried eggs, together with a topping of shrimp crackers, fried soy beans, chopped leeks and fried shallots. Bubur is easily digested and makes for a healthier and filling dish compared to chicken soup.
Kerak telor, basically meaning ‘egg crust’, is a favourite local street food dish that uses either chicken or duck eggs, mixed in a heated wok with rice, grated and roasted coconut, half-cooked white sticky rice, dried salted shrimps, roasted shallots, and a spicy blend of red chillies, ginger, kencur or aromatic ginger (kaempferia galanga), and pepper, salt and sugar to taste. Usually sold during the annual Jakarta Fair by street sellers, some may deliberately flip the wok or pan upon finishing the cooking process and burning a bit of the omelette, giving it a unique, smoky taste.
Ketoprak is a popular Jakartan street food dish comprising mixed veggies. It is largely made up of rice vermicelli, steamed bean sprouts, ketupat rice cakes and tofu, all doused in peanut sauce. Toppings vary from seller to seller, but mostly have fried shallots, shrimp crackers, cabbage and cucumber added. Another extra is with hard-boiled egg, sliced and placed clear of the sauce. Sellers usually ask whether you prefer your ketoprak hot and spicy, and will oblige by adding a dab of chilli sauce on top.
Nasi Uduk is an original Jakarta rice dish, loosely meaning ‘mixed rice’. It is basically white rice cooked in coconut milk, hence the ‘mix’ aspect. The rice is soaked in coconut milk prior to being conventionally steamed, together with cloves, Chinese cinnamon, aromatic pandan and lemongrass, making it probably one of the most fragrant rice dishes you will ever enjoy. The rice is usually topped with fried shallots and serves as the main dish, served with other soups and salads on the side. Some sellers serve their nasi uduk wrapped in banana leaves, with a variety of side choices.
Ketupat and lontong, both rice cakes that are widely used in traditional Indonesian cuisine, feature interchangeably in this popular dish. The main component is a thick spicy soup made of coconut milk that is infused with lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, bay leaves, lemon leaves and pepper. The rice cakes, sliced to pieces are served together with the soup, alongside pumpkin, sliced tomatoes; chayote, bamboo sprouts, carrots, snake beans and dried shrimp. Variations include chicken or veal chops, and served with shrimp crackers or sliced boiled egg on top.
While this delicious round cake is easily found throughout most of Southeast Asia with a significant Chinese cultural presence, it is a must-try while you’re in Jakarta. Onde-onde cake is easily identifiable; they are the size of Ping-Pong balls, brown and covered in sesame seeds. Freshly fried, the skin is crunchy, but become a soft texture when cool. Inside the round morsels are mashed green beans. Variations are rare, but may include yam, red bean or pumpkin.
Soto is a favourite Indonesian chicken soup that comes in many versions and presentations. Soto Betawi generally includes beef and offal in its servings, and some variations include mutton and even buffalo meat. Another has rice vermicelli, potatoes and tomatoes. A serving of soto is usually enjoyed with an accompanying plate of steamed rice, or slices of lontong rice cake. Some sellers sell soto alongside satays of the same meat used. Lime juice and sweet or salted soy sauce is sprinkled over the soup by the customer to taste.
Es Selendang Mayang is a refreshingly tasty and texture-rich compote dish with slices of gelatinous cakes called ‘hunkwe’ as its main ingredient. The ‘soup’ is a mixture of boiled brown sugar, aromatic pandan leaves, coconut milk, vanilla and salt and sugar added to taste. The dessert is served cold, with ice cubes added. Street peddlers selling this treat are usually found walking around carrying two baskets on a stick that are filled with the ingredients in jars, and prepare the blend with every order.