Celebrating Street Food In Indonesia

Celebrating Street Food In Indonesia


Celebrating Street Food

It’s all about Indonesia’s vibrant street food scene

Published in NOW! Bali – October 2018
When we think of  “street food”, the image that most often comes to mind is the street foods of Thailand and Vietnam, where the food served on and from the street is from established, menu based, street located stations that will prepare a dish to the customers order from a range of specialities. Food trucks, streetside stalls set up with multiple styles of grills, stir frying, steaming and boiling components.

Here in Indonesia ‘street food’ operates on a whole other level, street food is both static and mobile, the best alignment to Thai Street Food would actually be Warung food and the street food, the kaki limas, the push carts are more like mobile snack vendors.

Will Meyrick in Denpasar 2019
Much of the cart food is fried foods “Gorengan” ayam goreng, tempe goreng, tahu isi, that customers buy on the go, they don’t have stools or tables around them. Bakso carts do travel though , rolling through neighbourhoods serving out their meal-in-a-bowl soups to customers that eat standing at the cart, handing back the bowl when they have finished.

It’s the Warungs that are really serving what could best be described as street food and their story is one that gives a clear, cultural understanding of the archipelago and the Southern China Sea trade routes in its telling

The balances of spices, herbs and the long cooking of less than prime cuts of meat in order to use all available ingredients, think chicken feet, short cut rib bones, dried fish or fermented pastes and soy cakes also demand a knowledge and a passion to create so it makes sense that the women, with families to take care of, would open up the front of their homes from where they could serve their loyal customers.
In Bali many will have been introduced to the warungs through the Padang and Minangkabau style establishments that serve daily dishes from large bowls arranged on shelves in front of a window, often protected from the heat and dust of the street and flies by a gauze curtain.

Here whole small fish, chunks of beef, bowls of deep red sauces and bright green sambals along with bite sized parcels of stuffed tofu and stringy, deep green kang kung sit at room temperature waiting to be served around a steaming mound of rice. This is the home cooking of coastal and mountain West Sumatra.

The Minangkabau warungs were established originally to feed the generations of young men who, according to cultural tradition, leave their homes to make their way in the world and marry out , thus ensuring the continued extension of their tribe.

Warungs provide for vast numbers of ‘homesick’ and help them maintain links with their traditions through the provision of ‘home’ foods. In Medan Northern Sumatra the large community of Tamils celebrate their festivals of Durga Puja, Gandhi Jayanti, Independence Day and Republic Day with aromatic Biryani dishes, Malabar curries and soft pancake-like dosas.

The Afghans and Yemeni’s introduced the cumin flavoured rice of Nasi Kabuli and beautifully grilled goat meats, while the Chinese brought in rice noodles, the dumplings and the Siew Mai dishes, served with peppery, chili fired soups and the Malay diaspora brought with them the delicate karis, or curries, creamy with coconut milk lifted with lemongrass and galangal to keep their communities of traders, itinerant field, plantation and dock workers eating well.

This is what makes Indonesian food so interesting, complex and fascinating because to add to the fabric of this culinary anthropological puzzle insular, indigenous communities contribute their own dishes to the kaleidoscope.

Warungs often appear to have sprung from the private homes of the women who prepare and serve the food of their birth place, and they do this with pride. The style of food preparation in the archipelago , based, as it is, on limited resources, requires preparation time and a commitment  to create the best possible dishes.

From the isolation of mountainous Toraja and the bamboo filled meats and spices that takes hours of cooking over smoking coconut husks  to the far flung Eastern Island culture where refrigeration is scarce and food is best prepared daily by the local warung utilising the daily catch and the slim pickings of arid grown corns, greens and chilies and everywhere in between the Indonesian internally displaced rely on Warungs for a connection to their place of birth.

Ibu-ibu secrets

And here from a tale of culinary adventure, we move into one that illustrates the character of Indonesia, and certainly its women. In my travels across almost the entire country, I have learned that the women of warungs are highly regarded in their community.

They are revered for their consistent provision of the best tasting foods from ‘home’, they build up their reputation so much so that they run sometimes two or more warungs under strict supervision with only a handful of helpers, often members of the extended family, who keep the valued recipes of the dishes under tight lock and key.

And I am not joking, I once tried to extract some information from a Bukit Tinggi matriarch who demanded I offer her my car in exchange!

There are male warung owners too, but not as many, the previously mentioned Yemini community have male dominated kitchens while many years ago a  Chinese immigrant arriving in Jakarta began a small noodle stall that now has over 20 branches run by the original owner’s family.

Warungs truly are the grassroots of Indonesia’s culture, they tell the history, they show the tenacity of the island’s women and they illustrate clearly the very real nature of community in a continent that spans from the tips of Malaysia and Singapore to the highlands of Papua and encompasses over 13,000 islands.

My recommendation to anyone at all interested in discovering Indonesia is to spend time in these wonderful places, always look at the ones that are busy, pay no heed to the decor and jump in.

As was told to me many years ago, while you love Indonesia and you love your Indonesian wife until you learn about Indonesia’s food you will never understand either!

The Nyonya Cuisine from Malaysia

The Nyonya Cuisine from Malaysia


Unveiling Nyonya

Penang, where tradition meets culinary innovation

Published in HELLO! Bali – January 2015
I have been to Malaysia a number of times, but on a recent visit, I was afforded some pleasing time in the beautiful city of Penang, where I discovered yet more layers of the Nyonya culture and its cuisine – a whole area of history that I find so fascinating.

Nyonya cuisine is steeped in the history of migration, intermarriage and the passing of secret recipes from one generation to the other. Nyonya women mostly welcomed the arrival of wives from China, and would share and mix up local and foreign recipes for their husbands. What a time that must have been!

I am here on a mission to meet the wonderful Nyonya cuisine expert, Pearly Kee and her sisters at Pearly’s cooking school. I am hoping they are going to weave stories into their cooking, and if I can I will get them to divulge some secrets about Nyonya cuisine (below are some dishes from Pearly Kee, prepared especially for a past event in Mama San Bali.

chicken buah keluak curry
nasi ulam
jiew hu char

Meeting Pearly Kee

Pearly tells me that while it’s only Chinese of mixed descendant that are Peranakan, there are also the Eurasian, the generation of mixed European and Malay heritage; the Totok, born in China; and the Malay K’ling or K’ling Jawi Indian Indonesians – and all with a Nyonya cuisine. “The Penang Nyonya are from the Thai culture, and their food is spicy with a sour taste; the Melacca Nyonya food is a little sweeter. Still, we all make food according to the old recipes; the differences stem from the locations of the settlers.”

“In the old days,” she continues, “we ate for health. Turmeric for blood circulation, and shark meat for breast-feeding mothers. If you had a fever you’d be fed watery rice porridge. The rice water lowered your temperature, while the rice grains filled your stomach when you had no appetite. And food was preserved for when times were lean.” The traditional century-old eggs are a good example of ancient preservation methods, using herbs and salts to preserve the eggs, which are encased in candle wax for longevity.

But I am neither sick nor in need of a three-week-old egg doused in horse urine, so I eagerly move the topic along to the dishes we can find today. Nyonya cuisine, the girls tell me despondently, is going to die. “It will not evolve.”

A Peranakan Wedding couple, Penang 1941
But how can these dishes – amazing Laksa pungent with fish sauce, sweet with coconut, and hot fiery curries with their Chinese spices mixed in with local ingredients from the Northern Cantonese Nyonya – just disappear? Pearly laughs. “We never wrote anything down.” For years the recipes went from mouth to mouth, with the women learning them from their grandmothers. Then in the ’70s the women went out to work, and the Nyonya food was sold by male hawkers to the workers. The cuisine thus skipped a generation of women, and before we knew it the old cooks were dying along with their recipes. “So now we write it down; we figure out the measurements and we keep the recipes. And we teach them to others, so maybe it won’t die out after all.”

As Pearly and I venture outside I see no justification for this pessimism. Our first stop at Chowrasta Market reveals food stall upon food stall, with customers slurping from bowls of Laksa and picking at Hong Kong-style Dim Sum. The aromas rising from the bowls waft into the morning air. Like all good Asian markets you have to be here early to get the best of it.

Pulau Tikus Market

While you’re here, have breakfast with the locals, who will have put in a good few hours already hauling carts through the nearby fish market and pig market. Visit the Pulau Tikus Market, otherwise known as the rich man’s market, situated as it is in the Pulau Tikus area of Georgetown. There is an obvious Thai influence here originating from Phuket.

Seng Lee Cafe & Lontong Seratus Tahun

Head over to Jalan Burma and the junction of Bangkok Lane and see the Seng Lee Café, where nothing’s changed in nearly 100 years. The Mee Rebus and Mee Goreng gain their unique flavour from the main ingredient – dried cuttlefish. Check out Lorong Seratus Tahun, a corner building where the owner sells soft drinks only and rents out spaces to hawker stalls like Curry Mee, who serves a sensational curry mee with prawns, pork and pork blood. It’s so good. The prawn head stock gives it a kicking flavour, but it remains light and clear – truly spicy and delicious. This corner is like a mini food court with vendors scattered around the building.

Seng Lee Cafe
270, Jalan Burma, George Town, 10350
George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

Lorong Seratus Tahun
34, Lorong Seratus Tahun, 10400
George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

Tek Sen Restaurant

I think my favourite, despite a choice being hard to make, has to be Tek Sen Restaurant. It’s a real inspiration of Nyonya Chinese, with stir-fried clams, sweet crispy double cooked caramelised pork and a tofu stuffed with fish balls.

Actually, they stuff everything here – including their customers. Tek San started out as a rice stall in 1965, but now it represents what is so great about Penang: the revival of preservation, the determination not to get lost in homogeny, and, despite them not being written down, the cooking of Nyonya recipes.

Tek Sen Restaurant
18, Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town, 10100
George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia


85, Taman Berjaya, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
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▸ Website: penanghomecookingschool.com