When asked what we eat our standard reply is “everything but insects” so we’re quite ok with the concept of snake satay. Until we see the snake that is; a cranky cobra, about to loose it’s hissing head in the interests of our next meal. We drop lunch plans on seeing the annoyed reptile and, as we’re on something of a food quest in Central Java, we’re not exactly stuck for alternatives. Great food, served from posh restaurants to humble, roadside lean-tos, is everywhere. The wide culinary diversity and sheer deliciousness of it all leads us to ponder, yet again, why it is that Javanese food isn’t better appreciated.
Perhaps it’s partly to do with the popularity free-fall Java has been in for the past decade or so, destinationally speaking. Along with Sumatra and other of Indonesia’s 6,000 populated islands (the Archipelago has 17,500, all up), Java is widely perceived as a tumultuous place, where volcanoes blow, the earth quakes, the mud slides and religious extremists blend eerily into the landscape; when it comes to choosing a holiday destination, it seems universally easier to opt for someplace else. The island may be struggling to gain the confidence of mainstream travellers but we couldn’t wait to go when the opportunity came our way. Call us contrary, but if the tourist hordes are staying away, we’re there.
Java is quite large (about the size of Greece) and carved into three main regions - East, West and Central Java. Commonly called ‘Jogya’, Yogyakarta in Central Java is recognised as the cradle of Javanese culture and has some compelling sights in its environs. Tantalisingly, these include Borobudur (the largest Buddhist monument in the world), Prambanan Temple (only 18 km away and among the largest Hindu structures in all of southeast Asia) and spectacular Mt Merapi, the most active of Java’s furiously active volcanoes. At first sight, Jogja can seem a let down. Characterless sprawl and dusty streets buzzing with too many motorbikes give an impression that this could be any cramped, bland, mid-sized Asian city. But it rewards slow and patient exploration; probably due to the heat, no-one much hurries here and when we finally ease into the local pace (a sluggish stroll), we start fully appreciating all that’s here.
Around the kraton, or palace, is a tranquil neighbourhood of historic streets contained by the old city wall. This is the cultural and spiritual heart of Jogya and the current Sultan, the latest in a line of rulers dating back to the founding of the Hamengkubumono dynasty in 1749, still lives here with his family. At certain hours tourists can visit parts of the picturesque, airy complex with a guide. While royalty might seem an outmoded concept, many Yogjakartans still actively participate in the institution and there is strong local attachment to the Sultan - and to the mystic beliefs that surround his position. The kraton is the keeper of Javanese cultural refinements such as traditional dance, Wayang puppetry and the distinctive, meditative music of the gamelan orchestra. Performances are regularly staged in the marble-floored pandopo, an open-sided pavilion kept specifically for this purpose.
We watch a classical dance concert at the kraton and it’s exquisite movements are slow and heavily nuanced and teased out by the liquid tones of a fine gamelan ensemble. The dancers’ costumes, a meld of earthy, hand-wrought batik, plush maroon velvet, gold-tassels, lurid pink feathers and inches-thick of pastel make-up, defy every law of sartorial harmony but somehow, they work. Meditating on this makes us hungry and luckily, we’re in the vicinity of famous Gadri Resto. Occupying a building dating from 1917, Gadri is owned by a brother to the current Sultan and his wife, a particularly enthusiastic cook. It specialises in dishes from the royal kitchen and is one of the very few places in town where one can so dine. We sample nasi blawong, the favorite food of the 8th Sultan of Jogya. It comes as a dirty-brown cone of rice surrounded by various, spiced morsels (galangal-fried chicken, chilli beef and spiced, fried egg) and is, we’re told, the most secret recipe on the entire menu. The spices for the rice (which is fragrant and woodsy-tasting and quite unlike anything we’ve ever eaten) are mixed inside the kraton every day then delivered to the restaurant. Washed down with ‘Java beer’ (a sweet, non-alcoholic drink flavoured with cinnamon, lime, cloves and sappan wood and also favoured by the 8th Sultan), it’s an intriguing, and sophisticated, marriage of flavours, colours and textures.
Yogyakartans’ predilection for tipping palm sugar into everything (curries, satays, soups, stews, salads) with outrageous abandon has to be experienced to be fully believed. We’re in town for five days and try to breakfast every morning on gudeg, the dish that’s most synonymous with Jogya. Many places serve it although along Jalan Wijilan, gudeg-making reaches something of an apogee with most restaurants along here serving nothing else.
An assemblage of dishes served over steamed rice, the essential component of gudeg is a mild curry of young jackfruit. Long-simmered with spices and aromatics (ginger, galangal, coriander, garlic, shrimp paste and coconut milk usually) and an awful lot of palm sugar, the cooked jackfruit is thick and brackish brown. Accompanying dishes vary but commonly include opor ayam (chicken braised in coconut milk), sambal goreng krecek (a spicy curry of buffalo skin) and pindang telur (hard-boiled eggs cooked with guava leaves and shallot skins), with a spoonful of rich, thick coconut cream and a dob of incendiary sambal. It’s most fun to eat lesahan-style (dining cross-legged on a straw mat) with the locals. None of whom expect a foreigner to like gudeg. We not only polish ours off, but come back the next day for more.
Another staple is ayam goreng kalasan or ‘fried chicken’. Indonesians have the frying of birds down to a fine art and this particular variant sees chicken first simmered in a mixture of coconut water, shallots, ginger, galangal, turmeric and palm sugar then dried off, dusted with flour and fried until exceptionally crisp. The meat, from chooks that have free ranged, is chewy but unbelievably flavoursome. Rice, lettuce and cucumber, a sprinkling of crisp fried shallots, some feisty sambal, a sprig of lemon basil and generous squirts of kecap manis (thick, syrupy soy sauce), round the meal out. Locals eat with the fingers of their right hand, which they make look super-easy and elegant. Our attempts are embarrassingly graceless so we cop out and use spoon and fork instead.
When time comes to leave Jogya, it’s not without reluctance; nor a box of bakpia. Bakpia, which originated with the local Chinese population, are small, round pastries filled with any of a variety of gooey substances but the most popular is a sweetened puree of dried green beans. They’re special to Jogya and Indonesian tourists invariably leave the city with kilos of them in their luggage. Slightly crunchy, rich, and exploding with sugar, the bakpia prove ideal travelling food for the 65 km road trip to Solo.
Like Jogya, Solo is a famous centre of Javanese culture with it’s own royal clan (albeit a toothless one), complete with a kraton and secondary palace called Mangkunegaran. The royal family, which split into bitter factions in 2004, has no real political power. The vibe in Solo is more religiously conservative than Jogya; it’s harder to get a beer here, for example. Less English is spoken too and there are far fewer tourists. We love the place immediately and decide to spend a few days.
One reason is the food - Solo (also called Surakarta) boasts many specialties. Another is the accommodation. We hole up at Roemahkoe, a gem of a hotel in a pristine, art deco-era building positioned right on the edge of Laweyan, a batik-producing district with a 500 year heritage. We literally trip out the hotel’s back door into the midst of ancient streets. Venerable batik businesses are marked by men washing lengths of colorful cloth in the curb-side stream and the smell of hot wax (used for both hand-stamping cloth and for the ‘tulis’ or hand-drawn designs) wafting through open doors.
Naturally we’re drawn to the bustling local food market, Pasar Gede. It’s a portal into the very heart of Central Javanese cuisine with an unimaginable variety of foods, some familiar, some not. There are piles of perfumed tropical fruits, mounds of traditional medicine, bags of coffee and just-grated coconut, bundles of fresh herbs and row after row of traditional kue (cakes) at every turn. We graze on klepon, delectable little balls of glutinous rice and palm sugar tinted green with pandan juice and rolled in grated coconut. We’re interested to see kluwek, the famous ‘black nut’ so beloved of the Javanese and a crucial ingredient in the inky-coloured beef stew called rawon. We down a bowlful of tahok, a winning combination of warm, soft tofu swimming in joltingly strong, sweet and gingery palm sugar syrup.
We’ve been dying to eat pecel and although it can be found everywhere in the region, Solo is renowned for it. Essentially, it’s an assortment of blanched leafy vegetables, fried tempeh, tofu and other crunchy bits, arranged on a banana leaf and served with rice and a luxuriant peanut sauce. It’s as delicious as it sounds, either wrapped in a cone of brown paper from a road-side vendor or eaten sitting down at the popular up-market organic restaurant called Pecel Solo. Here, assorted blanched vegetables and cooked dishes are laid out on a central table, rendering the ordering process as simple as helping yourself to anything that looks good. We settle for blanched morning glory, snake beans, cassava leaves and ‘sides’ of crunchy, fried rice-paddy eel, tahu bacem (pieces of tofu blackened and sweet from long-cooking in kecap manis) and kering tempeh (fried strips of tempeh caramelized in palm sugar and spiked with chilli). Completely delicious.
We gorge our way happily through Solo and when time starts to run short, our remaining list of must-try dishes grows frustratingly long. To make things more efficient, we enlist the assistance of a fabulous freelance guide called Yant; such guides, generally young men, are easy to find (usually around cafes and other obvious tourist haunts) and worth their weight in rupiah. Yant takes us to places we would have otherwise missed. Such as the football stadium where, just after dawn on Sunday, local ladies set up stalls selling nasi liwet, another Solo specialty.
Nasi liwet is a breakfast dish comprising rice cooked in coconut milk with egg, shredded chicken and shreds of a mild-tasting vegetable, similar to gourd. It’s a gentle dish and can be procured all over the city, but Jalan Keprabon is famous for nasi liwet outlets. Srabi, pancakes made from a coconut-milk and rice flour batter, are a classic Solo street food and available from little mobile carts dotted about town. Characterised by a thick, spongy center and thin, crunchy edges, they’re topped with banana, ripe jackfruit or chocolate and are consumed warm. They taste like heaven and are hard to stop eating. Then there’s bebek goreng (fried duck) from a restaurant so famous for the dish it’s named Bebek Goreng after it. They fry over a hundred ducks daily and addicted fans from as far away as Jakarta have boxes of their crunchy bird, with its special sambal (sambal korek), couriered direct to them.
Leaving Solo is hard. We’re besotted by the food, in love with the generous, warm-hearted locals and will miss Yant’s humour and easy-going charm. Surrendering to a different kind of Javanese experience entirely though, we head up the winding, scenic mountain route that, after about 2 hours, leads to Mesa Stila Retreat.
Hidden deep in the hills of Magelang, this sprawling resort was a coffee plantation during the Dutch colonial era. The original farmhouse (now the hotels’ clubhouse) and coffee warehouse (now a bar) have been joined by an assemblage of historic Javanese buildings moved to the site and lovingly restored by the hotels’ first owner, Gabriella Teggia. The cooler climate of elevated Magelang has made it a desirable city escape for over a century and today Mesa Stila does brisk business with Jakarta-based expats wanting a breath of fresh air. Slung over a 22 hectare property, there’s ample room to loose oneself amidst the kapok trees and organic vegetable and herb patches. A wander down a path through coffee bushes leads to the quaint processing house where sun-dried coffee berries are roasted in rotating, wood-fired furnaces as they have been for some hundred years.
The fare at the in-house restaurants is great but after days of excess in Solo, it’s the jamu lady we’re most interested in. Jamu, traditional herbal remedies taken as a drink, are concocted from 150 or so plant sources. All over Java one sees jamu ladies, their bottles of home-made medicaments in large glass bottles in a cane basket strapped to their back, hawking their wares. At Mesa Stila the jamu lady comes daily from a local village and when we explain we’re suffering from ‘good food overload,’ she quickly prescribes a glassful of yellow jamu, thick and bitter with turmeric. Next, a chaser of sweetish tamarind jamu and we’re feeling like people whose livers still function.
It’s an hour’s drive from here to our next port of call; Amanjiwo, Java’s most exclusive resort. The big draw here (apart from utter sumptuousness) is a proximity to Borobudur. From the elegant sweep of the property’s limestone terrace, the vistas over this part of Central Java fulfill every travellers flights of fantasy. Light shimmers through a landscape bustling with more shades of green than ought logically to exist. Distant mists lazily rise to reveal the mountains Merbabu and Merapi, the latter sending an elegant plume of volcanic smoke skyward. Foreground activity is marked by the industry of manual farming (rice, rambutan, peanuts, corn, chillies, cassava and tobacco) and there, placed absolutely in the center of everything, as it should be, is Borobudur. Even though we know its outline well from countless photos, viewing the 8th century temple in situ for the first time immediately joins our list of Most Memorable Moments Ever.
Of course it helps that we’ve just been showered with rose petals by two young meet-and-greet girls, draped beguilingly in batik. And that live gamelan music drifts hypnotically over the proceedings. We waste no time ripping into the resorts’ menu of local favourites, including delicious trancam. A salad of finely chopped raw vegetables scattered with lemon basil and dressed with a paste based on grated young coconut, chilli, garlic, sugar and white turmeric, this is food so good we find ourselves musing, yet again, why Javanese food isn’t more popular in the West.
Amanjiwo’s Aussie General Manager suggests that Indonesian cuisine is far more rustic than that of other Asian nations and perhaps for this reason, it’s traditionally held less appeal. We join him that evening for our last meal on the island; a lavish Javanese evening repast called makan malam that involves a procession of dishes served from elegant porcelain vessels with steamed rice. We have to concede this isn’t ‘pretty’ food according to modern, Western precepts and its essence is bold and direct. But there’s a deep sophistication in the layering of flavour, based on aromatics like ginger, garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime and coriander plus coconut and palm sugar. And in the range of cooking techniques employed. Surely this can only result after centuries of refinement and from cooks who use just what’s fresh and seasonally best. We leave convinced this is a cuisine, a place and a people that should be more celebrated; there’s much to embrace here.
WHERE TO STAY
Ds. Majaksingi, Borobudur, Jawa Tengah +62 293 788333 www.aman.com
Stay at Amanjiwo and die happy: everything about this stunning, stylish property screams “heavan on earth.”
Mesa Stila Resort and Spa
Desa Losari, Grabag, Jawa Tengah +62 298 596333 www.mesahotelsandresorts.com
Formerly called Losari, this stunning property is in the cool, tranquil and spectacular hills between Jogya and Solo.
Dusun Jogja Village Inn
Jalan Menukan No 5, Karangkajen, Daerah Istimewa, Yogyakarta +62 274 373031
A reliable 3 star with a great swimming pool, within walking distance of good cafes and dining options.
Roamahkoe Heritage Hotel
Jalan Dr. Rajiman No 501, Laweyan, Jawa Tengah, Solo +62 271 714024 www.roemahkoe.com
A beautiful and great-value boutique hotel in a former private residence dating from 1938.
WHERE TO EAT
Jalan Magangan Kulon No 1, Kraton, Yogjakarta +62 274 415 550
A safe bet for traditional local dishes (gudeg, sate, bebek (duck) and popular with locals too.
Jalan Rotowijayan No 5, Kraton, Daerah Istimewa, Yogyakarta +62 274 373520
Decked out in traditional Javanese style, this charming restaurant is one of a few places that serves the palace food from the kraton. It’s been around since 1984 and has particularly friendly service.
Gudeg Bu Lies
Jalan Wijilan 5, Panambahan, Kraton, Yogyakarta, +62 274 450164
It’s gudeg all the way here, from 5am every day. In the afternoon they sell ‘wet’ gudeg, which is exactly the same as the usual formula but with generous amounts of coconut cream poured over. Either version is delicious.
Jalan Doktor Soepomo No 55, Jawa Tengah, Solo +62 271 737379
Pecel is the specialty but they also serve other central Javan specialties such as nasi liwet and rawon. The atmospheric restaurant is located right next door to the Hyatt hotel.
Bebek Goreng H. Slamet
Jalan Bayangkara No 39, Tipes, Serengan, Solo
A humble place serving what many believe to be the best fried duck in the city. If not Java.