Work takes me to Jakarta very often, but it would have been unfair to say I knew the city as all I ever do is traverse the familiar circuit between the airport, office and hotel. Jakarta is like most other Asian cities – densely populated with insane traffic and a frenetic pace of life. But for me, Jakarta was like being back home. Well almost. Words and names reflected a strong Indian influence. Sandya, Dewie, Ratna sounded like friends I knew back home. I paid for things in Rupaiya. Bahasa was the national bhasha (or language). The grocery stores looked like our kirana outlets. It felt good to be back.
To learn more about the city, Aniruddha and I decided to spend a weekend in Jakarta. Our hotel was located on a food street called Jalan Pecanongan. Our attention was caught first by a murtabak stall with many people waiting to be served. Murtabak is a stuffed pancake or fried bread which can be eaten on its own or with a hearty chicken or mutton curry. We queued up in front of a stall and watched mesmerised as they prepared the delicious looking murtabaks. After laying out a generous helping of batter to make a rather thick murtabak, the cooks went on to lather liberal amounts of butter, condensed milk, chocolate sprinkles and, wonder of wonders, cheese on to the pancake.
As we felt our arteries reel with shock at this calorie overloaded murtabak, we opted for a milder chicken stuffed version and proceeded to demolish it rather quickly as we searched for the next food stall. The national dish of Indonesia, Nasi Goreng, was next on the menu and came with an accompaniment of some excellent spicy chili sauce, prawn crackers and an amateur musician. Music, I have grown to realise, is very popular in Indonesia, and most street restaurants and street corners have budding artists strumming away to anyone who cares to listen.
Taman Fatahillah, is a public square in the older part Jakarta. Being a public holiday we were lucky to witness a local procession which included a band of musicians and two giant puppets cavorting around the square much to the delight of the young crowd gathered there.
But the best part of the square is the charming Café Batavia. Step inside and you feel like you’ve stepped into a time machine, taking you back to the colonial days in Jakarta. The 19th-century restored building has some of the most delightful interiors I have seen, with old-fashioned tables and wooden chairs, a live band every night and every square inch of its walls covered with photos and Art Deco posters.
We also visited the National Museum to gain an appreciation of the history of Indonesia, its people and culture. The museum building is quite nice but the artefacts and overall displays could do with improvements. We checked out the Flea market at Jalan Surabaya which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Lots of little knick knacks and we managed to secure a wonderful coffee grinder made of Dutch porcelain and rescued from a Dutch ship. We went to Sunda Kelapa, the old port area of Jakarta and admired some old schooners that were anchored there.
And we rounded up our short weekend with more food. A meal at Lara Djonggrang restaurant. Some fried tempeh or fermented soyabean cake – a popular street snack and a must-have with a green chili on the side. And Pisang goreng or banana fritters which turned out to be a sweet relief from tourist activities.