Somewhat trivial, I was informed that most of the names of the places I’ve been to in Indonesia begin with the letter B. The first of the Bs was Batam. Yes, this is an industrial island that, as far as I know, is not in anyway a preferred destination for interesting Indonesian food. Nevertheless, my 1 year stint there (circa 2004-2005) had given me good exposure to staples like ayam kalasan, bakso, bak mie, ayam penyet and pecel lele, that despite the commonness of these dishes in other parts of the country, were hearty and delicious. I shouldn’t forget the affordable thirst quenchers like Teh Botol and Bintang as well. Oh, and the sweet and rich apokat. Post-Batam holidays in some other Bs of world’s largest archipelago had never failed to rekindle my fondness for them, for the comfort they brought after the long hours at work and at the same time, had introduced me to local specialties like babi guling, betutu, bakpia and recently, gudeg, which I must admit was quite intimidating a dish for me in the beginning.
It was our second and final day in Yogya. I knew we shouldn’t have stopped by the museum at Prambanan, 18 km from town and instead, head straight for our car after visiting the Trimurti temples. Halfway between the museum and the car park, the rain poured again, forcing us to dash out of the open compound of the temple to get to our car, passing a semi-sheltered tourist market and a row of warongs. The car was nowhere to be found and by then, we were already mostly wet. The next most sensible thing to do was to storm into a nearby warong for shelter. And for lunch too, an important agenda we'd neglected as
we I needed more time to get some good shots of the temples. As expected, the pouring rain didn’t last long and the sky was bright again before we could finish the last dish. The stalls at the market reopened, tour buses started appearing again and it was time to get some souvenirs. Then, we realized that our car had been waiting for us at the promised spot all along. We just ran to the wrong side of the car park.
The warong that we stormed into was well-stocked with cigarettes, drinks and snacks. The food menu boosted an impressive array of ubiquitous street food, ranging from mie godok to bakso and more. Memories of Batam surfaced once again. I urged XLB to try the Teh Botol as it is consumed as much as the real thing in this part of the world. Moreover, how often does one get to drink teh-O from a glass bottle? One of the items we had was the nasi rames, a dish consisted of steamed rice mixed with a selection of sides ala mixed rice. The general description of nasi rames itself is nothing more than ordinary but to have white rice mixed with fried noodles is something else. Especially for the Chinese, rice and noodles, as we were taught by our parents, should be eaten separately. It's only appropriate that way. I guess one man’s bisa is another man’s boleh. I’m the type who likes variety and despite it being enthusiactically MSG-ed and as with all other goreng dishes, stirred with an overdose of kicap manis, I cleaned the plate within minutes.
The ride back to town was very much peaceful and quiet. Maybe we were just exhausted from the sunrise tour, the Trimurti temples and the rain. A familiar song was playing on the radio – Ten2Five’s I Will Fly. This was one of the Indonesian songs that hit me instantly back in 2004. Got to love the wonderful combination acoustics, Imel’s voice and infectious melodies. What are the chances of hearing a song one used to like on a radio in a foreign land that has not been heard for 5 years while on a vacation? That was indeed, a cool moment.
With less than 12 hours to go before flying back to Singapore, we really had to make our last night in Yogya a memorable one. And what better way to it than by trying the most definitive dish of them all – gudeg. To make it even more memorable, we had it lesehan-style.
Be it young or ripe, I am not a nangka (jackfruit) fan. There's something about that plasticky smell that drives me away. But how could I not have a taste of it, at least? It was a historical moment for me. I asked XLB to snap a picture of me attempting my first bite of jackfruit in a long time. I survived. Basically, gudeg is a spiced stew consisting of young jackfruit, palm sugar, coconut milk and a generous portion of spices including coriander, galangal and interestingly, teak leaves for colouring. To have that many types of spices in the stew meant that the smell of the jackfruit was minimize, hence my survival. The sweetness of the jackfruit did accentuate the flavour of the dish though. I can’t help but to draw a comparison between this dish and our ayam kurma (chicken stew cooked with dates and coconut milk). Of course, gudeg is of a more viscous texture. A complete gudeg experience comes with a hard-boiled egg, fried chicken and the exotic sambal goreng krecek or stewed, fried beef skin. I could have had another portion of the krecek as a side dish. Another must-try is the ayam goreng Yogya. The first bite of the free-range chicken revealed a marinade that was rather new to me and faintly resembled a certain brand of hair cream for men. I found out later that it consisted of coconut water, palm sugar and a simple coating of bumbu or ground spices. Apparently, the crispy bits of the bumbu detached from the chicken during the frying process is strained and collectively used as a topping for the fried chicken. Not the version served at this stall though. Nevertheless, a tasty piece of chicken that was.
Ayam goreng Yogya
Literally translated as fried virgin bird, the burung dara goreng was served as a whole. Tearing up the pigeon before your very eyes can be traumatic but once you overcome that, you'll be treated to some well-seasoned, crispy skin and succulent meat. At a fraction of the celebrated ones from Hong Kong as well. We tried many other dishes too (the boss looked happy, of course) but there’s just one more dish that I would like to highlight – soup buntut or oxtail soup. Unlike the usual, heavily spiced version, this was much lighter in taste. The undistracted beefiness of the broth was appreciated and the most amazing part of it all was the presence of a strong buttery taste that probably came from the fat. Since it’s not for daily consumption, I happily gulped every single drop of it. Some bread at that point would have been great.
Burung dara goreng
Generally, a lesehan setting comprises of solely tables, shortened to about 1 foot, not unlike the traditional way of dining in Japan. There is an endless stretch of lesehans along the upper part of Jalan Malioboro, with most offering a similar menu. To have dined among the locals and some adventurous tourists on my last night in Yogyakarta was satisfying. Street artistes and salesmen crowd at every table to offer songs, portraits and decorative products to the diners. A polite decline will do the trick, if one is not interested.
There's something more to Yogyakarta than Borobudur and gudeg. Despite being a tourist spot, I find it less chaotic here as compared to its more popular counterpart. I should not forget the wonderful and friendly people we met as well - from the helpful hotel staff at Manohara to the smiling security guards to the generous market vendors at Jalan Malioboro.
Before dinner, we walked around town and surveyed for prices to another destination in the island of Java. Pretty reasonable, I thought. And guess what, the name of that place also begins with the letter B.