Feeding The Nation

Betawi Cuisine

Words Arya Arditya

Jakarta, the ‘Big Durian’, celebrates its 489th anniversary this month. Arya Arditya offers an insight into the eclectic cuisine prepared in the fragrant kitchens of the Betawi people, who trace their origins across the globe.

F146F0 Food vendor in a market place in Jakarta, Indonesia

With an extremely heterogeneous population of around 10 million, Jakarta is one of the largest and densest metropolises in the world. It is a mosaic of cultures and traditions from across the archipelago and from every corner of the globe.

This metropolis, which changed names from Sunda Kelapa to Jayakarta and then Batavia, and finally Jakarta, has always been a busy urban agglomeration. The small port of Sunda Kelapa grew into an active hub of international trade, primarily involving ethnic groups across the Nusantara, Chinese, Indian and Arab traders, before Western interests were involved.

Colonial-era Batavia was no exception; as the central hub of the archipelago, it saw a large influx of people, especially from eastern Indonesia, in the 17th century, enriching an already established mix of cultures. Historically, the Betawi people trace their origins to the diverse groups of people living around Batavia at the time.

The Betawi people are a Creole ethnic group who came from various parts of Indonesia – Sunda, Java, Bali, Minangkabau, Bugis, Makassar and Ambon – and from around the world, including foreign ethnic groups such as Mardijker, Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, Chinese and Indian. And over the centuries this amalgam of people at the centre of a dynamic melting pot of ethnic, cultural and social diversity developed its own unique language and culture, with traditions in music and food distinct from the nearby Sundanese and Javanese.

In terms of the flavour profile of its myriad dishes, Betawi cuisine is actually similar to the Peranakan cuisine of the Malay peninsula. Contrary to the famous adage, in Betawi cuisine it seems too many cooks in the kitchen don’t spoil the broth; actually, they improve it, culling from rich ethnic influences to be fused into unique hybrid dishes.

Take semur jengkol for example. The infamous pungent Indonesian pea is stewed using a traditional Dutch cooking technique. The word semur derives from the Dutch word smoor, which means a dish of onion and tomato cooked over low heat. The dark brown semur jengkol dish is spiced with onions, garlic, candlenut, pepper, brown sugar, sweet soy sauce and daun salam.
Roti buaya (literally ‘crocodile bread’) is unmistakeably of European origin. The simple, sugary sweet bread in the shape of a crocodile is a must-have for traditional Betawi weddings. Why a crocodile bread for weddings? Betawi people believe that crocodiles are monogamous and, therefore, a symbol of fidelity.

Nasi Ulam Betawi

Gabus pucung is another Betawi signature dish. The stew is made from snakehead murrel fish (now a rare treat due to limited supply). The main ingredient of the stew is pucung (black nut), lending the dish a similar taste and colour to rawon (black nut beef stew), a popular dish from East Java.

Sayur bebanci is another classic, but it’s hard to find in modern Jakarta. Fortunately, it’s undergoing something of a revival as of late. It is made of beef and coconut milk, spiced with shallots, garlic, fennel, turmeric powder, ginger and galangal. It boasts a strong flavour. The spices used reflect Middle Eastern seasoning, the coconut milk santan is of Malay influence, and the beef stew method is likely Chinese.

Opt for a traditional Betawi beverage to wash down your Betawi meal. Bir pletok is a traditional non-alcoholic beer. Really it’s more like a kind of tea made from various herbs and spices, including red ginger, lemongrass, black pepper, secang wood and cinnamon – all of which promote good health. This revitalising elixir is said to be the Betawi answer to European beer.

There are numerous Betawi dishes – deep-fried, stir-fried, barbecued, braised, pickled, spicy, sweet, sour and salty – enough to write several volumes of cookbooks. But rather than read about how delicious they are, let your taste buds do the exploring with the swathes of Betawi cuisine on offer throughout the month-long celebration of Jakarta’s anniversary.

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Arya Arditya

Born in Jakarta to a Javanese family, Arya spent his college years in his mother’s home town Yogyakarta – the heart of classical Javanese culture – before returning to the Big Durian to pursue a career in journalism. He enjoys travelling around the archipelago, breathing in the cool climate of its sprawling highlands and basking under the sun on its coasts and islets, while coddling his taste buds with local cuisines.