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Feeding The Nation

Martabak Munch

The martabak stuffed pancake might have originated in Arabia, but it has been reinvented in Indonesia as a much-loved street snack for those who can’t resist an indulgent flavour hit.

Words by Arya Arditya

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Surely there’s a moment in the afternoon or early evening when all Indonesians face a predicament: the taste-buds tingle and we start thinking of martabak. Is it time for this luscious treat, or should we save ourselves for dinner? Most of us give in to temptation – and save some more for an after-dinner snack. Martabak, with its hot crispy exterior and indulgent explosion of gooey interior flavours, does that to you.

Martabak is the name for two kinds of street food, one sweet and the other savoury, yet both invite overindulgence and finger licking. The savoury version, martabak asin, originated on the Arabian Peninsula and is found in countries from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia and Thailand. In Arabic, mutabbaq means ‘folded’, referring to the way the stretchy dough is folded around the martabak’s filling as it cooks.

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In Indonesia, the simple dough is made from flour, vegetable oil, water and salt. At lightning speed, the cook stretches it to improbable thinness and swishes it across a greased flat pan or iron griddle, allowing it to bubble and blister. A filling is then added to the centre, folded pocket-like, and the whole fried to a satisfying golden brown. The creation is then cut into portions – ask for the end bits, which are extra crispy around the folds in the pastry – and served with a dip of sweetened, spiced vinegar with pickled cucumbers, shallots and chillies.

The most common filling contains minced beef or mutton, potato, spring onion, herbs and beaten eggs. Add more eggs and a martabak biasa (regular) becomes a larger, better-quality martabak spesial (special). For this reason, savoury martabak is also known as martabak telor or egg martabak. Curry powder is sometimes added to the minced meat, an Indian influence that probably first entered Indonesia through trade routes with northern Sumatra. But martabak has mostly stayed true to its Arabian origins, with a more Arabic flavour than true Indian curries.

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Martabak manis, the snack’s sweet incarnation, is an entirely different dish. Called terang bulan (‘full moon’) in some parts of Indonesia, and cousin to Singapore and Malaysia’s apam balik and the southern Chinese peanut cake or chin loong pau, it may well have originated in China as a variety of mooncake used to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Martabak manis is made from a lightly vanilla-flavoured batter poured into a hot, deep pan and thinly spread to create crispy edges.

Toppings are then added, commonly a seemingly odd combination of margarine, sugar, ground roasted peanuts, chocolate sprinkles, sweetened condensed milk and grated cheese. The thick, honeycomb texture of the martabak and delicious indulgence of the melted interior provide an irresistible late-night snack. The use of cheese and bitter chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag in Dutch) points to that other, colonial, influence on Indonesian cuisine.

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Whether sweet or savoury, martabak has recently been getting something of a contemporary overhaul as street vendors and hipster chefs alike experiment with various fillings that might include top-grade beef, mozzarella, melted Kit Kat chocolate bars or Nutella hazelnut spread.

“In my opinion, more and more fancy ingredients will be used,” says up-and-coming Jakarta-based chef Fernando Sindu. “I’ve already seen martabak with smoked beef, and I think we can expect martabak with lobster meat, though I’m sure the classics are here to stay.”

Whether classic or reinvented, as you travel around Indonesia, be sure to try the variety of martabak the locals have on offer. Just be warned, though: one bite is never enough.

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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.