To any first-time visitor, Jakarta can be overwhelming. I had been regaled with tales beforehand about its mega malls, its crowds and, most of all, its infamous traffic. But I’m convinced the city is an underrated treasure trove, with plenty of gems to discover – if only we could get there, I muse as our van grinds to a gentle halt in a gridlock.
“How do you deal with the traffic? How do you get to work on time?” I ask my host, Rahma Almira. “We take a Go-jek (above),” she replies cheerfully.
The much-beloved local motorcycle transport service known as ojek – often the only way Jakartans are able to get anywhere on time – has been upgraded to the Go-jek, a transport, courier and food delivery service that one books via an app. Along with the enhanced services, Almira tells me, Go-jek drivers provide a paper face mask and hair cover for every rider. I am suitably impressed.
Almira also shares that the city is building six new highways and a subway system, which are projected to be completed in 2018. “So it will get better. Maybe a little worse before it gets better, but things will improve,” she says confidently.
The traffic starts moving, and we are on our way again.
Old and new in Kota Toa
Lunch is at Cafe Batavia (below), a rambling colonial building dating back to the 1830s and overlooking the Taman Fatahillah square in the heart of Kota Toa, Jakarta’s Old Town. Seated in the Grand Salon on the second level, we can see the lively crowd in the square, gathering with friends and family at the weekend. Always one to eat local, I order gado-gado (boiled vegetable and tofu salad with peanut sauce) and soto Betawi (Jakarta beef soup), both of which are excellent. There are items like steak, fish and chips, and sandwiches on the menu as well.
It’s tempting to linger in the cafe with its vintage, laid-back ambience, but the buzzing square is calling – clearly a popular spot for locals, who are merrily joy-riding rented bicycles and snapping selfies alongside buskers, street hawkers and historical monuments. Before we leave, I pop by the restroom (below) and gawk at the wall-to-wall celebrity photos.
We cross the square to the Jakarta History Museum (below), recently renovated in 2015. Housed in the former City Hall of Batavia, which was the administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, and later of the Dutch Colonial Government, the museum houses more than 23,000 artefacts, including historic maps, paintings, ceramics and furniture, and even prehistoric objects.
From the historical, we move on to one of the new faces of Jakarta: the brand new Kerta Niaga Marketplace (below). Formerly housing an insurance office, then government offices, the 1912 building, modelled after a Dutch town house, is now home to a mix of eateries – international food court Urban Kitchen is a major tenant, and local gelato shop Locarasa has a branch here – herbalist Acaraki, handicraft shops, a youth hostel and a co-working area. There are also plenty of spaces for events and activities. The rejuvenation of Kerta Niaga is part of a restoration project of Kota Toa, in Jakarta’s bid to have the former old town listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The next day, I have the privilege of meeting two young Jakartans who are putting their city on the world map.
Ragil Imam Wibowo, chef and restaurateur
His casual Indonesian-inspired Italian cafe chain, Warung Pasta, has been around for 11 years, but it took eight years to bring Nusa Indonesian Gastronomy (below) to fruition.
“I always felt I needed to have an Indonesian restaurant, but I wanted a really strong concept,” says chef-owner Ragil Imam Wibowo.
He set out to make Nusa an “edible story of Indonesia”, travelling around the archipelago (“I visited less than 100 islands; there are more than 17,000!” says the chef) to research ingredients.
Lunch is served and I’m intrigued by the plated portions of food; a morsel of karabu dendeng (thinly sliced dried beef fried with chilli) here, a cupful of sup ikan arsik (tomato-based fish soup) there. A pre-dessert of grapefruit sorbet clears the way for my favourite dish of the afternoon: chef Wibowo’s take on klepon. The ubiquitous Javanese sweet treat usually in the form of glutinous rice balls filled with liquid palm sugar and rolled in grated coconut is now deconstructed; on the plate is a pandan-white chocolate ball hiding the palm sugar and a scoop of coconut gelato sitting on pieces of sorghum sponge cake (below). The degustation menu-style of serving elevates traditionally communal Indonesian dining – and makes every dish highly Instagrammable.
So, what’s next for chef Wibowo? “Nusa is version 1.0, where we showcase the authentic cuisine of Indonesia in a modern way. In 2.0, we want to have a mix and match of ingredients from around the country – vegetables from Manado, rice from Kalimantan and so on. Version 3.0 will be about bringing the food of Indonesia to the world – maybe casual dining concepts, with dishes like satay.”
And his dream restaurant? “A fried chicken place,” says the chef with a laugh, “like KFC, but with Indonesian flavours. Who doesn’t love fried chicken?”