Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Friday, 17 June 2011 15:08 UK

Savouring street food in Jakarta

Karishma Vaswani
BBC News

A food seller on the streets of Jakarta

If there's one thing that Indonesians love to do - it's eat. Eating is a national pastime here.

Jakarta, the capital city, is known for its smorgasbord of cuisine choices. The various different cuisines are also a reflection of the cultures that have helped to shape Indonesia through history.

Walk down any street in Jakarta, and you're likely to find yourself spoilt for choice when it comes to dining options. Indonesians take their food very seriously - but you never have to enter a restaurant to enjoy the cuisine here. You can eat everything you want on the streets.

In fact the street food culture in Jakarta is a quintessential aspect of the city, and one that must be experienced to understand this place truly. You can't turn a corner in this city without seeing a push-cart or a small street stall selling Indonesian food.

Praising the peanut

One of the most popular street food stalls belongs to the satay man. Satay hardly needs an introduction. It's considered Indonesia's national dish.

A man selling satay
Satay is one of the most popular street snacks in Indonesia

It's popular around the world - but for those of you who haven't tried it, it's chunks of meat, usually chicken, but sometimes beef or mutton (and in fancier restaurants even prawn or shrimp) marinated in Indonesian spices and then grilled on an open flame. The meat is then skewered on bamboo sticks, and dipped in peanut sauce.

There's something particularly special about Indonesian peanut sauce. You can find variations in Malaysia and Singapore - but nothing really comes close to the creamy almost peanut-butter like texture of the sauce in Indonesian satay stalls.

The sauce isn't just used for satay, it's a main characteristic of Indonesian cuisine. You can also find it used as a dressing for Indonesian salad - or "gado-gado"; literally translated that means "to mix together".

A blend of cultures

It's thought that peanuts were originally introduced to Indonesia by Portuguese and Spanish merchants in the 16th century. That's just one example of how Indonesian food has managed to blend cultures and tastes into a unique cuisine.

Popular snacks:
Satay - skewers of meat dipped in peanut sauce
Siew-mai - steamed Chinese dumplings stuffed with meat
Martabak - deep-fried dough with sweet or savoury fillings

Another popular street food dish is "martabak", which is a piece of large dough, stuffed with either sweet or savory ingredients and then deep fried.

Other countries have martabak too - Malaysia for example, and in the Arab world it's also quite common. In Indonesia, and Jakarta in particular, though, there are two versions of the bread - one sweet, and one salty.

It's thought that the dish originated in India, and was brought to Indonesia during the 14th century by Indian traders.

Late-night eating

Martabak is often the ideal dish for late night revellers, because the stalls are open till early in the morning, and it's seen as the ideal hangover meal - the doughy bread supposedly eats up all the alcohol in your system!

Another favourite late night snack in Jakarta is dim-sum. Indonesia has a large ethnic Chinese community and they have left their stamp on the culture here through food.

Woman eating in Jakarta
Eating out is a regular occurrence for most Indonesians

Indonesian Chinese cuisine has a particularly distinct taste - it's spicier and more flavourful than normal Chinese cuisine, which by Indonesian standards tends to be quite bland.

What is interesting is that in the world's most populous Muslim nation, one would think that Chinese pork dishes would be deemed haraam - or against the Islamic faith - but Jakarta's Chinatown has some of the best pork dishes in the country.

It's a sign of Indonesia's tolerant and open-minded attitude to other religions and cultures.

A popular dish is siew-mai, Chinese steamed dumplings stuffed with chicken and pork. The snacks are transported around in a bamboo basket, on the back of a bicycle.

It's a great afternoon office worker's snack and you can often see Jakarta's professionals lining up next to the siew-mai bicycle man to grab one of his hot dumplings.

Indonesia's openness is reflected in its food, and it's a sign of just how inclusive Indonesians are that they have assimilated so many of these cultures into their cuisines.



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