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Snobbish Reviews on Local Warung: Why Not?

Have you ever heard comments or read reviews written by oh-so-mighty food critics about the cuisine in traditional Indonesian eating establishments, known as warung? Aside from some smart comments published in City Guide magazines that credited Sate Ayam as 'very nice' and the Es Jeruk as 'fresh', of course. Just imagine if a food reviewer described Nasi Goreng with meaningless words such as 'an accomplished dish of well-balanced flavours . a unique creation . a local culinary conquistador' - that would be such a laugh, no?

What criteria does a restaurant or a dish have to possess, to deserve a published review in the media? I think Sop Buntut, Sayur Lodeh, Pepes Ikan and other similar dishes, when prepared properly, are unique dishes which involve a lot of dedication and creativity. Who introduced these artistic creations in the culinary world? If Caesar Salad was created in honour of the legendary Caesar Ritz; then Indonesia has Mbok Berek's chicken - the crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, spices and herbs infused deep-fried, free-range chicken.

Once I heard a story about a local Chef de Party at a five-star hotel in Jakarta. How he felt gravely disappointed when his boss, an expatriate chef, asked him to prepare Sop Buntut, highlighting the dish on the menu as one of the Chef's suggestions.

"Why, I studied hard to become an international chef. I should prepare Crème de Cresson, Crème Vichyssoise or Soupe de Moules - not Sop Buntut. Any guy in any food stall on the street can prepare that," the Chef de Party, very proud of his broken French, confided to his boss.

I am sure you have seen the familiar phenomenon when food reviewers, restaurateurs, and other so-called food experts - not wanting to be branded as food unfashionable, flock the current dining scene or events such as the elegantly prepared chef's tables. Their chins up, their eyes dreamy, analysing the flavour of the selected dishes. Their minds scramble rapidly; to predict from which side of the hill in West Germany have the crunchy Brussels sprouts been harvested. Or whether the trout is taken from a farm or "wild" from the icy waters that flow down the highest mountain in Slovakia.

Why don't those people give the food from traditional warung the same treatment as those of fancy restaurants? Is it not sophisticated enough for their high expectations? Is it because of questionable hygiene - the typical PR boast - whether their unprepared ingredients are washed with sterile AQUA or merely tap water. And who would know for sure any way?

I myself enjoy the local cuisine, which is a blend of various tastes and cultural backgrounds. Many dishes origins can be traced to Malay, Indian, Arab, European, and Chinese kitchens - have I mentioned most of the world's continents already?

I have found that as long as the food sold by the humble warung involves a thorough cooking process, then it's safe - especially for the bug-sensitive foreigners' digestive system.

The warung type restaurants I frequently visit are located on Pecenongan Street. After six o'clock in the evening, the whole roadside transforms from a street teeming with car dealers and skin-whitening centres to a busy gastronomically challenging night scene, with delectable fragrances coming from the collapsible kitchens. All varieties of food, from noodles and sate to roasted pig are on offer. But, nothing can beat the Nasi Uduk and its condiments.

The Nasi Uduk is always fresh, boiled with precise amounts of coconut milk then steamed with pandanus leaves - creating fragrant, moist but fluffy rice. Chicken, beef and massive-sized tofu and tempe are cooked in a concoction of coconut milk and spices with a dash of turmeric and coriander seeds before being fried in a gigantic iron wok. The results are tender, slightly sweet fried chicken, and the tofu and tempe are a great option for vegetarians.

One hiccup that I managed to overcome is the oil, especially on the meat. Dabbing it with an absorbent paper before consuming is a healthier solution. The 'no fuss' dish is served with spicy peanut sauce. If buzzing cars, nonair-conditioned surroundings or boys selling battery-operated sexual devices bother your appetite, I suggest you simply take away and enjoy it at home.

The fun part in writing reviews about Kemang's dining scene is that once you've finished one article about a particular restaurant, several new eating places pop up. Kemang is continually developing. What has the large foreigner population got to do with it? Beats me!

Stuck in between rows of western-style cafes down Jl. Kemang Raya, there's Bi Bet, a traditional Indonesian 'kampung style' warung, which serves a range of inexpensive Sundanese food. The blackboard outside the warung lists their daily specials, from Pepes Ikan or Ayam (spicy chicken or fish wrapped in pandanus leaves), Gado-gado Lontong (mixed steamed vegetables with peanut sauce and rice cakes) to the refreshing Kue Serabi dessert (rice pancake drenched in a sweet palm sugar/coconut milk syrup).

I found that the Pepes slightly disappointing, one could say the taste was mediocre. The old Sundanese dishes were missing that special touch - like good quality fish and the richness of the spices. Although I have to admit that the price was good - you get what you pay for. I also believe that their interior design should be improved. Perhaps better lighting would help? When I was there, it was so dark I could hardly see the huge chilli I almost popped into my mouth.

One nice quirky thing about this place, which makes me want to come back from time to time, is their Tapai Ketan (sweet fermented glutinous rice). The sweet cakes are tiny and individually wrapped in banana leaves. They bring back sweet memories of my Indonesian childhood.

Last but not least on my favourite warung list is Mie Sambas, famous among members of the Indonesian-Chinese community in Jakarta. A good friend, who was born in Pontianak, Kalimantan, introduced me to this simple noodle restaurant. Located on Jembatan Besi, the warung sells a one-of-a-kind 'Pontianak style' noodle dish. Served with meatballs, fresh prawns and sliced shrimp cake, the dish has a warm flavour, and the noodle is firm and tasty with a slight zest of bacon in it. If you still feel hungry, the adjacent warung sells Bubur Pedes, which is a bowl of spicy rice porridge, adorned with select tropical rainforest leaves freshly picked from the lush green heaven of Borneo.