Last month, I was in Indonesia , my 5th trip to the island nation. I spent most of my time in the rain forest of Sumatra photographing birds. On the way back, I had a 7 hour layover in Jakarta. Sitting in the waiting hall of Bandar Lampung airport, I was browsing through a Lonely Planet that I got during my first trip to Indonesia in 2010. In those days, I was drawn to the historical and cultural treasures of Indonesia and was rather funny (and nostalgic) to look at the notes on the margin from that time. After having spent a week in the jungles surviving on the same meal of rice, veggies and noodles every day, I was longing for some good food. And having lived the whole week without connectivity, I was actually enjoying flipping through a real book rather than browsing reviews on my phone.
I used to mark a planned visit to a certain place using a green pen in 2010. Browsing through the Jakarta section, I came across an entry on the margins saying “16/8, 7” next to a restaurant called Lara Djonggrang (which happened to have the “our pick” label from Lonely Planet next to it). It meant that I was supposed to have visited that restaurant on the 16th of August at 7pm but I still clearly remember that on the 16th of August 2010, I was in a fishing village on the Sunda Straits trying (in vain) to visit the infamous volcanic island of Krakatoa. The reason I remember it so vividly is because it was Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting and I survived on energy bars during the day). At the end of the day, I finally found food in the only “restaurant” in village and I was the only tourist in town. It was run by an incredibly cute girl and I was staring at her open mouthed when I found her dad and a few village elders staring at me with a deep frown!
I couldn’t stop myself from laughing when I remembered that and decided that it was time I finally paid a visit to the restaurant – albeit 6 years too late! As the plane took off from Lampung and went over the Sunda Straits, ominous looking cumulonimbus flashed at a distance. Krakatoa was cloaked in thick cloud cover (as it did 6 years ago) and it was raining cats and dogs when we landed in Jakarta. After depositing my dirty rucksack at a storage facility in the airport, I took a cab into town. Leaning against the glass, I wondered what happened to that girl in the fishing village. Soon I was passing familiar landmarks in downtown Jakarta. Lara Djonggrang is an oasis of old world charm amidst the steel and glass.
You can judge a restaurant by who’s manning the front-end operations – the maitre d’hotel. The moment I entered, I knew I was in the right place. The menu itself is a piece of art and ordered a mojito as I browsed through it. After surviving a week on rice and noodles, everything on the menu looked enticing and I wanted to order everything! As the waiter come over to take the order, I was still undecided – “One more mojito and 5 more minutes please”. 5 minutes stretched to 10 and my 2nd mojito was also coming to an end when I finally decided that it’d be Ikan – fish for the appetizer and Ayam – chicken for the main course.
Otak Otak is spiced fish cake which is often served in banana leaves. This version was fried in crispy egg batter, which allows the fish to retain its moisture. The spice mix contains garlic, ginger, shallots and lemongrass – which imparts a wonderful lightness of flavor. The presentation on a shell was also very interesting. But the most surprising part was the garnish. It was a very mild flavored basil with distinct lemon notes! Apparently they grow it in-house.
During the week in the rain forest, I had chicken or Ayam only on the first day, when we got a fresh (and skinny) chicken from the village where my guide lived. From then onwards, it was just rice, veggies and eggs. Now Ayam was back on the menu and I’m loving it 🙂
It was a grilled whole baby chicken, flattened and slow cooked in coconut milk with cumin and coriander. It was served in a banana leaf which adds to the effect of countryside cuisine. The way in which the spices blended with the coconut milk and permeated the chicken amply demonstrated the skills of the chef. After a week of deprivation, it tasted heavenly.
During this trip, one thing that I experienced first hand was local coffee. The initial part of the trek into the mountain forests took us through coffee plantation. In fact we spent our first night on the slopes on the mountain in a coffee growers hut with fresh beans drying on the floor. For those of you accustomed to Starbucks, this fresh coffee would taste like rocket fuel. But it keeps you going when you’re soaked to the bone and caked in mud. Drying is rarely effective in the rainforest and the coffee is always overpowering with unripe tannins. There is always a thick layer of sediments at the bottom of the cup (or the plastic glass ,depends on where you’re having it). The menu had the famous Kopi Luwak – sometimes called Cat Poop coffee! I ordered that with some Durian ice-cream. For those of you who are familiar with Durian, you’d know that it has a rather distinctive smell but has a wonderfully rich taste and a very pleasant aftertaste. The coffee, thanks to the “processing” has lost much of its tannins. The rocket fuel becomes a wonderfully balanced broth of smokiness and acidity with notes of dark chocolate. This transformation is particularly noticeable after a week of having the “unprocessed stuff”.
I was finally happy that I had kept up on my appointment – even if it was 6 years too late. Do check out this place if you’re in Jakarta. I know where I’m having dinner next time I’m there.