09 March 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: Excepting, maybe, chicken. This seems like an issue here in the country where chickens were invented. Well, from whence they sprang - like potatoes and chilies from Peru and rock and roll from Africa by way of Mississippi.

Today I went to a local branch of the famous Taipei dumpling house, Din Tai Fung. It is fast becoming a large chain. (There's a branch in L.A., in Arcadia, as well as many throughout Asia.) Their specialty are Xiao Long Bao, (XLB) what are translated on their menu nearly everywhere (except here) as "juicy pork dumplings" - what New Yorkers (oh, those quaint rustics) refer to as "soup dumplings."

Here, in deference to the majority Moslem population of Indonesia, they are "juicy chicken dumplings."

It's a bad substitute. People are already wrong when they say that, for instance, frogs legs taste like chicken. They don't, they taste like frog's legs. They're wrong, too, about snake, especially cobra. Dog absolutely tastes nothing like chicken. And pork, most decidedly, does not taste even remotely like chicken. When I want an XLB, I want that porky goodness that doesn't taste like anything else.

Now I happen to love chicken. It is among my favorite meats. Yesterday for lunch I went to my very favorite nasi Padang (Minang) restaurant in the whole world - Natrabu on Jln. Agus Salim here in Jakarta. At a nasi Padang restaurant you sit down and piles of plates are stacked in front of you. You only pay for the plates that you eat the main ingredient out of. (Traditionally you can spoon the sauce from any plate onto your rice, and if you don't eat the solid stuff you don't have to pay for that plate.) It is the spiciest food in Indonesia and I love it.

I was spoiled for choice. And a full five of the choices - of which there were about 20 - were chicken (ayam): ayam goreng (fried), ayam pop (sort of poached in oil, served with a sharp red chili paste), ayam panggang (grilled with a tasty paste), ayam bakar (baked) and ayam in a creamy, spicy coconut milk sauce that I forget the name of. Any one of them would have been splendid. The chicken here is smaller than in the U.S. where even the chicken breasts have implants - and darker, too. It has a lot more flavor.

But it ain't pork, and it's never gonna be. They do, however, pit roast up a mighty fine crispy, crackling suckling pig in Bali. Buddhists and Hindus are happy to eat pork.

This week in Jakarta I have launched upon a new strategy. I am limiting my exposure to the outside world by day. When I go somewhere I take a taxi from my air conditioned hotel to the air conditioned wherever I'm going. Not only is the heat and humidity taken care of, but the air is more breathable. My lungs, though still experiencing a certain level of sakit Jakarta (Jakarta sickness) do feel better than they did after I overdid it during my first week here.

But I do go out at night. Last night I went with my friends Tim and Carol to Jatinegara, which is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Jakarta, maybe in the world. We were going to see people playing, singing and dancing jaipongnan in the street under an overpass next to the railroad tracks. We got there too early, at 8pm, and nothing was going to get underway until at least 10. We didn't want to hang around for hours, especially as they both had work to go to today, so we walked around for a while and have made plans to go back at the right time tomorrow - Friday.

There was plenty going on in the neighborhood though, and here's the photographic evidence:

No comments: