As Java is the world’s most densely populated island and home to nearly two-thirds of Indonesia’s population, naturally the diversity of its dishes is unfathomable. A general classification however is the Sundanese of West Java adore sourness, the Central Javanese possess a voracious sweet tooth and the East Javanese have a proclivity for both, and also particularly appreciate the pungency of fish pastes and hearty umami notes. This piece will describe a smattering of the delicacies of Central Java which, with its 11 volcanoes is a verdant, fertile, mountainous terrain carpeted in rice, tobacco and sugarcane.
In Semerbak Bunga di Bandung Raya (Fragrant Flowers in Bandung) published in 1986, late Sundanese author Haryoto Kunto reveals the bitter truth behind the Javanese’s insatiable sweet tooth. During the colonial period the Dutch introduced their Cultuurstelsel (Cultivation) policy, which required Central and East Javanese to plant immensely lucrative sugarcane crops. Cultuurstelsel was enforced from 1831 to 1890 and ensnared 60 million farmers and factory workers in 100 private Dutch mills which consumed 70% of agricultural land. Consequently starvation and malnutrition was rampant and numerous ingredients had to be replaced with sugar, such as vegetable broth and sauces. Wrote Kunto, “Historically, the sweetness of sugar in Java is the fruit of the misery of the people.” Today Central Javanese relish sweet foods with a smile, but acknowledging their ancestors’ struggle is vital.
While the nationally popular Padang food of Sumatra flaunts its Arabic and Indian influences and North Sulawesi’s Minahasan cuisine is aflame with Portuguese and Chinese flavours, Central Javanese fare tends to be more indigenously inspired, though Chinese elements still abound. Indeed, Indonesia’s second favourite condiment after sambal, kecap manis (viscous, sticky, sweet soy sauce), which is generously trickled into and over many Central Javanese dishes, is a product of China’s introduction of soy beans, along with near nationally consumed tofu and tempeh.
Central Java contains the separate administrative province of Yogyakarta, the only area of Indonesia still under the rule of a pre-colonial monarchy. Yogya’s most iconic dish is gudeg, a sweet, luscious curry of young jackfruit simmered for several hours in coconut milk with gula jawa (palm sugar), shallots, coriander seeds and galangal. Teak leaves render the fruit ruddy brown. While gudeg is vegetarian it’s most often served with krecek, spicy stewed beef skins. Yogya is also famous for its bakpia, little flaky pastry cakes with sweet fillings such as mung beans, red beans or black rice which are Chinese in origin and with a strong cup of jasmine tea, scrumptiously satisfying.
Together with Yogyakarta the small city of Surakarta (commonly known as Solo) is regarded as the cultural heartland of Java. An unmissable Solo speciality is timlo, a strong, salty, bubbly broth with a curious combination of ingredients: shredded chicken, ribbons of omelette, glossy chunks of wood ear mushrooms, telur pindang (eggs boiled in salt, kecap manis, shallot skins, spices and teak leaves – also a common accompaniment to gudeg) and the pièce de résistance, chicken liver and gizzard. Eating in Indonesia encourages one to embrace offal in all its guessing game/anatomy lesson glory.
Nopia, goose egg-shaped wheat flour cakes baked in a clay furnace fueled by the wood of coconut palms, are manufactured in Banyumas, a regency in southwest Central Java. Lining their hollow interior is a rich and chewy mix of palm sugar and shallots; the sweet and savoury balance is delightful. Rasa brambang (‘rasa’ is flavour and ‘brambang’ is Javanese for red onion) is the original version but now they’re also made in miniature and with pasty fillings such as pineapple, chocolate, durian and peanut.
Semarang, a city of two million on the north coast of Central Java, is renowned for its culinary culture and discerning customers – food must be tasty and it must be cheap. Soto Semarang is a relatively simple breakfast soup with light, fragrant broth, shredded chicken, crunchy, nutty soy bean sprouts, a little vermicelli and white rice. Then come the essential additions: a substantial sprinkling of spring onion, a scatter of sliced fried garlic, a spoonful of watery yet potent sambal and most importantly a hefty squeeze of lime which lifts the soup to a divine piquancy.
Another Semarang delicacy is its spring rolls, called lumpia, a tasty Chinese-Indonesian fusion. The filling is sweet and unique; roughly sliced rebung (young bamboo shoots), beaten eggs and small shrimp. They’re served with a sticky amber sauce made wonderfully gloopy by tapioca flour. Tahu petis is tofu stuffed with ‘shrimp jam’; shrimp paste is mixed with garlic, ginger, galangal, kecap manis and tapioca flour to form a black goo which is slathered on sliced open tofu. Nibbling on little green chilis between bites adds the crucial kick. As one recipe attests: “Although ugly it’s really delicious!”
Finally, perhaps the most ubiquitous food second to rice is kerupuk (crackers), which are consumed throughout the archipelago but are particularly popular in Java and accompany almost everything. They come in hundreds of flavours and an infinite assortment of shapes and sizes. Kerupuk tenggiri, which are produced in the pretty southwest coastal city of Cilacap, are dangerously moreish light and crunchy capsule-shaped crackers made from Spanish mackerel. The fish is mixed with rice flour and steamed in banana leaves, then sliced, sun dried then fried. They’re tastiest dipped in sambal terasi (or in my case, smothered in it) and if I’m not careful half a bag can disappear in seconds.