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How Safe is it to Eat Street Food in Jakarta?

For expats living in Jakarta, eating street food is a risk many are not willing to take. However, for those who are uninitiated in dining “al fresco di jalan” and are curious about where to start and what to eat, food writer May Tien outlines a few key points to consider and some tried-and-true spots that may entice even the most wary of diners.

Street food can be glorious. Any seasoned traveller can attest that some of the most delicious eats are found on the street or in popular local and traditional markets. However, these favoured haunts of epicureans looking for a tasty budget meal pose many health risks. For this reason, having some understanding of the local scene before ordering from the friendly old man standing by his kaki lima peddling a mysterious and aromatic bowl of food could be the key to having an enjoyable culinary experience here in Jakarta.

First things first: What are the risks? Anyone who has ever experienced food poisoning can tell you about the horrible few days confined near a toilet with fevers, aches, pains, cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea. Consider yourself lucky if it only takes a few days for the symptoms and illness to clear from your body. There are other viral, bacterial and parasitic infections: E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, botulism, Staphylococcus aureus, Shigella and hepatitis (just to name a few). These illnesses are more stubborn to treat and sometimes require prolonged courses of medication and hospital stays. Some illnesses may even lead to death.

From growing to processing to storing to shipping to preparing, the risks for contamination start at the beginning, where ingredients are grown or produced, and end with the last person that placed the food in front of you.

Governments try to curtail these risks by imposing strict laws and regulations on the food industry. Indonesia is a country with a dizzying array of regulations and laws. But with regard to food safety and handling at the hospitality end, there seems to be only a handful, many of which don’t apply to street food vendors. The Ministry of Health has decrees only for the hygiene and sanitation of restaurants, food stalls (these differ from the street food carts and temporary setups popular on roadsides) and catering businesses. Certification is also provided after a restaurant or food stall passes its inspection. This is similar to some western countries where businesses are given an “A,” “B” or “C” rating.

Restaurant owners, employees and food handlers are required to attend food handling safety courses conducted at a local health office in order to obtain personal certificates. It is unclear whether these individual certificates need to be renewed or if they have an expiry date.

The Indonesian Ministry of Health and National Agency of Drug and Food Control (BPOM) do not publish data on foodborne illnesses in the country, although people are able to report incidents of food poisoning and food-related issues to BPOM via its website. In effect, the street food industry in Jakarta is mostly unregulated.

Street food aficionados who frequently dine at carts and stalls do so at their own risks, but many have learned ways to mitigate them. Jerome Landerer, an expat who has resided in Indonesia for a few decades and is a local street food connoisseur, suggests three good rules to live and eat by when it comes to the streets of Jakarta:

First, eat only cooked foods. Do not try to eat raw or partially cooked street food. This goes for tofu, fruit, chilli or cucumber garnishes, acar (pickles), undercooked or raw meat or seafood. There are two major reasons for this: proper refrigeration is usually not available for many items and there is an abundance of cross contamination during preparation. Gorengan (deep-fried foods), mie (noodles) and nasi (rice) are solid picks. Foods that are tumis (stir-fried or sautéed) or bakar (grilled or baked) are all relatively safe choices. With fried foods, inspect the oil. Chances are that a wok full of dirty, overused oil will not produce good results.

Second, bring your own cutlery and dishware. Although it’s easier to use disposable, as long as you’re going to bring your own, why not bring a reusable plate and fork, eat and then rinse with some bottled water and place in a Ziploc bag to take home with you for a wash? Many of the issues with foodborne illnesses are a direct result of a lack of fresh, clean water. That bucket in which you see the proprietor washing his dishes has probably not been changed for a while.

Third, try to avoid ice if you can. If it is unavoidable, as in the case of a tall and refreshing glass of es candol, then inquire about es kristal, which are the edible ice cubes made from mineral water as opposed to es balok, which are large blocks of ice made from machines that may be exposed to contamination more easily.

Finally, after learning about the risks and feeling ready to make the jump into Jakarta street dining, where does one go to find the “safer” vendors? What should one try when first sampling the delights from Jakarta roads and neighbourhood gangways? Where are the spots that are the busiest and have long-term, returning customers?

I would personally recommend Santiga Seafood Abung (from Benhil) on Jalan Fatmawati. This vendor serves up delicious curb appeal, complete with fresh seafood and delicious sides. It is cleaner than most street vendors and those who go at peak times (8pm-11pm) will likely find it difficult to locate a seat. High turnover is always good for a vendor selling this much seafood and you’ll find mud crab, prawn, squid, cockles and fish that can be cooked to your specifications. The best items are the stir-fried crab in salted duck eggs (kepiting telor asin) and charcoal grilled sweet and sour gurame (ikan gurame asam manis). Everything is made fresh to order. The crabs are flown in live every two or three days from Kalimantan and Papua shores.

What’s not to love about big, fluffy meatballs? Bakso Kumis in Blok S serves some of the most tender, beefy meatballs you can find in Jakarta. This place is well known for only serving one thing here and they do it well. Only two types of meatballs exist here: polos (plain) or urat (with “vein”). Admittedly, I enjoyed the urat meatball as I like a bit of texture in Asian meatballs. At Rp.10,000 per meatball, it’s also quite easy on the wallet and perfect as a quick, light meal or snack.

Saté Ayam Kambing RSPP is one of those places where I’ve never actually eaten from onsite, but through the wonders of modern day Jakarta life with GO-JEK and friends who throw lavish Indonesian style dinner parties, I still get to try great street food such as this little gem in Blok M. Get your hands on the goat saté if you can. It is best eaten in bulk so order by the tens if you’re hungry and wash all of the charcoal-infused, meaty goodness down with a cold Bintang.

Martabak Pecenongan 65A serves a caloric masterpiece consisting of a fluffy pancake stuffed with chunks of Toblerone chocolate, peanut butter and melted mild cheese. For anyone with a sweet tooth, this may well be paradise. However, for those less inclined to sweets, there are savoury options and the chicken with egg is my standby.

 

Santiga Seafood Abung (from Benhil)

Jl. Fatmawati Raya No. 41, Fatmawati, Jakarta

Telephone: 0815 1410 4327

 

Bakso Kumis

Pujasera Blok S, Food Court, Jl. Birah 7, Senopati, Jakarta

Telephone: 0857 816 0113

 

Saté Ayam Kambing RSPP

Jl. Kyai Maja No. 21, Blok M, Jakarta

Telephone: 021 723 7533

 

Martabak Pecenongan 65A

Jl. Pecenongan Raya No. 65A, Pecenongan, Jakarta

Telephone: 021 350 4081 and 021 9216 5888

 

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May Tien is a freelance writer who specializes in culinary anthropology and Asian cuisines. She has worked in the restaurant hospitality industry for many years and mentored students at Le Cordon Bleu in New Zealand.


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