Indonesia Expat
Food & Drink Travel

A Culinary Pilgrimage to Gresik, East Java

Offering a bungkus of nasi krawu
Offering a bungkus of nasi krawu

It was still midday, but the beautiful scent of stir-fried garlic and galangal paste had already made me hungry. My mother was cooking a special dish for Eid al-Fitr, asem asem buntut sapi (oxtail sour soup), and confidently splashed chopped chilli, onions, and salt into the broth without tasting it (she was still fasting). I couldn’t resist the temptation to taste, but my mother softly slapped me when I tried to spoon the broth.

“The main thing about fasting is to control the mind, so we can control our appetite, lust, temper and bad habits,” she said while squashing abundant amount of melinjoleaves in, which, according to her, made a perfect sour flavour. “Choose words wisely, and give good attitude towards others, be patient. Those all will result in goodness in life, and of course blessings from God.”

30 days in every Islamic lunar year, all Muslims in the world practice fasting, and abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having marital relations during the daylight hours. In this Holy Month, every Muslim should focus on their spiritual being and concentrate more on one’s personal relationship with God in order to get more blessing from the Almighty.

This fast ends with a feast, also known as Idul Fitri or Eid al-Fitr, a victory day for those who win the battle with one’s own self. This year the day will fall on 28 July (subject to moon sighting), and on this joyful day Muslim people celebrate it with their families. Those who live apart will return back to their hometown, bringing home stories and gifts, practicing Eid prayer together in the morning in the village’s mosque or surrounding fields, visiting others to seek forgiveness, sharing happiness and delicious foods.

I always look forward to visiting my parents for Eid celebrations, and here I am in Gresik, my hometown, on a culinary pilgrimage, feeling as excited as always to set my gastronomic taste buds to home mode.

Gresik is a small industrial town northeast of Surabaya. Although the majority of modern factories are now set here, in the 15th century this town served as a busy port and important trade centre, and was the first gate of Islam to enter Java. Now also famous as kota santri (town of Islamic boarding school students), Gresik houses two ancient graveyards of Sunan Malik Ibrahim and Sunan Giri, Islamic figures who played a significant role in spreading Islam in Java, and has become one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Indonesia.

The Grave of Sunan Malik Ibrahim

Another charm of Gresik is its prolific dish, nasi krawu. There are many different styles of this dish, but I am an Ibu Tiban devotee. Her business has been around in Gresik since 1985, and her rustic warung, located on Jalan KH Abdul Karim (another branch is on Jalan Veteran), is always busy, even during Ramadhan. I bought two bungkus (takeaway); the rice – served on a humble folded-over newspaper with banana leaf – is topped with silky brune succulent beef and innards, and three different styles of coconut shreds: sweet (orange), savoury (brown), and hot (red), and not to miss is the tangy prawn paste sambal! Irresistibly rich in flavour!

When the sun is no longer fierce, the town shows its real spirit. I rode my scooter in the neighbourhood of the main market, Pasar Gresik, to admire the old buildings and quaint colonial houses lined on Jalan Nyai Ageng Arem Arem, living proof of its former glory. On the road, children are playing, couples on motorbikes pass, looking for snacks to break their fasting, and girls in jilbab walk in a group giggling to each other. It was relaxing and peaceful and I could feel the romanticism I always miss; this is how a religious town should be.

Colourful wheeled carts are set on every stretch of Gresik’s main roads to welcome break-fasting time, selling affordable takjils (drinks or snacks to break fasting), and homemade foods to those who prefer to have healthy foods for beloved ones. Don’t forget to try legen, a sweet, cloudy drink made from ental (lontar palm fruit), sold in kiosks along Jalan Veteran. Travellers that are passing the town shouldn’t miss Pak Elan’s boneless grilled milkfish, or bandeng bakar, served with prawn paste sambal, that offers a sensuous culinary treat for those who have been patiently fasting all day.

I love to introduce the gastronomic prides of my hometown to my friends in Bali, and Sari Kelapa on Jalan Sindujoyo, nearby the market, has everything I need. Pudak (soft sweet cake, available in three colours – green, brown, and plain – is made from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk, wrapped in ‘ope’ – sheath of betel nut leaf), jubung (black rice flour cake sprinkled with sesame seeds, also wrapped in ‘ope’), and ayas (colourful jelly-like cake, also made from rice flour) are favourite oleh-oleh from Gresik.

Jenang Jubung

But if you fall in love with milkfish, otak-otak is perfect to bring home. Made by taking all the fish meat but still leaving the skin on, then mixing the meat with spices (turmeric and high dose of chilli and pepper), the fish is then filled back again and is clamped with a bamboo stick before sending it onto the stove for grilling. The explosion of flavours gives a real kick, and until now this dish always leaves me speechless.

A few months ago I tasted another invention of milkfish, pudak bandeng, a perfect combination of a sweet treat mixed with soft, savoury fish meat. It is amazing how the local people love to elevate this silvery fish to many different culinary fares. Not to mention a large traditional fish market, pasar bandeng, that is specially held on the three last days of Ramadhan on a 3km stretch of road in the market. Local farmers sell tons of the freshest, finest fish, and throwing out auctions for biggest ones. The sound of music and the buzzing shouts blare in the background, the fishy odour not a problem at all for the visitors. People make their way through the crowds to buy at least 3kg of milkfish to share with the neighbours in the hope of getting better blessings next year.In my house, the loud sound of prayers from the minaret is heard. My father has just arrived with two 1-metre milkfish in his hands, the star of our feast tomorrow. Lebaran is coming, everyone can’t wait to celebrate.

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