Tyler Cowen went to Jakarta recently and has provided his advice on how to eat well there. It makes sense to look for his advice: Cowen has a very interesting book on the economist’s take on good eating. Now, the “economist takes on some unrelated field and writes a trade book” genre is so very tiring, despite the very attractive promises that these economists can optimize my life. That said, Cowen’s food book is pretty good, and very sensible about most things. His advice about eating in Jakarta, though, misses the mark.
- Sanitation is a mess in Jakarta. Street food—real street food—will very frequently make you sick[*] unless you stick only to bakso. I mean really sick. Typhoid or hepatitis sick. The problem is that many dishes are served lukewarm, or with lukewarm sauces or sambals, or with raw vegetables as garnishes (common in Sundanese cuisine, from the region surrounding Jakarta).
- As a rule, regular restaurants are no better. On average you are less likely to get sick at a “restaurant with walls” but this is really only a statement of averages. Mall restaurants, and especially padang food restaurants, can be very dangerous.
- There is a category of food-for-sale that lies between cart (kaki lima) and restaurant: the warung. I suspect that this is what he means by “street food.”
There are plenty of lousy restaurants in Jakarta (my favorite example is Bakmi GM). But as a rule, restaurants and more established warungs completely and totally dominate street food. There are good examples of street food (of the warung variety) that is tasty, but here’s the funny thing: the best street vendors morph into more regular establishments! It ceases to be “street food” in the customary sense of the word because entrepreneurs know how to make money, and it’s not by doing street food.
This means that Cowen’s final sentence is exactly wrong:
Knowledge of specific restaurants is not the key here.
On the contrary, knowing specific restaurants is absolutely key. That’s how you know a tasty and safe warung from a typhoid warung, and also how you know which of many warungs with the same name in the same place is the “right” one. It’s also, obviously, how you know a good restaurant from an average one.
Another issue that Cowen touches on is malls and buffets. I think he’s on firmer ground here, although I will say that I’ve never had good Indonesian food at any Indonesian buffet. You can get really, really good food at a nice Indonesian hotel buffet, but it’s good Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Western food.
So if the goal is to eat good Indonesian food in Jakarta, and you’re a newcomer, I don’t at all recommend following Cowen’s advice. Instead, you need recommendations from trusted and experienced sources. Do not waste your time with real street food: any version of anything you can find on the street will probably taste better at a restaurant. But even then, be careful, because four walls and air conditioning is no guarantee of safety. Malls are fine, and upscale malls are the most likely to be safe. But the best restaurants and warungs are still the stand-alone kind, and to figure out which ones are worth the time and effort to get there, you need an expert.
[*] You often hear the recommendation that you should eat street food in foreign countries even if it makes you sick. I agree that it’s an interesting experience, but there should be limits to this. And especially if you’re new in town, or only have a few days, spending three of them in bed with a horrible stomach bug does not seem like the best use of your time. Having experienced that myself, I can assure you that nothing for sale on the street in Jakarta tastes that good.