Yogyakarta - culture and cookery

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Asia » Indonesia » Java » Yogyakarta
May 28th 2018
Published: May 29th 2018
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One thing about Indonesia is the interesting calls of the toads and frogs that come out at night. We particularly enjoy one creature that, in a loud and rather deep tone, has a call that sounds like “ars......soooowl” repeated about half a dozen times. I do wish I knew what it was....

Today we have a full day in Jogjakarta, with a city tour in the morning and a culinary tour in the afternoon. Our guide arrives and we set off in two bekaks – bicycle rickshaws – with me in one and Sara and the lady guide Vita in the other. We ride for about 15 minutes to the kraton. The traffic to the first time visitor to Asia might seem chaotic but to us it is positively sedate. David’s driver/rider babbles away, obviously believing he speaks intelligible English, but David just nods his head and grunts amiably at whatever he is on about. He can make out “silver shop”, “girls”, “very nice”, “you like”. He gets the drift of what he is offering to procure.

Arriving at the Kraton, the Sultan of Jogjakarta's palace, we are struck by the modesty of the place. The Sultan has immense prestige in both Jogja and in Indonesia. He commands loyalty, our guide tells us, from the people for both his spiritual and temporal leadership. He was a leading light in stopping the enforced slave labour of the populace under the Japanese in WW2, and also against the Dutch when they tried to reclaim their colony in 1948. There is a retinue of some 3000 retainers who work for him around the palace for nominal or, in most cases, no pay.If you have worked for him for 10 years you get to wear a ceremonial dagger on your back.

The buildings are low rise, tasteful and modest, scattered around a number of gravelled squares. This is not a rich man who flaunts his no doubt huge wealth. The Sultanate was established in 1755 and the current incumbent is the ninth. He does not have any sons, only four daughters, and there is much excited speculation that he may name the eldest daughter as his successor and the first Sultana in the royal line, rather than his brother, which is the other option.

We leave the Kraton and set off to stroll to the Water Palace. It is a very agreeable temperature in the shady side streets, but gets hot quickly in the direct sun, inevitably. The Water Palace was built by one of the Sultans partly as a pleasure palace to enjoy his harem and partly as a refuge if he was under attack as various passages could be flooded and tunnels opened to allow him to evade his enemies. It has been reconstructed in parts, having been destroyed by the earthquakes that are a fact of life in Indonesia. It is all very pleasant and a warren of passages, pools, and buildings. Surrounding the Water Palace are a warren of lanes with homes and shops. This is land owned by the Sultan and the occupants are essentially long term squatters. They can sell the buildings on the land they occupy, but not the land itself. It seems to be an arrangement that suits everyone and the Sultan has no apparent intention of evicting anyone.

Back to the hotel in bekaks, this driver has the hood up over his sweating passenger, so conversation is not possible and David is offered no further pleasures of the Orient on this ride. Time for a rest before the afternoon tour.

After a welcome shower and rest, it’s time for our afternoon tour. This was scheduled to be by motorbike but we requested a car instead, a decision which proves sound given the heat, lack of shade, traffic fumes and general mayhem at road junctions. We have obeyed the instruction to skip lunch but are slightly surprised by the suggestion we won’t need any dinner either. That proves to be sound advice.

Our first stop is at a tiny cafe on a very small, quiet backstreet. It sells nothing but gado gado salad and lotek, for which it is famous. Gado gado can be found all over Indonesia but lotek is a Yogya speciality. Both are cold salads made with tofu, tempe, potato and a variety of salad vegetables with different versions of a peanut based sauce. We watch the owner of the cafe mix up the sauce for the lotek in the world’s largest pestle and mortar. The bowl is shallow but nearly two feet in diameter, to allow large quantities to be mixed at once when there’s high demand. Garlic cloves, chilli and various spices are ground together with chopped peanuts, then mixed with tamarind water to make a dark brown slightly runny sauce. The sight of the numerous flies settling on the bowls of ingredients is disconcerting, and we both wonder if it eating the end product may have undesirable consequences. But it looks delicious, and there’s no point going on a culinary tour and not eating, so we share a large serving of each dish. Both taste as good as they look and we start to wonder how will manage another four stops. As we leave, we catch sight of the menu, which tells us each plateful costs just £1!

Next stop is a bakery which makes bakpia. These were originally small buns filled with minced pork and were brought over by the Chinese. Since pork found a limited market in a predominantly Muslim country, the recipe was adapted to use green bean paste, and other sweet flavours were added later. We walk round the factory, seeing the huge mixing bowls where the pastry is mixed, and a separate section where the green beans are boiled for several hours, then soaked to separate out the skins, with the remainder then ground into the paste. The buns are then made by hand, with rows of workers sitting at tables tearing off a small handful of pastry dough, shaping it into a ball then adding some filling. The trays of buns are then cooked in open ovens – goodness knows how the workers in the ovens survive the heat! We sample a range of flavours and are given a box to take away. On the way out, we’re introduced to some popular savoury Indonesian snacks, grateful not to be given the option to taste these. Dried cows lung, deep fried cow skin and fried and dried chicken feet are among some of the more doubtful delicacies.

We brave the traffic once more, pulling to a halt by one of the many street smalls selling small, mostly sweet snacks. We start with sticky rice with a chicken filling, wrapped in a soft banana leaf and pinned at the top. You unpin the top then unpeel the skin like a banana. It’s tasty enough but a bit bland and very glutinous. Most of the snacks are sweet. Apparently Yogya cuisine is sweeter than anywhere else in the country. We try a range of snacks, and especially enjoy the green pancakes with a sweet coconut filling. Once more we’re given a bag to take away. No need to but snacks for tomorrow’s train journey!

Our fourth stop is a restaurant famed for gudeg, which got its name after the sultan served it to the Dutch who parised it saying it was gud. There’s a choice of main ingredients, but all are brought together by the thick, dark gudeg which is made by cooking young jack fruits with water and dark brown sugar for up to 8 hours. We opt for hard boiled duck eggs (also brown from some alchemy) and tofu in preference to the fried chicken heads and feet or the deep fried cowskin. By now feeling very full, we opt for one dish between two!

To round off our trip, we drive to a large open grassy square near the kraton. It was deserted when we drove past in the morning but at 5.30, as darkness falls, it has come to life. There are a myriad street stalls, each of which has set out matting and low tables so their customers can sit down to eat. Students and families have all come out to socialise, and break their Ramadan fast. We enjoy a bowl of sweet ginger soup, with pieces of fruit and small pieces of bread floating in it. Sounds strange, but very tasty and the perfect way to clean the palate. Lined up on the roads are a succession of ¾ scale models of old cars and VW campervans made of fibreglass, with no windows. There are no engines but there is a pedalo mechanism, and every vehicle is decorated with coloured lights, and big light displays on the roof in assorted designs including dragons and Hello Kitty. Groups rent the vehicles and pedal round the square. It’s a great end to our time in Yogya.

The next day we take our car at 0630 to the station. The station is surprisingly small, only six platforms. We have an e-ticket and when the machine fails to scan the barcode, a smiling security man steps in and sorts it out. Tickets then taken to the smiling lady at the barrier who points us to platform 3. Everyone smiles in this country it is so pleasant!

Spotless station, spotless platform. The diesel powered Malioboro Ekspres starts from here, boarding is all at platform level so there is no crossing of bridges lugging suitcases.

Eksekutiv class is very pleasant, though a little tired, and sadly the windows are a bit mucky so that rather restricts the view. However, the journey is across the flat plains of central Java heading east, so it is a continuing vista of villages, paddy fields, banana, corn, sugar beet stretching into the distance. All the staff are very smart, but there are also a number of very hard looking security guys patrolling the train. The journey is eight hours but the time passes, giving ample time to edit the photos and read.

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