BANDUNG, West Java: From beef udder satays to volleyball-size meatballs, the city of Bandung has always been known for its buzzing culinary scene, feeding hungry locals and tourists.
It is a safe bet that someone, somewhere in this city of 2.4 million inhabitants is concocting a dish, snack or drink no one has ever seen. Over the years, Bandung has gained a reputation for one-of-a-kind and bizarre dishes.
“What makes the Bandung culinary scene unique is its creativity. And it’s been that way for a long time,” food blogger, Sepsa Zulkaida Subhi told CNA.
Citing an example, Mr Subhi said batagor, or deep fried meat tofu was first sold in Bandung in 1970s. It is now popular in many parts of the country.
The dish was born when a street hawker named Mr Ikhsan, who like many Indonesians go with one name, could not sell his tofu and decided to stuff meat in them.
To cook the meat, he deep-fried the stuffed tofu. He then decided to complement the snack with peanut sauce.
The dish has since spread to other parts of Indonesia and came to define Bandung’s spirit of culinary invention.
“No other (Indonesian) city has such creative and innovative spirit. Not even Jakarta. No other city has so many people trying to create something new,” the 39-year-old blogger said.
SPIRIT OF EXPERIMENTATION
Just like batagor, many of Bandung's famous dishes and snacks came from finding a new twist to classic delicacies.
The humble surabi is an Indonesian pancake made with rice flour and coconut milk.
Elsewhere in Indonesia, Surabi is traditionally eaten with caramelised palm sugar or sweetened coconut milk sauce and served as as a sweet treat.
But in the hands of vendors in Bandung, they became savoury snacks after someone had the idea in the 1980s of topping them off with oncom, spicy fermented soybeans native to the people of West Java.
Today, some restaurants serve their surabis with oreos, nutella and chocolate chips while for the savoury version, some have gone as far as to experiment with surabi carbonara and smoked beef surabi.
Restaurant owner, Mr Muhammad Rifky said the people of Bandung are always looking for the next culinary invention or rare delicacy, putting pressure on businesses like his Dapur Suami Isteri (Husband and Wife’s Kitchen) to think out of the box.
When the former television commercial director started his business in 2018, he sought advice from his friends and customers on how to put his small cafe on the map.
“They all said that I should either create something unique and new. If I want to go traditional, I should find dishes which are getting harder and harder to find,” Mr Rifky told CNA.
Eventually, the cafe grew from exclusively selling authentic Indonesian cuisine, to coming up with one-of-a-kind dishes such as its signature beef rendang sandwich, served with over easy egg and poached papaya leaves.
A more recent invention is the katsu coffee, made out of espresso mixed with kaya jam and tiramisu syrup (hence the acronym “katsu”). The concoction is stirred until the kaya jam is completely dissolved before ice and cold milk are added.
The drink was created just one week before CNA’s visit to the cafe, located in an upscale residential area in the western part of Bandung.
“We used to offer kaya toast. But it didn’t sell very well and we were left with jars of kaya jam. So we experimented with ways to use it,” Mr Rifky said.
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Bandung’s love for anything unique and strange also means that dishes that became out of favour in their native places could find a new lease of life in West Java.
The jando satay, made out of cow’s udder is one such example. The dish hailed from Klaten, Central Java and was on the verge of becoming extinct.
“My father brought it to Bandung in 1975 and we have been selling it since,” Mr Agung Suganda told CNA at his street side stall behind the governor’s office.
Mr Suganda said the dish was not an immediate success but over time, through word of mouth, people began to look for it, drawn by its soft, juicy texture and savoury taste.
“No one sells jando satay in Klaten anymore. But here in Bandung, people love it so much, they would queue for more than an hour. Sometimes people from out of town travel all the way here just to taste it. Because you can’t find it anywhere else any more,” the man said, adding that he can sell up to 14,000 sticks of satay per day.
While some like Mr Suganda have insisted on keeping the traditional recipe, others like Mr Laman who hails from Solo, Central Java, have injected new elements into his Solo-style meatball soup.
The 71-year-old has been selling meatballs since 1985 and competition from similar businesses made him think big, quite literally.
Almost 20 years ago, he began selling meatballs the size of an adult man’s fist.
That was enough to attract a loyal following among local foodies, but he did not stop there. In 2012, he created an even larger meatball the size of a volley ball. And this put his stall on the map.
Weighing in at 2.5kg and filled with chunks of minced meat at the centre, the giant meatball can easily feed a family of five.
“Everyday, we make 25 giant meatballs. Everyday, people would order it, not because it’s weird, but because they like the taste,” said Mr Laman, who goes with one name.
“We’ve had many foreigners here. People come here from all over Indonesia as well as from overseas. Surprisingly, those who order it and are able to finish it are not that big (physically) at all.”
The humble food stall even created a challenge for the customers - for one person to finish one giant meatball in under an hour. Those who succeed will get their meal for free, and even get to take home another giant meatball.
So far, only six people have successfully completed the challenge, he said.
TOURISTS DRIVE INNOVATION
But what is it about Bandung which makes it a haven for culinary creativity and invention?
There is no culinary school in Bandung and the inventor of these dishes are not veterans of professional kitchens. This means the dishes were born out of nothing more than curiosity and trial-and-errors.
Mr Subhi, the food blogger, attributes this culture of creativity to Bandung's popularity as a tourist destination.
“Bandung has always been a resort city. Tourists have been coming here for decades. You have to stand out to attract them,” he said of the mountainous city.
Mr Subhi also thinks that the city’s thriving fashion industry attracts many artisans and designers. “That’s why Bandung is full of creative people and that is reflected in its art, fashion, music and even its culinary scene,” he said.
However, not all delicacies are destined to survive, with some proving to be more of a fad.
“At one time there was a singkong keju (cheese covered cassava) craze sweeping across Bandung. Everyone was selling singkong keju and there was a long line of people queuing to get a taste of it. But it has now disappeared,” Mr Subhi recounted.
“Not every dish stood the test of time. Singkong keju is easily replicated. No one was taking it to the next level and people got tired of it.”
For Mr Rifky, the restaurant owner, a dish’s longevity boils down to quality and taste.
“There have been many examples of a dish becoming an overnight sensation only to disappear not long after. You can create the most ridiculous dish known to men, get a few celebrities to endorse it or promote it like crazy. If it doesn’t taste good, people won’t come back,” he said.
“You need to have passion to survive in the food business, especially in a creative landscape like Bandung. Passion is what drives me to ask how can I improve my dish ... (and what) I can come up with next.”