JAKARTA: Back in the 80s, Mr Sahro would peddle his kue putu - steamed rice flour cake filled with palm sugar and served with coconut shavings - door to door.
He had to carry a makeshift steamer and a box of ingredients at opposite ends of a pole and walk from one neighbourhood to the next.
As he travelled on foot, his steamer would emit a distinctive whistling sound, alerting nearby residents of his presence.
Today, he is selling kue putu at a roadside food stall in South Jakarta, a rare sight in the bustling business and administrative capital of Indonesia.
Mr Sahro, who like many Indonesians go by one name, said he had seen fellow hawkers of Betawi snacks giving up on the trade due to dwindling demand and changing consumer preferences. Betawi refers to the ethnic group native to Jakarta.
“I personally know four putu sellers during my days as a travelling hawker. They have all switched professions or died, with none of their children willing to take up their fathers’ profession,” the 62-year-old said.
Mr Sahro persevered against the odds, and is now doing good business due to lack of competition. There are only around 20 places in Jakarta that still sell kue putu. His nearest competitor is more than 4.5km away.
With only 27.6 per cent of the population in Jakarta identifying themselves as Betawi in the 2000 census, the Betawi group has become a minority in the capital.
As groups from other provinces moved into Jakarta, they brought along their own culture, tradition and cuisine, resulting in the culinary heritage of the Betawi community being sidelined.
While some Betawi dishes made it to the mainstream and were embraced by the rest, the same cannot be said about the snacks and treats. They had to compete with not only traditional snacks from outside of Jakarta but also more modern ones.
Beside kue putu, there are other treats that risk disappearing from Jakarta’s culinary map.
It is now difficult to find Betawi-style cucur, a deep-fried snack made of rice flour and palm sugar batter.
Sellers are limited to the fringes of Jakarta and its outskirts where the Betawi community had moved to, as their original neighbourhoods had been converted into offices, shops and apartments.
Another fast disappearing snack is rangi cake, made from tapioca flour served with coconut shavings and caramelised sugar.
NOSTALGIA A KEY SELLING POINT
Mr Sahro said that people buy his kue putu simply out of nostalgia.
“The people who buy my putu do so because they used to eat it as children,” he said. “That’s why my customers are all over 40 years old. I worry that if they pass on, there won’t be anyone left looking for putu cake.”
While some sellers have tried to attract new customers by selling other snacks and treats or modifying the kue putu with new flavours and fillings, Mr Sahro has kept his recipe authentic.
“They taste the same as the ones my customers had as kids. That’s why they keep coming back. They tell their friends and families about my shop. People drive all the way from other parts of the city just to buy my putu,” he said.
Mr Ahmad Syahroni, who sells Betawi-style cucur also said: “The younger generations simply don’t buy cucur anymore.”
“Thankfully in my neighbourhood there are still many Betawi people around. Especially, if there are Betawi weddings and gatherings. It’s tradition to serve cucur cake.”
SOME BETAWI SNACKS DO HAVE FANS
While kue putu and cucur are becoming harder to find, there are some Betawi treats that have fans from beyond the community.
Mr Muhammad Saifulloh, a third-generation snack seller who operates near a south Jakarta train station said his stall used to sell almost every kind of Betawi snack. Now, he is focusing on several kinds that are more popular with the commuters.
“We used to sell cucur cake and rangi cake … But they don’t sell so well,” he said.
His stall now sells pancong cake, made from rice flour and coconut milk and served with sugar. He also has the ape cake, a sweet Betawi version of the apam cake, among other offerings.
One customer, Ms Trishi Hindayu said she prefers the pancong and ape cakes over other Betawi snacks.
“Other Betawi snacks don’t have the sweet and savoury taste of a pancong or the different textures of an ape,” the 31-year-old said.
“I tried cucur and putu and they are not for me. I think unless you grew up eating them, you won’t like them.”
Betawi treats are usually in muted colours of white or brown. Their shapes are also not really attractive. In the age of social media when people like to snap pictures of their food, this is a disadvantage.
KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE
There are efforts being made to keep the Betawi food culture alive.
Chief of the Jakarta Tourism and Culture Agency, Mr Iwan Wardhana said the government is trying to help sellers of Betawi snacks, so that the heritage is not lost.
Mr Wardhana said one way is to stage events celebrating Betawi culture and heritage like the Jakarta Fair held between mid-June to mid-July.
“We are working together with shopping malls and encouraging them to hold their own Betawi culture festivals to introduce people, particularly the younger generation, to Betawi culture and heritage, including its traditional food,” he told CNA.
Mr Sahro, however, noted that while many people do try kue putu for the first time during festivals and events celebrating Betawi culture, it is hard to expand the market.
“Fans of kue putu are still limited to the Betawi community who grew up eating them,” he said.
“I can only hope that parents introduce their children to Betawi snacks, so that they can survive until the next generation.”