Written by Bayu Amus
Street food is one of the delights of any trip to Asia and as Robin Martin found on a recent visit to Indonesia it's a style of eating that is full of surprises.
It's dusk on the side of a busy Jakarta highway and Asif is demonstrating that dexterity one associates with street vendors across Asia as they go about putting together their signature dishes.
And in this case the warung or vendor definitely needs it, after all there's only one item on Asif's menu - shots of cobra blood - and the preparation thereof is potentially lethal.
Asif is not one for the hard sell. As we peer apprehensively into a cage of writhing reptiles, he merely postulates: "It's good for skin, circulation and virility."
A little arm twisting later (not on Asif's behalf you'll understand) the deal is done and for the princely sum of NZ$5 our vendor goes to work.
Asif reaches into the cage looking for one of the more docile beasties therein and being careful to keep a close eye on the business end, he slots the cobra's head into a wooden vice-like device before swiftly despatching it.
It might be appropriate to note at this point that cobra is not considered an endangered species in Indonesia.
Its body still writhing, Asif squeezes the "snake juice" toothpaste-fashion into an awaiting shot glass that has been primed with the local liquor, arak.
The cobra is then skinned and Asif removes its spinal cord which he finely slices before adding it to the "shot".
One suspects Asif does a nice sideline in snakeskin and the flesh is sought after for specialty satays.
Then comes the moment of truth . . . and well, it's not too bad, rich, sweet and the arak leaves a suitable burn in the throat. The spinal cord, however, is an unnecessary irritant.
But snake juice shots are certainly not for everyone and if you prefer your street food with a little less venom there are plenty of alternatives in Indonesia.
Jakarta's signature street food is kerak telor or as the brother-in- law likes to call it - the Indonesian taco.
A glutinous rice frittata cooked over hot coals, the vendor starts with a portion of sticky rice which is spread thinly in a small fry pan before fried shallots, shrimp and grated coconut are added.
It's seasoned with salt and pepper, and then either a duck or chicken egg is beaten into the mix which explains the literal English translation of kerak telor "egg crust".
A hugely popular snack in Jakarta, interestingly kerak telor is not found all over the city but you will see it at the market at the entrance to the national monument Monas in downtown and at Fatahilah Square in the historic Dutch quarter, Batavia.
A personal favourite is gado- gado, the classic a vegetarian dish which translates as "mix-mix".
A combination of blanched and fresh vegetables, often including cucumber, gado-gado usually also features pieces of tofu and tempeh and a garnish of sliced hardboiled egg, all liberally doused in a spicy peanut sauce.
On the street your gado-gado will most likely be served on brown paper, and almost certainly come with a kripik or deep-fried cracker accompaniment. Gado- gado is a street dish which has made the transition to fine dining so you can seek out this Indonesian classic in a restaurant if you prefer.
Bakso vendors and their ubiquitous pushcarts are found all over Indonesia, serving their hearty broth with meat or fish balls and noodles.
Garnished with fried shallots, hardboiled egg and bok choy, variations might see the meatballs exchanged for dumplings, wontons or tofu, but one thing will always be nearby - a side of sambal or chilli paste to fire up the soup to the customer's personal taste.
Sate or satay - various meats grilled over charcoal - is found all over Indonesian and is subtly different from its Southeast Asian cousins in that the peanut sauce includes either shrimp or fish paste for an extra kick.
Sate ayam (chicken satay) is perhaps the safest bet but for the more adventurous you'll find all kinds of variations, including goat, tofu, liver, intestines and to bring us nearly full circle, coagulated chicken blood.
Street food safety tips
All street food - including the cobra blood shots which I've since learned carry the risk of salmonella poisoning - comes with a health warning.
Even people who eat street food on a regular basis get a bad dish from time to time but following these basic tips can help avoid an upset stomach:
Follow the locals, is the stall busy, meaning the produce is being used quickly?
Is it patronised by a mixture of clientele, officer workers, older people, not just backpackers etc?
Is the stall clean? Check that prep surfaces look clean and watch for cross- contamination.
If possible watch your dish being cooked and avoid precooked seafood in particular.
Avoid dishes containing raw meats or ice- based drinks.
Pickled foods and spices such as chilli have antibacterial properties but this won't remove your risk entirely.
This is a great starter or side dish which goes well with rice and most Southeast Asian dishes. It can also be eaten as a full meal and is a good vegetarian meal option.
2 pieces 2-inch square firm tofu
3 medium potatoes
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced cabbage
1 cup long beans
1 sliced hard-boiled egg
Cooking oil for deep frying
Drain the firm tofu of any water and fry on low heat until all sides are golden brown. Drain excess oil on some kitchen towels before cutting into 1 inch cubes.
Peel and boil, cut into 1 inch cubes.
Cut into 1 1/2 inch long thin slices.
Peel off the stringy fibre along the spines. Cut the long beans into 1 1/2 inch long slices.
1. Blanch the cabbage and long beans in boiling water for about 30 seconds. Blanch the bean sprouts in boiling water for about 10 seconds. Drain and allow to cool.
2. Put all the ingredients into a salad bowl.
3. Add satay sauce.
4. Mix well and serve.
1/2 lb (226gm) peanuts
1 1/2Tbsp tamarind pulp
6 Tbsp sugar
2 cups of water
6 Tbsp oil
Salt to taste
8 dried chilies, soak in warm water
2 stalks chopped lemongrass, use only the bottom 3 inches
2 tsp thinly sliced galangal
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
Tamarind pulp: Soak the tamarind in 2 cups of water. Use only the juice, discard the pulp and seeds, if any.
Peanuts: Dry roast the peanuts in a frying pan or wok over low heat until they are brown and fragrant. Allow them to cool. Put the peanuts in a blender and whiz on a low setting until coarsely ground. Put aside.
Spice paste: Remove the chillies from the water, cut tops off, remove the seeds and slice. Put all the ingredients for the spice paste into a blender and grind into a fine paste. If the ingredients are too dry add 1 Tbsp oil.
1. Heat 6 tablespoons of oil on low heat in a pot. Saute the spice paste until it turns and golden brown and fragrant.
2. Add the ground peanut and the tamarind juice. Cook on low heat while stirring frequently so that the sauce does not stick to the bottom of the pot. Add some water if the satay sauce becomes too thick and hard to stir.
3. Cook for about 45 minutes or until a reddish chi;li oil rises to the top of the pot. The satay sauce should have a rich, dark red colour with a thick consistency.
- Taranaki Daily News