Semarang Part 1

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I can’t believe I am sitting in The Tavern, part-bar part-restaurant and ultimately exclusive during New Year’s week in Semarang. Yes, Semarang, one of the sleepiest cities in Indonesia and possibly the world. Semarang’s popularity has faded into quick stop for backpacker heading to Jogjakarta, widely popular for Borobudur temple, and another relaxing spot for truck drivers carrying fresh fruits to Jakarta. Unlike Bandung with its trendy cafes and Paris van Java reputation, Semarang doesn’t have that kind of popularity or charms.

Yet here I am, sipping down my light beer while watching the city lights up with amazing sunset and Merbabu (or Merapi?) mountains as background, my brother (who is a college student and real Semarang-ster) asks for Carbonara Pizza and another round of lemon-infused beers. A single thought come up in my mind; maybe Semarang is not that bad!

I spent my first day in Semarang traveling outside the city with my brother, not wanting to be caught up with New Year’s Eve traffic and crazy tourists from Jakarta whom flooding down the street with their fancy minivans. Our first stop is Kopeng, a high ground located between Ambarawa and Magelang, 2 to 3 hours car ride from Semarang. The ride was thrilling. The view of mountains and valleys entertained us for one full hour before our car stopped for a short snack in a wide coffee field called Banjaran. The restaurant/villa is well known for bittersweet coffee and beautiful view of Rawa Pening (Lake Pening), a huge lake ranging from the outskirt of Ambarawa city to boundaries of Salatiga. Out of curiosity, I asked one of the friendly employees about the private villas and he said the whole villas had been reserved for New Year; it was impossible to get a place at least until the end of the month. Not surprising, I guess.

After the stop, our car continued to hike the twisty roads of Salatiga to Kopeng. Now, some of you might wonder; why the hell did I want to drive all the way up to Kopeng with my brother, when I can sit back and enjoy Salatiga signature ‘onde-onde’, Javanese traditional sweets with ginger and red sugar? The answer is simple because in Kopeng, you can find one of the best ‘babat gongso’, sweet Javanese fried rice with fried beef tripe, and goat ribs soaked in sweet-and-spicy broth complete with fried ‘tempeh’. And that’s exactly what we ordered for lunch at Warung Nggoenoeng (literally means Mountain Cafe/Restaurant).

Warung Nggoenoeng may sound funny in your ears, but its reputation is unsurpassable. Located in KM 12,5 on the right side of steep highway heading to Magelang, the restaurant was already packed the moment our car parked outside its small gate. One of the employees showed up to help us parked the car and offered us to sit in one of their gazebos near the parking lot. There was no air conditioner, electric fan or some ices to cool us down, but it was no problem since the air from Merbabu Mountain was more than enough.

Javanese Fried Rice with Beef Tripes and Red Chilli.
Javanese Fried Rice with Beef Tripes and Red Chilli.

The only thing that I hate about eating in locally popular restaurant is the absence of reservation. We had to wait for quite a long time. I even managed to beat the hell out of my brother in a card game that lasted for 30 minutes. Yet, there was no sign of our foods ready. Finally, after another 15 miserable minutes, the waitress came apologising with our Javanese fried rice and ‘babat gongso’ (beef tripe cooked with sweet soy-sauce).

Babat Gongso (Beef Tripe cooked with Sweet Soy Sauce and Spices).
Babat Gongso (Beef Tripe cooked with Sweet Soy Sauce and Spices).

The fried rice was good. The sweet taste from soy sauce mixed well with red chilli and onions, creating a refreshing escape from the soy sauce. Combined with ‘babat gongso’, the fried rice evolved into a flood of spices and sweets. Such an appropriate lunch after a long journey.

Goat Ribs with Sweet and Spicy Broth.
Goat Ribs with Sweet and Spicy Broth.

Next, came goat ribs in sweet-and-spicy broth. Unlike classic Western cafes in Jakarta, where they usually cook the ribs without manipulating it earlier, except for putting some spice or soften it by boiling it in steaming water for couple of minutes, Warung Nggoenoeng shredded the goat ribs into tiny pieces and stuffs a whole lot of spices into the broth. This is actually a perfect example of Indonesian dish. We (Indonesians) are blessed with racks of exotic spices that we put generously in every dish. The result is amazing, the shredded goat meat absorbs the sweet broth containing red onions, garlics, and red chilli. which give it a refreshingly sweet taste.

Not wanting to delay our trip longer (we needed to get back to Semarang for dinner) and realising that the clouds were getting thicker. We paid (cheaply) for our foods and headed back to Salatiga. A few minutes later, the clouds broke, sending heavy loads of water and fog onto our car. It was impossible to stop for tea at Salib Putih (literally means White Cross), so we headed back to Semarang with thundering sound of raindrops as background music.

Since the sky cleared up when we finally reached Salatiga (the rain turned out to be one of those annoying local rain), I suggested to stop by Gua Maria Kerep in Ambarawa, a must-visit tourist gateway. The sanctuary was built to honer Mother Mary and the chapel was widely popular for it’s serene atmosphere. It is not a rule to bring flowers or candles, but it is better to buy one or two tiny bouquets for politeness reasons, besides what else do you want to do in a church except for praying and giving out flowers?

Praying is not my strongest quality for sure though. I spent most of the time wandering around the chapel to the beautifully decorated garden. Some of the areas are redesign to be family-friendly. Green meadows with quotes from the Bible and artificial Jordan River with Jesus statue are on top of the list for families to take photos.

We arrived in Semarang just in time for supper. Eating in restaurant sure sounds tempting, but the real strength of Semarang culinary landscape is in street vendors. Yes, believe it or not, street vendors are the one and only parameter Semarang citizens look for when it comes to food, even a Michelin-star restaurant is less important than Mr. Min ‘Bakmi Djowo’ or Bang Djo ‘Lekers’ for Semarang-sters.

There are thousands of street vendors in Semarang. I mean it. I have a hard time choosing which place we should go for dinner since everyone felt the need to tell me the advantages (and disadvantages) of each vendor, which ended up in hateful debate about which one is more delicious; Sukabumi warm thick porridge or small -but satisfying- ‘Cat Rice’.

Mr.Min's Signature Javanese Noodle.
Mr.Min’s Signature Javanese Noodle.

Considering that we were just braced ourselves against the rain earlier in the afternoon, I chose Javanese Noodle. It came up in my mind almost instantly, actually. Javanese noodle is both Javanese people signature and exclamation dish of how different they are from the rest of Indonesia -and Asia. Their noodles are like almost identical with other South Asian dishes: yellow, firm, and usually made of wheat. But the broth is sweet and savoury, taking full advantages of green vegetables, garlic, chilli (aka lombok in Javanese) and -again- soy sauce. Unlike Jakarta’s chicken noodle or Kalimantan’s crab-meat noodle, Javanese noodle is not just fulfilling, it’s warming and comforting, just like Javanese people big family-like smiles.

When it comes to Javanese Noodle, Mr.Min (or ‘Pak Min’ as real Semarang-sters would say) is arguably the best, if not the most popular. His stall is, like most of famous Semarang street vendors, located outside an old electronic store, on top of a sewer in a poorly lit boulevard, which can be tricky especially during the rain. Right next to him is Javanese Fried Rice with Tripe and ‘Es Marem’, another local delicacy featuring crunchy peanuts, coconut milk and shaved ice with red sugar.

It didn’t take long for my brother to order our noodles -and fried rice and Es Marem, since he is a regular around here. Mr. Min with one of his sons jumped and smiled after seeing us and prepared their infamous Javanese Noodle.

Sitting in our table is a plate full of raw chicken satay, I wanted to say fresh, but I didn’t know how long those satays had been siting. That didn’t stop us from greedily asked for 4 of the fattest, greasiest, biggest satays, just for the sake of good supper.

Grilled Chicken Satay with Fresh Limes.
Grilled Chicken Satay with Fresh Limes.

Our Javanese Noodles came first in pipping hot plates filled with signature sweet broth and shredded pieces of boiled chicken. Just like what I expected, the noodles taste perfect. The texture is a combination of hard and soft, light and heavy. Plain wheat-like flavour filled my mouth for a minute before the broth kicked in and put me in river of sweet soy sauce and spicy stings from the garlic. The garlic! Man, I never noticed this before, but Javanese people put a whole lot of garlics in their dishes. They use it for the aroma, for just a slight amount of spiciness a red chilli can’t give, or for aesthetic reasons. Garlic is as essential for Javanese as Olive Oil to French. This is amazing, even though I keep imagining about Japanese ramen. Perhaps, it’s the light flavour from the vegetables or the similarities between the noodles. I don’t know….

Es Marem (Shaved Ice with Fried Peanuts, Black Jelly and Coconut Milk).
Es Marem (Shaved Ice with Fried Peanuts, Black Jelly and Coconut Milk).

On the other hand, fried rice stall seemed to be in chaos. People were swarming down to the streets and men behind giant stoves were hardly keeping up with the demands. I wanted to cancel our orders and came back later, but my brother convinced me to wait for a while. Fortunately, two bowls of Es Marem complete with plain jelly and extra coconut milk came in the right time. Accompanied with these humble sweets, we waited for the most-wanted-fried-rice-in-Semarang without a single complaint.

One young man rushed to us eventually, bringing two plate of javanese fried rice still steaming from the pan. We tipped him and received hurried ‘thank you’ from the man. I couldn’t wait to taste the fried rice, not only because of the sheer amount of its spectators, but also because of the smell. I can sense onions, red garlic, lots of soy sauce, eggs and beef tripe. However, when I finally took a spoonful of fried rice and put it in my mouth, I knew those ingredients are not the real deal. The determinant ingredient is the rice. The perfectly cooked white rice mixed with scrambled eggs. Unlike Warring Nggoenoeng, the rice has rougher texture. Rather than sticking into one pile of hot mess, the rice scattered into individual pieces, absorbing the soy sauce and the eggs. The result is perfectly seasoned fried rice with comforting rough texture balanced by soft scrambled eggs and softly cooked beef tribes. Delicious!

It would have been a perfect night, if I hadn’t seen a sewer rat as big as a small cat running down casually right in front of our table. Sweet Lord! Street vendors’ stalls are definitely not the best place for crazy-hygienic persons.

The rain was getting crazy again, we were forced to finish as quickly as possible, packed our bags, waved good bye to Mr. Min, who was still boiling, steaming, and chopping, and went back to my brother’s home.

It was still 8 PM, but the side effect of sitting for too long in the car got the best of me and I decided to sleep early.

P.S: There is no picture of the second fried rice (the street vendor version) because we were in a hurry and my camera battery was running low. 

Continue to Part 2!

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