Yogyakarta when the dusk comes down, appears relaxing. This ancient Javanese royal city in the central part of Java Island, Indonesia, has a very special style from the past. Calm, soothing, with a surrounding of old buildings from the 17th century, the white walls of the palace complex still have their charm.
The evening air is gradually filled with the clinks of the dishware served by food stalls’ waiters. The gamelan music starts to escort some Javanese dancers at their stage performance. Some of the classical rhythms are passed through the wind, from a corner of the street where some young backpackers are sipping their coffee at a café.
In many parts of the city, from the five-star hotels until those outdoor eating stalls called ‘lesehan’, it is easy to enjoy the night over a delightful dinner. Usually gudeg comes as the main menu. The food remains united to the name of Yogyakarta. The local says, if you never eat gudeg in Yogyakarta, forget that you have been there.
Most of Yogyakartan foods share sweet taste, such as ‘bakpia pathok’ (a white soft cookie filled with green beans), ‘yangko’ (a kind of soft peanut-stuffed tidbit), ‘geplak’ (sugar-glazed young coconut grater), and gudeg.
Gudeg is a concoction of young jackfruit, coconut milk and other local condiments such as garlic and coriander. The color is reddish brown, as the result of the jackfruit, coconut water, and palm sugar, boiled for several hours. Some people are said to add some young teakwood foliages into the jackfruit pot in its early cooking stage, to attain the precise coloration.
Gudeg is usually served on a clay plate, on top of a sheet of banana leaves. Sometimes the vendor just folds the banana leaf, makes it tight it with a sharp piece of palm leaf rib, to form a half-cone-pot called ‘pincuk’.
Many people prefer to eat their gudeg in a ‘pincuk’ because banana leaf produces an appetizing aroma when the hot temperature from the cooking affects it. The ‘pincuk’ is big enough to hold a portion of rice, gudeg and its tasty accessories. A number of options are prepared on the table, for instance: fried chicken, chicken curry with rich coconut milk sauce called ‘santan areh’, hot ‘krecek’ (beef skin) curry, tofu, tempe, and chili sauce.
The gudeg itself is processed in a big clay pot. The traditional method suggests to have the food stirred with a wooden stick. No metal material – especially aluminums – should be used, to keep the taste specific as the food remains healthy.
The traditional wooden kitchen where people cook this cuisine is a huge, dark and smoky place. People used to place the giant clay pot on the old fashioned brick stove and make fire from wood. Of course cooking this way would be more tiring and time consuming, even though many locals still apply this method in their spacious village residences. In contrast, most housewives downtown prefer newer utensils like gas or electric stove and stainless boiling pan.
On Maliboro Street, the most famous boulevard to visit in Yogyakarta, most gudeg outlets have their guests sit at ease on a lesehan dining. The eateries are small, outdoor stalls, on the sidewalk. Vendors load their clay pots and jugs on a three-wheeled pedicab or horse chariots called andong and started to set up their place around 7 p. m. They may open the stall overnight, or until about 3 o’clock in the morning.
You’ve got to sit on a bamboo mat and have your meal in front of you on a short table. There’s no chair available. Sometimes you would notice a passing street singer playing his guitar. The food stall owners may also present a performance of an old fellow in Javanese striped shirt and batik headdress playing his clear and melodious gambang, a kind of Javanese. He may also be a master of strumming a sitar (a small kind of harp), and chanting Javanese songs around in a soft and humble style.
Housing a great number of universities and functioning as ‘the city of students’, Yogyakarta serves the migrant scholars with its satisfactory lifestyle. Living cost is cheap compared to other big cities in Indonesia. The gudeg stalls are often to be the comfortable place for them to hang around, find inexpensive dinner, and stay up late for chatting.
Even for travelers, this kind of dish is not costly at all. Many people prefer to have it at the original lesehan style, of course if they enjoy sitting cross-legged, and if it’s not raining. Only sometimes one or two lads may interrupt you at the street lesehan food stalls, a beggar kid or shoe shiner most probably. They are not harmful, though, it is better to keep alert on your wallet and other valuables.
Lesehan dining is now become a trend and could be found anywhere even in the crowded Jakarta. Even so, having one in Yogya is different. Once you drop by, when the nightfall is getting later and later, it feels more ‘Java’ than the other parts of Java.