Book Review:The Jakarta Good Food Guide 2008-2009

If you want to read just one book about food in Jakarta, make it The Jakarta Good Food Guide (JGFG). This is an indispensable guide for foodies and travelers looking for a taste of something different in Jakarta. Laksmi Pamuntjak is an independent reviewer who has deliberately avoided invitations of all sorts. I spent about two thirds of my life in the Jakarta, but it seems I have missed some of the “famous” restaurants and stalls Laksmi writes about. There are
around 440 restaurants including the kaki-lima (roadside stalls) she reviews in this third edition, which is available in English only. At Rp 200,000 (around US$20), this book is a steal. And the best place to store this guide is inside your car rather than on a shelf or coffee table.

I’m pretty conservative when it comes to trying out new places to dine, but after digging for inspiration within the 600-page guide, my wife and I agreed to visit Picis — a Chinese food stall in Kota offering frog legs, pigeon and ifumi.

And boy, were we glad to discover it! An instant favorite. And there are plenty more discoveries ahead.

Those who are venturing toward the healthy side of the culinary trail should also be delighted as Laksmi deliberately points out which restaurants heap on the MSG.

Laksmi, an accomplished writer, assigns special symbols for restaurants with stellar tasting food, great selections of wine and affordability.

Writing about food is second nature to her. After she visits a new place, she returns home and jots down some notes.
Included in the guide is a long list of Laksmi’s personal favorite dishes, such as the best ketoprak, soto ayam and nasi cap cay.

Of course, you can easily disagree with her choices of classics, but she balances them out by including several well-known personalities who also list their own favorite restaurants, menu items, brunch spots and stalls.

Besides its in-depth information, the design of the book deserves merit. The guide’s layout is easy to read and browse and has a cool style. The presentation of images, taken by photographer Paul Kadarisman, is both stylish and elegant.

The photos can be rough, smooth, glossy and gritty, all at the same time. Photos of a greasy and empty noodle bowl, an array of sauce bottles stacked in a crate, or street cooks in action have never looked as interesting before.

The book presents a broad perspective of Jakarta’s culinary offerings rather than zooming into its upmarket or sanitized restaurants alone. After all, Jakarta is jam-packed with contrast and variety.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this guide snatched an international design award.

Laksmi said recently at her book launch that, by writing about food, she had shed some light into the sociology of the city. Some of the places she visited have existed for decades.

But every time she visited Jakarta during her research (Laksmi was living in Singapore), she found the congested metropolis kept changing due to the constant emergence of new restaurants over the last 10 years. It became like a different city, she said.

Laksmi reached deep into her pocket to produce this labor of love which cost between Rp 250 and 300 million for the research alone, she said.

“This is one of the very few books in the country that received endorsement from the Visit Indonesia Year 2008 program. I’m proud of it,” said Laksmi, who loves to cook pasta at home.

“Cooking is an art form. People just cannot repeat making a dish. It is also therapeutic.”

She reckons it is hard to “nationalize” cuisines in the Indonesian archipelago due to the vast differences and multitude of islands. The diversity, she said, is actually the most interesting aspect of Indonesia. It’s problematic if other food guides simply say soto ayam is chicken soup. The fact is that there are numerous styles of soto, including soto Banjar, Betawi and Lamongan, she said.

By writing this book, Laksmi hopes to introduce the international community to Indonesian food.

The essays on the first few pages are as good as her reviews, as Laksmi knows plenty of delicious historical facts.

She tells stories about where she has come from and where she is going.

The hardest task for Laksmi may be to top this guide with her next edition.

The Jakarta Good Food Guide 2008-2009
By Laksmi Pamuntjak
Published by Pena Klasik
600 pages

Reviewed by Alvin Darlanika Soedarjo