Friday, August 6, 2010

Gudeg, the ugly but beautiful culinary specialty of Yogyakarta

"No, we don't need a lift," we told the becak driver in an attempt to fob him off, "we are going to walk to Jln Malioboro for lunch."
"Oh really?" he asked, "What are you going to eat?"

Common sense and Lonely Planet dictate that you be a little circumspect with the becak drivers in Yogya, Central Java. Generally they are nice, but some of them are liable to take you for a ride in more ways than one. And some are a little too persistent to the point of being annoying.

"Gudeg," I replied, referring to a local specialty that I'd been longing to try.
"Well you shouldn't eat it on Jln Malioboro," he advised us, "it's not so nice. Let me take you to the best gudeg in town."
I'm a softy at the best of times, and this guy had managed to wear down my defences. We agreed, negotiated a fee and hopped on.

Sometimes it pays to just let things happen. Because the place he took us to was very good indeed, located on a strip of Jalan Wijilan in which virtually every shop sells nasi gudeg. A "gudeg central" if you will.

Of course, you first need to get past appearances. Gudeg is not the most visually appetising dish, and I could sense that my significant other was a bit sceptical when she saw the display at the front of the restaurant.

Everything is in varying shades of brown. Brown boiled eggs. Murky gray-brown sauce. Brown fried chicken heads. When plated up it doesn't look all that much friendlier, but fortunately I don't eat with my eyes. I had eaten this many years ago as a child, but back then the strange appearance of some of its elements kinda freaked me out. So now that I was an adult in the gudeg heartland, I decided on a re-evaluation.

Nasi gudeg is a selection of dishes served on a plate with rice, which complement each other, much like Malaysia's nasi lemak. One is the gudeg itself, which consists of pieces of young unripe jackfruit, slow-cooked with palm sugar. Jackfruit, like papaya and mango, is used as a vegetable throughout Southeast Asia when in its unripe form; it is also particularly common in Sri Lankan cooking.

Accompanying it is a boiled egg, also cooked with palm sugar until it is firm enough that you could probably bounce it. It is smothered in the murky sauce, which turns out to be a deliciously rich coconut-based gravy.

Then there is the sambal krecek, which is made from buffalo skin, small red beans and tempe, fried with chili sambal. Sort of like eating spicy fat.
Marinated and fried bean curd and tempe also accompany, and usually some cut of chicken. I'm not sure quite why, but fried chicken heads seem particularly popular in Yogya. All served on a banana leaf.

One aspect that some diners will find odd about nasi gudeg is its sweetness. Javanese food as a whole is somewhat sweet compared to many other cuisines, and gudeg in particular is sweeter than what many would expect from a savoury dish. Apart from the sambal krecek, none of the other elements are particularly spicy; Javanese typically do not add chili to their dishes. This doesn't mean they don't like it mindblowingly hot, of course; usually whole chilies or a sambal are served on the side as an accent, with which they can control the amount of chili they eat.

The significant other was won over.

While this is referred to "dry" gudeg, there is apparently another variation of gudeg that we didn't get to try; that version features greater use of coconut milk.

You can get nasi gudeg all over Yogyakarta, particularly at the lesehan (roadside eateries) on Jalan Malioboro at night. However, what we tried there was decent but unexceptional. The best gudeg is found on Jln Wijilan, which is not far from the kraton.

Gudeg Kendil Wijilan "Bu Widodo", Jln Wijilan No. 5, Yogyakarta.

More like this:

Chinese donuts on a Yogya roadside - the best breakfast ever

Malaysian "carrot cake" - not quite what you'd expect

My encounter with dog meat in Eastern Indonesia

Terengganu cuisine

Penang's famous mung bean cookies

Lina's Popiah, SS3, Petaling Jaya

Ethiopian food at Cafe Lalibela

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