Above: One of the many dishes served up at Melati Restaurant.
East Java may be best known for its volcanoes, but it’s the region’s food that has tongues wagging
By Natasha Dragun
Photographs By Natasha Dragun
It’s 11 a.m. and sweltering hot, and I’m already on my fifth meal of the day. I’m trying to pace myself—there’s a lot more to come. But it’s difficult not to get carried away with a dish like bakso Malang, a soupy snack that reveals itself in different layers as you work your way through the bowl. Move your spoon through the simple, steaming broth and bite-size meatballs bob to the surface: shrimp, fish, beef, and sometimes pork. Dig a little deeper and you discover steamed and fried wontons. I save the hunks of tofu for last, giving them time to absorb the meaty flavors of the broth. Kus, my guide for the next few days, loosens his belt as he empties his bowl.
We’re hunched over long, lime-green Formica tabletops at the aptly named Bakso Malang, a hole-in-the-wall eatery nestled off a wide boulevard in central Malang, the second-largest city in East Java and a popular stopover en route to Mount Bromo, around 35 kilometers east of town. A smoldering volcano that rises out of a sea of ash and sand in the vast Tengger Caldera, Bromo is one of Java’s most visited sites, attracting droves of tourists eager to glimpse a sunrise over the crater. When I told my Indonesian friends that I was planning to visit the area, they quickly turned the conversation from lava to lunch, convincing me to pause in Malang to sample the diverse flavors of the region before climbing the crater.
Under Dutch occupation, Malang earned the moniker “Paris van East Java,” attracting colonial residents with its cool climate, mountainous terrain, and fertile volcanic soil. They built grand mansions on wide, leafy boulevards, and established apple orchards and coffee and tea plantations in the surrounding countryside. They also brought a strong food culture that endures today, albeit increasingly mingled with Javanese, Chinese, and Madurese flavors courtesy of the city’s main ethnic groups. The bakso I’m devouring is one such fusion, taking the European tradition of spiced meatballs and adding Chinese flourishes like wontons and tofu with a liberal dose of salt—an import from Madura, the large island hanging off Java’s northeast coast. The popularity of the dish has spread across Java, and you can now find different interpretations from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. Still, getting to taste the dish in its city of origin proves more difficult than I expected.
Malang, I fast discover, is a city a proud culinary heritage. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation, guaranteeing an authentic meal. But supply has not kept up with demand, and vendors and chefs across the city still produce dishes in the small quantities that their ancestors favored. Of the handful of restaurants that I’m hoping to visit while I’m in town, only those in my hotel appear to be open for more than couple of hours daily. “These places are small,” says Kus, a longtime Malang resident and employee of the Hotel Tugu where I’m staying. “They have a limited stock. When they’re done selling that, they pack up and go home.” This means that you have to be extremely lucky—and extremely well organized—to sample the flavors of Malang in one day.
The Bakso Malang restaurant is tiny, with just three communal tables adjacent to a rustic outdoor kitchen. It’s doing a roaring trade, not just because the soup is so tasty, but because the dining room could close at any minute. There’s no time to sit and digest—we have a lot of other restaurants to visit before they too run out of stock. On our way out, the owner, a friend of Kus’s, brings us a large takeaway box stuffed with homemade kue lumpur (literally, “mud cakes,” made of sweet corn and coconut milk, topped with raisins) and crispy bars of fried tempeh. “In case you get hungry later,” he says, an unlikely prospect.
The day began at 6 a.m. with strong coffee and oven-fresh pastries in Roti Tugu, an establishment adjoining the antiques-filled Hotel Tugu Malang. Part bakery, part sidewalk café, Roti Tugu dishes up Dutch-inspired breads and biscuits under the watchful eye of head baker Dyani. Although he is pushing 80, Dyani has never missed his 5 a.m. wake-up call in the 18 years since the place opened. He potters around us in the candy-colored dining room, chatting to regular guests and handing out a selection of breads stuffed with banana, apple, and chocolate, as well as buttery cookies like jan hagel, flavored with almonds and dusted with sugar; nastar, studded with candied pineapple; and peyek, a type of cracker cooked crisp with nuts, lemon leaf, and pepper.
The Tugu Malang is the oldest of four properties run by Javanese hotelier Anhar Setjadibrata, and a popular roost for weekenders from Surabaya, East Java’s provincial capital. Like its sister hotels in Bali, Lombok, and nearby Blitar, the Tugu offers a stylish tribute to Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage. Its guest rooms and restaurants are like museum galleries: the Bangsal Merah Boepati (Red Chamber of the Javanese Regent) dining room features antiques, photos, and objets dating back to the 1700s. The historic journey continues at the table. “Over the past 18 years, since my mother and grandmother started the hotel, we have collected old recipes from the best food vendors of Malang,” says Lucienne, Setjadibrata’s eldest daughter. “Some of the recipes date back to the early 1900s. That’s why the menu here is almost like a storybook. My family really wanted the restaurant to bring back the almost-forgotten flavors of Malang and East Java.”
Breakfast at the hotel’s Melati Restaurant is the Grand Rijsttafel, a smorgasbord of dishes that Lucienne tells me was originally served by Dutch planters to impress their guests. “It’s kind of like a show-off display of the richness of spices and foods that grow in the area,” she says. Stuffed prawns are served with potato fritters, beef is stewed until tender in coconut milk, and there’s a brackish Madurese chicken soup with hints of turmeric. Twelve waiters serve the various concoctions. I eat my way through five dishes before taking my leave—it’s time to move on to meal number three.
It’s standing room only at the small stall outside the Chinese temple on Jalan Laksmana Martadinata. For less than two hours every day, Mrs. Cres prepares heaped platters of rujak cingur, a local delicacy that translates as “mouth mixture” for its main ingredient, buffalo or beef lips. Thankfully, the meat is thin and tender and not at all chewy as I expected, and it sits well with the accompanying “mixture”: a bizarre combination of sweet and savory ingredients like banana and pineapple, tofu, tempeh, cucumber, bean sprouts, and roughly chopped peanuts. It’s all drizzled with a fermented fish paste called petis and served in cones made from banana leaves, which we see scattered all over the car park as we’re leaving. “Lunch for the birds,” Kus says.
Our next stop is Toko Oen, a Malang institution set in an airy Art Deco building in the heart of town. The ice-cream parlor’s facade glows white and green under a fresh coat of paint, but inside, the restaurant still sports the original black-and-white tiles and old cane furniture that it opened with almost 80 years ago. The banana split is still a hot ticket here, but I opt for Dutch favorites like warm pastel (salty pasties the size of a baby’s fist, stuffed with boiled egg, minced beef, beans, and glass noodles made from cassava), as well as sweet coffee served in chipped floral teacups with matching saucers. I buy more pastries and a couple of loaves of chocolaty bread to see us through our journey to Bromo the next morning.
Having finished our soupy bakso, meal number five, we spend the rest of the day exploring the city’s main market, a warren of produce stalls selling varieties of fresh tempeh and pyramids of fruit and vegetables alongside popular snacks like crispy singkong goreng (deep-fried cassava). We then make our way down the road to an alley next to the Cor Jesu School, run by the Ursuline monastery, where a wrinkled vendor sells lupis and cenil sweets that Lucienne had raved about. “It’s so hard to get them, they disappear so quickly,” she warned. A crowd four or five deep swarms around the tiny cart, swapping 5,000-rupiah notes (less than 50 U.S. cents) for plastic bowls overflowing with the pink-and-green desserts. Groups of schoolkids sit on their haunches nearby, attacking the bundles of sticky tapioca, grated coconut, and palm sugar with their fingers.
We arrive back at the hotel by 5 p.m.—just in time for a late afternoon tea, Kus suggests. Strolling up to the Tugu Tea House, a semi-open lounge overlooking the street, it occurs to me that perhaps one can have too much of a good thing.
A traditional stall is set up here for a couple of hours every afternoon, and the beautiful Mrs. Darmini serves guests platters of Malang’s most popular sweets. She ladles out generous portions of dawet, a chilled coconut-milk beverage thickened with maizena flour and flavored with palm sugar and fresh jackfruit. It’s sweet and sticky, and almost a meal in itself. But there’s still a tasting plate of colorful snacks to sample. The only savory dish is jadah manten, a type of sticky rice stuffed with chicken meat and wrapped in a salty crepe before being steamed. While we eat, Darmini prepares bite-sized coconut pies stained a bright purple by the main ingredient, sweet potato, which grows wild in the surrounding mountains. They sizzle in a small waffle press before being served piping hot with a good measure of palm syrup.
In a day dedicated to consumption, a lengthy dinner seems somewhat unnecessary. I take my peyek poolside instead and order an ice-cold beer as dusk descends.
The drive from Malang to Bromo is long and uninspiring —the potholed roads are gridlocked with trucks and motorbikes and donkey-drawn carts. The traffic intensifies as we near the dusty town of Probolinggo, the turn-off to the massif. The action is concentrated around Depot Nguling, a small roadside shack dishing up one of East Java’s most famous dishes, nasi rawon dengkul. The restaurant is packed with rowdy diners perched on plastic stools, jostling over bowls of the inky looking rawon, a type of beef-knee stew on the menu here for more than 70 years. The braised meat is simmered in a soup colored chocolaty brown by kluwak nuts, which look like Brazil nuts. Kus tells me that the pale flesh of the raw kluwak contains hydrocyanic acid, neutralized by lengthy sessions of soaking and boiling, which also turns the flesh black and oily like half-cooled tar. It gives the dish a warm, woody aroma, with hints of mushroom and truffle on the tongue. We ladle the rich soup over plates of sticky white rice and add a garnish of just-sprouted soy beans and sambal. As I sweat my way through the meal, I can’t help but wish I was eating it in cooler climes.
The traffic eases and the scenery becomes increasingly lush as we make our way up to Wonotoro, a hillside hamlet one hour’s drive from Mount Bromo. Aside from a couple of jeeps idling outside Java Banana, the newest accommodation in the area, Wonotoro is eerily quiet: a series of huts—once a hotel—opposite the lodge are deserted and overgrown with weeds, and everything is shrouded in the mist of low-lying clouds.
Opened by a handful of Indonesian photographers, Java Banana is surprisingly sleek given its remote location. Framed photos of the caldera at sunrise line the walls of the main lodge, and guest rooms come with polished wooden floorboards and views of the green valley beyond. From my balcony, I can see wiry farmers tending their fields, a vertiginous patchwork of cabbages, leeks, and beans—ingredients that all appear fresh on my plate at mealtime. To allow guests to experience life on the land, the owners of the lodge plan to open an organic cooking school in the area. Visitors will be encouraged to explore the crops before learning how to cook them in East Javanese dishes like rawon and cwie mie, another Malang export featuring dry, curly wheat noodles topped with minced chicken and cucumber pickle.
Intentionally or not, Java Banana has become a proponent of the Slow Food movement: meals are not served in a hurry around here. I’m told to order my day’s food first thing in the morning, giving the chef ample time to collect and prepare the ingredients. Still, it’s worth the wait. Even the simplest meals—like the grilled chicken breast braised in coconut milk and served on a bed of cauliflower, potato, and leek—burst with flavor. The omelets are made with creamy free-range eggs, and come ribboned with organic herbs grown around the lodge. And then there are the banana dishes, popular among hungry hikers passing by on their way to the volcanoes. The hotel’s café dishes up grilled bananas topped with a crisp layer of caramel, battered bananas, fried and sprinkled with cinnamon, and baked bananas dusted with chocolate.
The days here begin before dawn, allowing an hour to drive to the 2,700-meter-high Mount Penanjakan lookout to watch the sunrise melt the clouds over the caldera and illuminate the cratered peak of Bromo, characterized by its constant belch of sulfuric smoke. My alarm clock is set for 4:30 a.m.—more than enough time to sample everything on the menu.
Malang and?Mount Bromo
Garuda Indonesia (garuda-indonesia.com) operates daily flights from Jakarta to Malang, as well as flights from Hong Kong and Singapore to East Java’s provincial capital, Surabaya. From Surabaya, it’s a three-hour drive to both Malang and Wonotoro near Mount Bromo. Cars with an English-speaking driver can be hired for about US$30 a day from Kijang Speedy Rent a Car (persewaanmobil.com).
Where to Stay
Set in a colonial mansion in the heart of Malang’s old city center, Hotel Tugu Malang (Jl. Tugu 3; 62-341/362-747; tuguhotels.com; doubles from US$105) offers 49 rooms and suites, each individually designed with artifacts from across Indonesia. In the town of Wonotoro, about a one-hour drive from Mount Bromo, Java Banana (62-335/541-193; java-banana.com; doubles from US$57) is a sleek, new lodge with cozy rooms overlooking a lush valley. The café doubles as a local art gallery, and staff can organize jeep tours to watch the sunrise over the Tengger Caldera.
Where To Eat
Hotel Tugu Malang is popular for its varied restaurants. Overlooking the pool, Melati Restaurant dishes up everything from East Javanese classics to old Dutch and Peranakan fare; L’Amour Fou is a surreal dining room dedicated to love, with live music and pizzas shaped as hearts; and the Roti Tugu Bakery is a favorite spot for its home-baked bread, cakes, and cookies. If you’re staying at the hotel, don’t miss out on sampling the complimentary Javanese snacks, available every afternoon at the Tugu Tea House.
Bakso Malang (Jl. Ananas) may be small, but it’s one of the best places in town to sample bowls of meatball soup. Arrive before 3 p.m., otherwise you’ll miss out. Opened in 1930, Toko Oen (Jl. Basuki Rahmat) has been serving ice-cream and Dutch-inspired snacks ever since. Visit the Eng An Kiong Buddhist temple (Jl. Laksmana Martadinata) early to ensure a serving of rujak cingur, a blend of beef lips, banana, and fishy sauce that’s surprisingly addictive. The streets around Malang’s main market, Pasar Besar (Jl. Pasar Besar), are worth exploring for local snacks like fried cassava. Inside the market itself, pick up fresh soy bean cake, tempeh, and bags of traditional sweets, but be sure to save space for the coconut-based lupis and cenil desserts sold in the alley next to the Cor Jesu School for an hour or two every afternoon.
Not far from Probolinggo on the way to Bromo, the owners of Depot Nguling (62 Jl. K.H. Zainul Arifin) have been dishing up steaming bowls of black beef-knee stew, nasi rawon dengkul, for three generations, and the restaurant still does a roaring trade today. In Wonotoro, the café at Java Banana brews the best coffee in town, alongside a handful of banana desserts and meals using ingredients sourced from the surrounding hills. Look out for the lodge’s upcoming cooking school. –ND
Originally appeared in the May 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mealtime in Malang”)