Bananas and Brains in Batavia

Yep, I’m a bit of a shoe-in for truculent gastrointestinal issues, and one good reason is because I don’t fear water.  Either that, or the local bottled water is refilled anyway, so I’m not sure boiling the stuff will make life any better, especially when the steam smells like a cross between a Subway sandwich shop and a freshly sharpened pencil.  A poignant memory is from a visit to Savar, Bangladesh, home to their National Martyrs’ Memorial,  where a kiosk attendant was filling bottles with a hose.

More likely, it’s due to food preparation and hygiene.   Navigating through menus in a place where WC stands for “Wel Come” and wiping your hand on your shirt is the euphemism for using soap, one of us (or both of us) is more likely to stop walking in a 180° angle and start getting familiar with five-star hotel floor plans.  But hey, you might be lucky and find that the food that you incoherently ordered arrives to your seat looking to satisfy your hunger and nothing more.

Take a look at the first photo.  It was rainy-season time in Jakarta (first strike), and my mate and I took cover under a…tent.  A tent that was leaking as we ran into it.  That was the second strike.  At least it was a food tent, specializing in a whole bunch of words ending in -ang, -rang or the dreaded -ng.  Neither of us knew much Indonesian at the time (could you guess?), so let’s see what we steamed into:

Jakarta, Banana Drowning in Cheese

Ah, pisang goreng keju, rather fried (goreng) banana (pisang) with cheese (keju) and sprinkles.  Sprinkles, golly, those things have a few unusual synonyms.  (Link thanks to Turkey Hil; Personally, I like hundreds and thousands)  Anyway, the inspiration for the title of this (what will be a) series of food-related posts is learning languages.  The motivating factor for me in learning languages is to nonchalantly order food.  Sometimes, blurting out a bit of the current lingo gets you better service, and it may even garner you a date with that suddenly garrulous waitress from Jakarta (formerly known as Batavia) who works Monday-Friday from 16:00-23:00 at an Italian restaurant with 30% tinted windows.  Did you like the specifics?  Well, it didn’t happen, but it COULD.

Right, so the fried banana with cheese…always a fan of seeing cheese on a menu without knowing what type it is.  I didn’t like the dish.  Do  you think you would?  Does it conjure up images of disgust, or have you already cleared the plate by the time you scrolled below the photo?  The issue maybe was textural, as in, something mushy with something sticky, or that banana isn’t a common fruit to enjoy “cheese” with.  Then again, that’s regarding a westerner’s palette.  To an Indonesian, it might be a weekly treat.  Not that cheese is an Indonesian delicacy, but wait, that’s another interesting aspect of language.  Keju comes from queijo, its Portuguese equivalent, and this dish may be Portuguese (yep, they made it to the Dutch East Indies too).  On the other hand, how about we take a glimpse at a more indigenous Indonesian snack…

Tanjung Pinang, Otak-Otak

At least regarding Indonesia, I’ve only seen otak-otak (literally, brains-brains, due to its squishy feel and insurmountable coloring) sold by the smog-choked roadsides and bus stops.  Judging by’s recipe, it is composed mostly of fish (often mackerel)/fish paste, garlic, onions, turmeric, coconut milk, and reeled me in by its potent blend of spices enhanced by charcoal.  And the name.  I’m a sucker for repeated words forming plural forms or…something completely different than what is intended, you know, as above.  The flavor was heavy on the grilled side, and I could definitely taste various spices and herbs as well as the fish, but I also felt like a shark eating chum, so for that moment, irony won.  I’ll give it another shot the next time I’m in Jakarta, but apparently the Sumatran city of Palembang, enjoys it with cuko, a spicy tamarind sauce.  I’ll submit the results of the taste test to Consumer Reports, because knowing the facts of otak-otak is no less important than learning which solar-powered stapler makes the best gift.
Would you eat one or both of the above?

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