Jakarta is an overlooked city. Despite being the capital of the world’s fourth-largest, and arguably most diverse nation, on the surface, it offers little to travelers. Traffic, shopping malls, noise, it is a city that seems monotonous, and it’s one that most ignore as they head to more beautiful places in the country like Bali or Yogyakarta.
But behind the malls, in narrow, winding alleys are Jakarta’s kampungs, villages within the city, where you can find all the diversity of the country. In the north is Glodok, the city’s historic ethnic Chinese enclave, where narrow footpaths lead to sellers hawking delicious bakso, a meatball made from beef surimi, alongside a 370-year-old Chinese temple. In fact, this is one of the world’s oldest Chinatowns—here since the early days of Dutch colonial control of what was then called the “East Indies.” The relationship with other ethnic groups in Jakarta has not always been peaceful. During the three-decades-long Suharto dictatorship, Chinese language and culture were suppressed, and in 1998, an economic crisis led to violent riots that targeted ethnic Chinese, resulting in more than a thousand deaths and widespread destruction.
However, since democracy came to Indonesia in 1999, the lifting of discriminatory anti-Chinese laws in 2000, and the decision to make Chinese New Year a national holiday in 2003, the situation has vastly improved. Today, Glodok is a popular destination for Indonesians of all backgrounds. The neighborhood is wonderfully walkable, a rarity in Jakarta, with narrow alleys, winding streets and a plethora of delicious street food you can’t find anywhere else, such as bakpia (pork meat pastries) or kari lam (meat and potato curry).
In narrow, winding alleys are Jakarta’s kampungs, villages within the city, where you can find all the diversity of the country.
Take the Jakarta busway south of the city center, to the Cililitan area, where, through a narrow lane passing underneath the first toll road is a Batak neighborhood. The Batak people, a mostly Christian group from the island of Sumatra, are known for their directness. Many come to Jakarta for education and work, but maintain their distinctive cultural ties. You’ll feel like you’re along the shores of mountainous Lake Toba due to the abundance of local food options. In the morning, street stalls sell a traditional Batak breakfast dish, Mie Gomak, spicy dry-fried noodles in a spicy peanut sauce. In the evening you can venture to one of the many Batak eateries on the main thoroughfare, Jalan Mayjen Sutoyo, where you’ll even find Saksang, a Batak pork disk sauteed in blood sauce, a surprising find in a Muslim-majority city. You can also explore one of the neighborhood’s three Batak churches, each of which is usually packed with devotees from this highly religious community.
In the south, surrounded by the modernity of Jakarta’s richest neighborhoods, are Betawi villages. They’re still home to the native people in what would become one of Asia’s biggest megacities, and there they follow the same traditions they have for decades. The most easily accessible Betawi Village is Setu Babakan. Here you can find traditional one-story Betawi homes, galleries selling Betawi arts and crafts, and plenty of street stalls selling Betawi delights such as Bir Pletok, a non-alcoholic beer, Kerak Telor, crusted Betawi style fried eggs, fried bean sprouts and much more. There’s even a lake where you can rent a boat and truly escape from the megacity.
These are just three of the many ethnic neighborhoods, enclaves, restaurants, and markets one can find in Jakarta. If you’re willing to deal with the smog and traffic, you’ll find you can explore the food and culture of dozens of islands in just a day.
Nithin Coca is a longtime traveler and freelance journalist who covers culture, environment, and sustainability in Asia. His feature and news pieces have appeared in global media outlets including Al Jazeera, Quartz, Engadget, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Vice, and other regional publications in Asia and the United States.