It’s midday and I am in a taxi driving through the back streets of Yogyakarta past candy-coloured houses, quaint warungs, free-range goats grazing, grandpas chatting on rickety bamboo chairs, headscarfed schoolgirls and rice fields. We arrive at a desolate laneway that leads to a small sign, Ikan Lele Mangut Mbah Marto. I’ve been told this restaurant is unique, but it looks more like someone’s abandoned home. I wander inside and a tiny grandma appears who I guess is Mbah Marto. She sees me, covers her face and runs away. Intrigued, I’m directed to the back of the house by a young boy and enter a dim, rustic kitchen, bricks blackened by years of cooking Mbah Marto’s famous catfish over an open wood-fired oven. A small window throws a shaft of smoky light on a cast of intriguing characters who are busy cooking. I see a second grandma, crouched on the floor grinding spices, who sees me and also covers her face.
I’m feeling a tad self-conscious by now. “Help yourself,” says a young woman who is reclining on a bench seat against the sooty side wall. Atop a bamboo slatted bed, spread neatly with a batik cloth, lies an open buffet of ikan lele mangut, catfish fried in chilli and tomato, chicken, tempeh and tofu in opor-style coconut milk, liver steamed in banana leaves and beef skin with cassava leaves. I help myself as instructed, enjoying this dinner party feeling, except I’m minus the friends. Sitting on the front porch, I dig into a surprise of flavours: the meaty, smoky, chilli-fishiness of catfish, galangal-scented coconut-milky nutty tempeh that I’m crazy about and gently spiced cassava leaves with glistening cow skin (a local favourite). The integrity of this home-cooked meal, ingested with eccentric grandma kitchen theatre, is hard to beat.
I’m staying at Greenhost Hotel (www.greenhosthotel. com), one of the most extraordinary eco-friendly hotels I have ever seen – Yogyakarta working its artistic charm again. There’s an oversized metal statue of a boy sprouting twigs in the lobby, a life-sized ornamental tree in the courtyard and a slick Scandinavian-style hipster eatery alongside serving vibrant fusion food. The staff are delightfully friendly, and my room is ultra comfortable. Pasar Prawirotaman is a stone’s throw away and is full of the usual suspects glowing with all that market ambiance and jocularity that I adore. I fill up on sticky rice cakes and a supremely delicious and nutritious bananaleaf package of coconut-scented rice with
Gudeg is a Yogyakarta speciality featuring slow-simmered smoky young jackfruit that is served with a few other protein-rich pals such as chicken, wobbly stewed beef skin and boiled eggs. I tuck into Ibu Tini’s street-food version next to the market that proudly serves her gudeg with free-range ‘village’ chicken and revel in the lightness of her flavours. Wijilan near the city palace is renowned as gudeg paradise with row after row of sellers, including the famous Gudeg Yu Djum. Bakmi Kadin on Jalan Bintaran Kulon is a large no-frills eatery that is rather like a covered food court, resplendent with indoor food carts and cooks who dish up their legendary noodles to order. The key is the full-bodied chicken stock, feet and all, that provides the foundation. Noodles, chicken, cabbage, spring onion, boiled egg, crisp shallots and a few elegant slices of tomato complete the meal. I’m with my children, who immediately douse their bowls in sambal!
At Pasar Kerangan, near Teguh, I fall in love with buntil, cooked leaves shaped in neat bundles like meatballs. I sample one with cooked papaya leaves, another with keladi leaves, boiled into a smooth paté-like creaminess, both lathered in a light curry sauce. Pasar Beringharjo is the place for nasi pecel, and near the entrance of this grand market is where you can fill up on a healthy vegetarian mix of lanched papaya flowers, beans, sprouts, cabbage and maybe some tempeh with peanut sauce. For traditional cakes, Pasar Legi Kota Gede has many old-fashioned favourites wrapped every which way. Kopitiam Oey Jogja, on Jalan Wolter Mongisidi, is a delicious statement in Peranakan chic with a 40s-style Chinesemeets- Dutch colonial nostalgia. Its labyrinth of small rooms are painted in pastel pink, green and soft cherry red and plastered with posters of a bygone era.
As we drive to the airport, crammed between gifts of bakpia, Yogya’s beloved small buttery pastry cakes, I reflect on the past few days. It’s early evening and the roads are still thronging with life; Yogyakarta is morphing into one endless balmy open-air restaurant with bright vinyl banners, strung up like laundry, brandishing colourful menus of chicken, tempeh, fish and more, while wandering minstrels get ready to entertain the masses. The sky is a watercolour blur of soft mauve pink and inky blue. The feasting will continue until the wee hours in this reverie of outdoor life. Yogyakarta never ceases to amaze me. And there truly is a culinary surprise around every corner. I will be back soon!