I've got to admit something: I wasn't a huge fan of the food in Java, the most populous of Indonesia's 13,466 islands. I really hate when things like this happen. I don't mean to offend anyone, and I'd love it if all the food in the world tasted good to me, but, well, it just doesn't. This is probably a fault in me and not in the cuisine itself.
My wife Adri and I came to Indonesia with an open mind and open mouths, but dish after dish left us thinking I wish this just had a little more acid, or I wish the meat weren't quite so dry or why the heck is there so much palm sugar and low quality sweet soy sauce in this?
Though the one we kept coming back to was man, I wish this had been prepared fresh instead of sitting around all day and served lukewarm.
There's a time and a place for lukewarm food. Day-old pizza for breakfast and cold fried chicken with a hangover come to mind, but after a few days in Yogyakarta eating everything from cold pre-fried lumpia (spring rolls) to mie ayam—bowls of chicken soup served with lifeless pre-cooked noodles that'd make a Chinese street vendor weep—to the jackfruit and egg stew known as gudeg (which comes out warm only because the rice it's served on is kept hot in a steamer), I yearned for something served hot, fresh, and cooked to order.
We found salvation in martabak.
Martabak, Sweet or Savory
Most Javanese food can attribute its relative simplicity to the fact that it's an indigenous cuisine that has remained largely unaffected by outside forces, save for a bit of Chinese influence in certain dishes. Martabak, a roti-like stuffed fried flatbread, is a notable exception. Even on Java, folks I talked to said "this isn't Javanese food, it's Indian."
According to Bruce Kraig's encyclopedic Street Food Around the World, Martabak may actually trace its origins to the Middle East. In Arabic, mutabbaq means "folded," a reference to the way that the soft, stretchy dough is folded around stuffing as it cooks.
Dishes like this are found all over Middle East and Southeast Asia. Have you seen those guys making banana roti in the touristy parts of Bangkok or Chiang Mai? Then you know what martabak is.
When you place your order for a savory martabak, your only real job is to tell the vendor how large you'd like it. Standard is a two-egg filling—the better vendors will use duck eggs—though at most stands you can request up to five.
Once you place your order, the vendor will take out a small ball of soft, elastic wheat dough and slap it down onto an oiled work surface.
Don't blink while he stretches the dough, because it happens blindingly fast. A couple of quick spins and slaps, and it's become translucently thin. Neapolitan pizza stretchers could learn a trick or two from these guys.
Next up, the dough is lowered into hot oil in a wide, shallow cast iron pan. The vendor swishes it back and forth like a curtain as he lowers it, encouraging it to bubble and blister.
The filling starts with a couple of eggs into which the vendor adds some sliced green onions and cilantro.
Next, seasoned cooked ground chicken meat goes into the cup. I've been told you can also find beef or mutton versions, though I didn't run across any.
After beating the filling with a fork, the vendor pours it into the center of the bubbling dough.
He spreads it around with the back of a spoon into an even layer before he folds up the dough around the filling.
Using his fingers and an extra-long metal spatula, he lifts up each corner and brings it into the center, forming a neat rectangle, which he immediately flips over, folded-side-down.
The martabak slowly sizzles away as the vendor flips it occasionally until it's golden brown on both sides.
We were befriended by a local couple who offered us an invaluable tip for ordering martabak: Just like a reheated slice of New York pizza, you want to ask for it extra-crispy for the best results.
A few minutes later, the martabak is removed from the oil, sliced into squares, and served with raw hot chilies, along with some sour pickled cucumbers and radishes.
The very best examples have crisp, blistered surfaces that remind me a lot of Chinese-American egg roll wrappers. The eggy filling should be light and fluffy like the best scrambled eggs, with plenty of fresh herb flavor.
Sweet martabak bears no resemblance its savory counterpart, and as far as I know, is found only in Indonesia. The only thing the two have in common is that they are invariably served out of the same vendor cart.
The sweet version starts with a thin, eggy batter very much like pancake batter. It gets deposited into a deep, oiled cast iron pan where it slowly cooks until the center puffs up with tiny bubbles, very much like a giant crumpet.
It then gets carefully flipped out of the pan and topped. The most popular option seems to be the simplest: a thick spread of bright yellow margarine, followed by a layer of the bitter chocolate sprinkles known as hagelslag in Holland, a clear influence of Indonesia's Dutch colonial history.
A layer of grated fresh cheese goes on next...
...followed by a big drizzle of condensed milk. I think these are all of Robyn Lee's favorite things.
Once the sprinkles are on, the pancake gets cut in half and closed up like a sandwich, where the residual heat makes everything melt together. The margarine, chocolate, and condensed milk all soak through the porous, eggy cake, giving it the moist texture of a good tres leches, but with a crisp shell on the top and bottom.
I'm not much of a sweet eater, but this kicked some serious butt.
It's pretty fantastic. You spend the equivalent of a buck or two, and end up with a couple dozen crisp and salty or sweet and gooey squares custom-made for sharing and late-night drinking.
One night on Bali, after a late-night food craving got me up out of bed, leaving a sleeping wife behind in our hotel in Lovina, the black sand dolphin-packed beach on the island's north coast, I wandered toward a tiny night market where the martabak man was the last vendor standing, serving the young local hotel and bar staff making their way home on their motorbikes after their full-day shifts. I couldn't even tell you where this specific guy was if I tried, but walk the streets of any Indonesian city at night and you'll find them. They're as plentiful as hot dog vendors in New York City.
As I grabbed up my boxes of martabak and started walking back, a group of guys sitting by the side of the road with a busted old guitar in hand called me over to join them. I sat down while one of the guys emptied a hip flask of arak—the local firewater made with palm sugar*—into an empty water bottle before topping it up with beer and tonic water and passing it around. We ended up sitting up for hours, drinking his arak-beer cocktail, singing songs, and picking at the martabak.
*You'd be well-advised to NOT do what I did. Don't partake of any Arak of unknown origin on Bali. Folks have gone blind and even died from bad moonshine here.
I didn't even begrudge them when they handed me the guitar, said "sing some American songs," then immediately requested Hotel California.*
*I hate the f*&king Eagles.
I gotta admit, I was a little disappointed that even on pork-loving Bali, a largely Hindu island that doesn't have the same restrictions against the other white meat as the rest of Muslim Indonesia, you couldn't find versions of martabak made with pork.
I may have to fix that problem myself. Pork belly and eggs fried in a crispy pastry shell? Doesn't that sound tasty to you?