When Feny*, the owner of Indonesian cafe Wajan, was growing up in Jakarta, she had a few classic meals she’d eat throughout the day. She’d get bubur ayam, a chicken and rice porridge, as an afternoon snack. She’d eat her mother’s rendang in the evenings, sometimes made with chicken as opposed to the traditional beef. Bakmi was a standard meal on the go, though her mother would make it at home with a choice of noodles. And elements of any given meal could end up a part of a nasi uduk, if it weren’t purchased from the nearby warung.
At Wajan, Feny recreates a number of those childhood dishes in a small cafe dedicated to her hometown: Murals throughout the space capture Indonesian landmarks and stories, while the tables are covered in Indonesian batik. Similarly, the menu at Wajan includes many of the country’s greatest hits, but the best dishes at the restaurant are the ones that are personal to her, dishes she ate with her mother. Below, readers can dive into a guided meal at Wajan — what to eat, what to drink, and what to know going in.
For total beginners
Indonesian food incorporates a multitude of ingredients and cultural influences. As the fourth-most-populous country in the world, spanning more than 17,000 islands, Indonesia has a cuisine that’s just as diverse, with countless regional delicacies. Painting with very broad strokes, Indonesian food often involves dishes with several components: spicy chile-based sauces called sambals, pickles, condiments, and stews, with garnishes like fried shallots and krupuk crackers. Many dishes use locally grown spices and herbs, lemongrass and galangal, and candlenut for richness. Fermentation is a big part of Indonesian cooking, as well; for example, tempeh — fermented soybeans — originated in Indonesia.
Like most restaurants, Wajan’s menu starts with a number of snacks, leading into larger dishes. It’s best to get a few snacks with beverages, then one mixed-rice dish and a soup and/or porridge. The nasi uduk and nasi campur offer diners the opportunity to try quite a few of the various sauces and snacks — many of the components of the rice dishes can be ordered a la carte, as can a number of house-made sambals for heat-seekers.
To start: Drinks and teri kacang
A meal at Wajan should start with a few drinks and a quick snack, before heading into the larger meal. Sober diners can try one of the restaurant’s house-made jamu kunyit asam, an Indonesian tonic with turmeric and tamarind. This is a drink Feny makes herself, although her partner, Ross Grimes, generally handles the drink menu. “It’s very gingery, a little sweet, it has the nice sourness from the tamarind,” Grimes says. “The turmeric is ever-present in that drink.” For those seeking something a touch stronger, Grimes recommends the mahkota, a brandy-based drink. The mahkota, which means crown in Indonesian, comes with a crown-like circle of ice floating in a coupe glass, with brandy, cucumber simple syrup, and a number of Indonesian-inspired spices: Cardamom and coriander, plus a touch of black pepper.
Although Wajan offers a number of fritters to start, it’s best to dig into the teri kacang, a salty-funky peanut mix that gets extra oomph from dried anchovies. Feny roasts the peanuts and then fries them with anchovies, garlic, shallots, and palm sugar, plus some chiles if people want them spicy — they should.
Nasi uduk with rendang
It’s best to visit Wajan with a group, but those rolling in solo should stick to the nasi uduk with rendang. It’s a dish with several components, and it allows visitors to try a bit of several things in a serving for one person.
The foundation of the dish is a coconut-milk rice, in which the rice steeps with lemongrass, lime leaf, and an Indonesian bay leaf called salam, an herb vastly different from the bay leaf many Westerners use in their cooking. “If you can only find American bay leaf, it’s better to leave it out altogether,” Feny says. “They’re completely different.” The rice absorbs the aromatic coconut milk before it steams in a steamer.
Every order of nasi uduk comes with acar kuning, a carrot, cucumber, and long bean pickle with a turmeric-coconut peanut sauce; telor balado, a deep-fried hard-boiled egg in a spicy sauce; tempeh orek, or lightly fried tempeh with coconut sugar; and krupuk. Then, diners get a choice of an optional accompanying protein. While diners can choose the ayam goreng (fried chicken) or babi kentang (pork belly), it’s best to go with the deeply rich and well-spiced rendang — the rendang slow-cooks in shallots, garlic, fresh and dried chiles, candlenuts, cinnamon, salam, star anise, lemongrass, and coconut milk for five hours, depending on the cut of meat. “Sometimes, it’s just totally shredded, to the point where it’s overcooked. You don’t want it to get so shredded,” she says. “I want it to be tender, melt in your mouth, so you can keep that consistency. It’s pretty simple, but it’s tricky because you always have to watch it.”
Bubur Ayam, an Indonesian rice porridge, was something Feny would eat almost every day. However, she felt hesitant to put it on the menu at first: She was worried people would expect it to be identical to Chinese congee. “When I first put it on the menu, I was nervous, but people love it,” she says. “When they’re feeling under the weather, people say, ‘I want your bubur.’”
Her version is super saucy, so much so that it’s hard to see the rice when it arrives at the table. Her rice porridge starts with just rice, vegetable stock, salt, and salam, so it can be vegan if necessary. While the rice cooks down, Feny combines stock, salam leaf, and turmeric with garlic, shallots, galangal, and lemongrass.
The porridge comes with the base porridge and the turmeric broth, plus a few other add-ons: crispy shredded chicken, roasted soybeans, green onions, krupuk, and kecap manis, a classic Indonesian condiment also called sweet soy sauce.
When walking around Jakarta, it’s hard to miss the bakmi shops. Brought to Indonesia by Chinese immigrants, bakmi combines chewy wheat noodles with minced pork.
Feny starts by marinating diced pork loin in oyster sauce, Chinese five spice, lots of garlic, soy sauce, and dried shiitake mushrooms, for the concentration of flavor. The pork marinates for at least a few hours — “overnight, ideally” — before it’s sauteed with a touch of water, to give the pork a gravy-like consistency.
A portion of that sauce ends up getting tossed with the noodles, which also get a touch of garlic oil before they hit the bowl. The noodles come with the pork mixture, yu choy, telor kecap (a sweet-soy-seasoned, hard-boiled egg), bean sprouts, and green onion. A bowl of pork bone broth comes on the side, to be sipped next to the noodles or added to the mixture. “I like it to be just a little bit of broth, to keep the noodles a little bit moist, so I can mix in a little bit of everything,” Feny says. “That way, I can still taste the full flavor of the meat.”
For dessert: Kopi, simple or spiked
While Wajan offers a handful of desserts, the restaurant’s coffee drinks are something special. Indonesia — the home of both Java and Sumatra — is known for its coffee beans, so the restaurant sources beans from Portland’s Indonesian coffee roaster Kopi Coffee Company. Kopi roasts Sumatran coffee beans specifically for the restaurant.
However, for something stronger and a little cheekier, the restaurant’s Kopiko Koktail is another option. Kopiko, a brand of Indonesian instant coffee and coffee-flavored candies, is the base for one of Grimes’s other cocktails, which combines the coffee with whiskey and chocolate bitters. “It’s not as sweet as it sounds,” he says. “It’s kind of dry; whiskey’s the main show there.” The drink arrives cold, and is particularly good with a few tapioca dumplings.
Get a sambal or two: The restaurant makes five sambals, all using a number of different chiles. Many are familiar with sambal oelek, but there are many others worth trying. Sambal matah is a shallot- and lemongrass-heavy version great with pork, sambal terasi gets some extra funk from shrimp paste, sambal ijo is somewhat similar to nahm prik noom in Thai cooking, with lots of green chiles — you can’t go wrong, unless you’re looking to avoid spice.
If there’s an arrack special, order it: Arrack, a Southeast Asian sugarcane spirit, appears in a few of Grimes’s cocktail specials. It’s very tasty and deeply refreshing; if there’s no arrack cocktail special available, order a gimlet and swap the gin for arrack.
If it’s nice, sit outside: The small enclosed patio is reminiscent of the various open-air restaurants in Indonesia, especially Bali. It’s a great place to sit and knock back a few Bintang, an Indonesian pale lager.
Note: In Indonesia, many people do not use surnames. Feny prefers to go without hers, so we refer to her as simply Feny in this piece.