Viva Via Via

Just down the road from my hotel in Jogja was the Via Via cafe, which along with excellent food, a quality souvenir shop and rooms (which I didn’t see, but judging by the rest of the place I’m sure they were nice), they also run a variety of classes and tours. These include themed tours! Yay! I love themed tours! Local landmarks and history are all well and good and can be fascinating with the right guide, but nothing gets me excited like a specialist subject. (By the by, if you happen to find yourself in New Orleans, seek out the ghost tours and ask for Randy. Also New York? Food On Foot. You can thank me later.)

I immediately signed up for the culinary tour because, duh, food tours are awesome. They can seem quite expensive, particularly as you’re often taken to really cheap local places, but it’s definitely the local knowledge that you’re paying for as you’d never find these places on your own and then if you did the food would be totally incomprehensible so how on earth do you know what to order? Or how to order? Plus if you go at the beginning of your trip you have a stash of places to go back to later.

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This is Abi, Anggit and Lina, our guides and drivers for the night, plus John and Arturo, my fellow eaters (at the end of tour, so our stomachs are very full and happy)

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Indonesia cares about its passengers more than India! Helmets for everyone! Also, this helmet is brilliant and I want it – Martin please can I have an angry chicken helmet for your bike when I get home?

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Or first stop was the various snack stalls around Kota Ghede market, starting with relatively familiar palm sized pancakey type things called serabi. Not certain what they are, but they remind me a little of appam in India which I think were made of fermented rice flour? We’ll go with that. I could have looked this up if I’d got round to writing this with WiFi, but instead I’m writing it on a bus in north Malaysia (yes, I’m quite behind) to save it for later so I will remain ignorant. Probably forever as I will forget to look it up later as well. My serabi was slightly green as I picked one with pandan, a leaf which is boiled to extract the mild vanilla-ish flavour.

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The deep fried stuff stand! Definitely guide required here as everything looked the same (deep frying doesn’t give you a lot of options other than beige and bumpy) and I’m fairly sure the seller didn’t speak English. I ended up trying fermented cassava – vaguely alcoholic and weird, but not half bad, breadfruit – well, yeah, it’s called breadfruit because it tastes like bread, so kinda bland, and bakwan which don’t have a filling but are just balls of batter with onions, herbs and chili mixed in and are amazing and need to be brought back to England and transformed into dumplings immediately.

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One sweet among many from a stall selling baskets and baskets of totally unfamiliar stuff. They are called kipo, short for ekipo which means ‘what is this??’, which reminded me of the origin of the word kangaroo (white man asks a local ‘I say, what do you call that animal over yonder?’, aborigine replies kangaroo, which means ‘I don’t understand the question’). Kipo is made of sticky rice, palm sugar and coconut. There are quite a lot of snacks using sticky rice, which Anggit tells us is because of the proverb ‘sticky rice, sticky people’, presumably meaning people who stick together rather than people who don’t wash often enough.

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Or last stall before moving on was a lady serving sweetened jamu (jamu is the traditional herbal medicine here), made with egg yolk, honey, lemon and a shot of the medicine made from… err… something in the ginger family. Can’t remember what. For ‘stamina’ apparently. Given that she only offered it to the boys until I asked for one as well, and that I got a very disapproving look from a bystander, I get the impression I’ve now tasted Indonesian Viagra. Oh well, it was really good anyway.

These stalls all counted as one stop on the tour out of five and I was already feeling like I’d eaten a whole meal. Hmm. It’s a good idea to start very hungry on this tour.

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Next up we stopped at a restaurant specialising in lotek and gado gado where we learned to make the lotek sauce. They’re both quite similar salads with a peanut based sauce, the difference being that the sauce is raw for lotek and boiled for gado gado. I think I prefer lotek, which is unfortunate since gado gado is far more common in restaurants.

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Next up we visited a factory making bakpia, little blobs of paste (traditionally mung beans, so we saw all the mung bean processing) wrapped in pastry. Stomach starting to fail me here.  I only managed three out of the four samples offered – bean, cheese and pineapple.

After this we went to a gudeg restaurant, which is a chicken dish served with very slow cooked jack fruit. I’d actually had gudeg the day before on a recommendation from Bentar so I was able to get away with sparing my poor stomach and eating a very small amount! It’s traditionally served with pieces of cow skin, which rates as the strangest thing I’ve eaten so far. It’s not crispy like chicken skin or crunchy like pork skin, it’s just kinda… spongy.  Eww.

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Or last stop for ginger soup (actually the only thing I didn’t like – too sweet for me), was at the south square, where you can hire brightly lit pedal cars to cycle around the square 3 times. There must be some significance in this.

There also a tradition of trying to walk between two large trees blindfolded to see if you’re worthy of jointing the sultan’s army.

Am I getting the north and south square mixed up? Eh, possibly. Just had for the squares around the palace and you’ll find it eventually.

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This is WAY HARDER than it looks. If you walk slowly and cautiously it’s so difficult to keep in a straight line and we all veered off to one side. Arturo actually managed to walk in a full circle and a half before colliding with one of the trees. I can see why it was a good army test as the only way to really do it would be to fearlessly run for it and not give yourself time to go off track (not advisable to do this as a tourist with the number of other people trying at the same time though). I did sort of succeed, although I realised after feeling grass under my feet that I’d gone wrong so I slowly turned round to try and hear which way the road was before walking off again. I’m not sure if this counts as cheating or soldier like ingenuity.

The tour was so good that I immediately signed up for another when we got back to the cafe, this time for the jamu and massage tour. I was on my own this time, but thankfully only had to pay about 10% extra, compared to double for the volcano tour.

Vita met me in the morning to drive me to the herb and spice market. Jamu medicine is usually prepared by local practitioners, but you can also buy spice mixes to make your own. Vita was very informative about telling me what all the different ingredients were used for… but I didn’t write anything down so I can’t remember it. Clearly I will never break into the field of herbal medicine.

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One thing I do remember however is one of the methods of warding off mosquitoes, which was mahogany seeds. They are the worst things I have ever tasted in my life! I’m honestly not sure if the remedy is better or worse than the bites. Thankfully after the shopkeepers had finished laughing at me they gave me a lump of palm sugar to take away the taste.

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This stall was for cosmetic jamu, to make your outsides as healthy as your insides. I was guided along the various pastes and powders and herb mixes – this one is for your feet, this one is for your hair, this one is for your armpits, this one is for your face, this one is for your foof… Wait, what? Did she really just say that? ‘Your foof, you know, your vagina. To lighten the skin and stop it smelling bad.’ Oh. Yes then, she really did just say that. They even sold a mini stool with a cupboard for your hot jamu and a hole in the top to sit on so you can have a nice little steam spa session for your lady parts.

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Most of these pots are just cooking pots for jamu, but one particular shape is used for a birthing ritual. It is believed that the placenta is the spiritual twin of the new born baby and if it’s looked after it will look after the baby.  The placenta is placed in the pot with a needle (for a sharp mind), a strip of paper with the alphabet (for good communication) and a piece of thread (to connect it to the community). It is then kept on the family door step for a week, before being buried in the garden – by this time the spirit has absorbed back into the mother.  I think Vita might have been a bit horrified when I told her some people eat their placenta in the UK.

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Our next stop was a  traditional jamu seller, the very first in the city. It used to be purely for the sultan’s family, but the royal doctor said she wanted to make it available to the common people so the sultan allowed her to set up shop here. A lot of locals come here every day for their regular shot glass of healthy goodness. I had the lucky, lucky opportunity to try several different varieties. They were all horrible. (Apparently a common threat when a child loses their appetite is ‘oh dear, are you sick? If you don’t finish your dinner I’ll have to take you to the jamu seller’) The two at the front were ‘general health’ and ‘women’s health’, both made from secret recipes of many different ingredients and both bitter enough to ensure that no mosquito will ever come near you, if you can bear to take more than the tiniest sip. They both come with a shot of sugar water as standard because they are just that bad. The larger pre sweetened ones at the back are based on turmeric and galangal and were for staying slim and curing coughs. These tasted slightly better, but still nothing like what was clearly lightweight jamu on the food tour!

After I callously left Vita to finish off the medicine she had bought me we headed to the massage centre for my traditional massage.  All the masseurs at the centre are blind and are taught the skills to help them find a place in the community. This is a popular place for locals because ‘it’s a proper massage, not like you get in a spa’. Um, at the risk of being called a wimp, I like spa massages. Jesus, my everything hurt once I hobbled out of there.

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One we got back to the cafe I was shown how to make a really simple face mask using rice and cinnamon – my skin felt amazing after this, for the two minutes it took before I was covered in sweat and needed to reapply my sunscreen again. Oh well.

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After laughing about the foof discussion (by the way, also learned that betel leaves can be used to… um… tighten), Vita clearly decided I wasn’t too much of a prude and brought out her secret box of goodies so we could have a good giggle while my face was setting. In this marvellous pile of goodies we have: male stamina powder, breast enhancement powder, pills to make your woman wilder, ‘darling peculiar hormone cream’ for tingling sensations, and the even more peculiar ‘worldy stick of joy’. Apparently Indonesian men…I will attempt to be as frank as Vita here… don’t like their women to be too wet, so you would discreetly use this to absorb… stuff. OK, maybe I’m slightly more prudish than her. And let’s not mention the conclusions I came to about why Asian men might have that preference. You know what they say, eh?

There another Via Via in Chengdu in China, so I might have to go see if they’re as good as this one!

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