The other day Chris’ childhood friend, visiting from the U.S. for his pal’s wedding, was introduced to the künefe when we all went out for a kebap. It was a surprisingly bad künefe given we were at a Hatay restaurant: the cheese was rubbery, the shredded wheat was lumpy. “Sorry, this isn’t a very good example of künefe,” I told him. “Really?” He replied. “I think it’s delicious. If this is my baseline for this dessert, he said, it’s a pretty good baseline.”
That’s how I felt when I tried the food at Warung Nusantara (literally “food stall of the archipelago”). I had never tried Indonesian food before, and I am sure this eatery isn’t Michelin-starred Indonesian fare.
But if this is my baseline, then I really like Indonesian food.
I arrived in the boiling August midday heat the wrong way: from the Merter metrobus stop. As close as it might look on Google Maps, don’t come that way. Instead, come from the Kabatas-Bagcilar tramline and get off at Merkezefendi. It’s literally right next to the tram stop under a big red sign.
Not knowing what to order, I am a little embarrassed to admit then I quickly found a Buzzfeed article to reference to tell me what 30 Indonesian dishes that I MUST try (I tried Buzzfeed for West African food for our first E.I. review, with much less success).
The waiter was a very friendly young Indonesian man. I asked Sonny what to order. Seeing #1 on the Buzzfeed list, nasi goreng, I decided I had to try that but, hmmm, garnished fried rice seemed a bit incomplete. I saw sate on the menu, too. I remembered sate from my friend Stan’s tales of Indonesian food. He told me it’s the classic Indonesian street food found all over. Given that its chicken on a stick, it was a safe bet for protein energy. I have a lot of tram/metro stops between me and home in Maltepe, I thought.
It seemed like Sonny read my mind. “You want to try a half portion of both?” he said, after I confessed to my woeful Indo ignorance. I like you already, Sonny, I thought to myself. The summer heat also necessitated a cold drink. Indonesia’s boiling hot, so what do Indonesian drink in the heat? Indonesian iced tea! He replied. The beverage came first. It was pretty much iced tea as it’s known in the American south: sweet, but stronger than it’s American cousin. It was also served in a mason jar with a handle and a bendy straw, adding to the similarity. Hit the spot, and at 3 TL, the cost is no letdown either.
Then came the half portion of each sate ayam and and nasi goreng. The peanut sauce covering the three skewers of tender breast was a nice balance of peanut and sweet/sour kick. Surprising were the cubes of a boiled rice as the side starch. Known as lontong, rice over boiled to almost a paste, it was divine when married with the peanut sauce.
The nasi goreng was tasty, though I hoped for bigger chunks of meat and veggies mixed in with the sweet and lightly spicy rice. Most of the spice isn’t thrown into the frying pan, but served alongside in a spicy tomato paste, kecap (pronounced ketchup). It wasn’t the most memorable fried rice, but then I thought about how many memorable fried rices I’ve had. Not many. Both dishes were garnished with a bit of sliced veggies.
After the plates were cleared and other customers (including a group of young indonesian women who lived in Istanbul “for work”) left, I got a chance to chat with Sonny (his nickname, of course). Originally from Bogor, near Jakarta, his friend knew the boss of the restaurant and said the boss had been looking for someone to help run the place. Looking for adventure, like me and many of you, he came to town and started working as a cook because “boss could hire a Turk, but it wouldn’t be the same,” he said, noting that already, expensive palm sugar, a staple of Indonesian food, has to substituted for pekmez (molasses) at Warung Nusantara. As if I would have noticed.
The customer split is “about 60/40” with a bit more Indonesians than Turks. I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of Turks tried the place (there were two other Turks while I was there, though a group of Turkish delikanlılar opened the door, Sonny proclaimed “Endonezya!” and the boys immediately recoiled and left with disgusted faces).
“A lot of Indonesian visitors were asking my boss, who was a tour guide, ‘where’s the Indonesian food’ so my boss opened the place up,” he said.
Thinking about it’s proximity to ethnically diverse Zeytinburnu (Uyghurs and Afghans) and Fatih (Syrians and much more), I asked if there are a lot of Indonesians living close by.
“Alhamdullah, no!” he replied with a chuckle. “We are here because it’s halfway to touristy areas, and halfway to airport, so Indonesians can come for breakfast.”
Breakfast? “Yeah, if we have a big group in the morning, we open for them. Normally we open at noon and close at 9. Nasi uduk (nasi means rice) is the most popular breakfast food, and is made at Warung Nusantara with coconut milk, a bayleaf, and kefir.”
The décor at Warung Nusantara is clean, bright, simple and pleasant, with big windows overlooking the street, tram stop, and empty lot next door; typical Turkish esnaf lokatası chairs and tables. A woven, kilim map of Indonesia, framed on the wall, is the most striking decoration. Smaller wooden indonesian masks are fixed on the walls at eye level. A display selling IndoTime, a new brand of locally produced (Turk mali [product of Turkey] is written in large letters), Indonesian instant noodles that are trying to crack the Indonesian market, according to Sonny, is by the kitchen door.
I also noticed a glass case with bags of what looked like rice chips. They’re called krupuk and are made with tapioca starch and sold for 2 TL (I’m munching on them as I write this). There’s also Thai coconut milk in the cooler.
“It’s not the same. Ah, I miss cracking a coconut open and drinking the milk out!” Sonny looked off in distance and mimed breaking a coconut and sucking it’s nectar.
The bill came to 21 TL. Normally the cook, Sonny didn’t know how to work he POS machine, so I ran to an ATM, something he apologized for profusely, so bring cash.
I will come back, if not this summer, than someday (I leave the country for Boston on Aug. 23 for graduate school). I’m looking forward to the 28 other dishes Buzzfeed recommends, and hopefully more.
I’ve got a good baseline going.