It’s a rainy weeknight in Central Jakarta and the streets are dim and wet, slashed by the occasional passing motorcycle. The cafes and restaurants are closing their doors and even the street stalls are running out of food. There’s only one place to go: The steps of Pasar Hias Rias Cikini.
The entrance to a shopping plaza by day, the steps are turned into an eatery by night, serving up steaming hot bowls of bubur ayam (chicken porridge), the perfect comfort food for drizzly weather. Bubur ayam is often eaten for breakfast, but here it is served as a late-night snack between 9 p.m. and midnight, or later on weekends.
If you go for the complete meal, here’s what you can expect: A generous serving of rice porridge with chunks of fried Chinese cakwe bread, topped with shredded chicken, a runny egg, a scattering of bitter emping crackers, a spoonful of bright sambal and a tightly wound bundle of liver and entrails known as hati ampela . As if this wasn’t enough flavor for one bowl, each table provides a basket of additional condiments, including powdered white pepper, extra chili sauce and both sweet and salty soy sauce.
The bubur ayam here is pricier than some, at Rp 16,000 ($1.80) for all the trimmings, but the loyal following during the week and crowds on weekends show that most customers find the price is worth it. Then there is the added bonus of live music while you eat.
Musician Ibe Manuputi has been playing here most nights for the past three years. Armed with a repertoire of hundreds of songs, he sets up his keyboard on the plaza steps, ready to play late into the night.
“I can play a huge variety of songs, whatever people want to hear,” he says. “I only have to hear a song a few times before I get it.”
Ibe downloads midi backing tracks from the Internet and improvises accompaniments to play over the top. For more than a year, he has been joined at the eatery by 20-year-old singer Tiwi. He jokes that she’s his girlfriend.
“I’m not your girlfriend,” she says, with that look that young women reserve for their embarrassing fathers.
Tiwi is a big Whitney Houston fan, and has uploaded plenty of tribute covers to the singer on YouTube. But she’s ready to sing anything people want to hear.
“After she passed away recently, there have been so many people requesting songs by Whitney,” Tiwi says. “But I can sing anything — guys’ or girls’ parts — Ibe just brings it to the right pitch on the keyboard.”
Seated cross-legged on bamboo mats covering the plaza steps, or at red plastic stools by the roadside, customers can be seen hunched over their hot meals watching Ibe and Tiwi play. The synthesized beats echo across the damp pavement, with all the melancholy of cheery music in a quiet place.
Server Adi says the place is much more lively on weekends.
“Friday, Saturday, it can go all night,” he says. Families and friends gather for birthday parties, sometimes even singing and dancing along to the music. Anyone who wants to sing is welcome to take over the mic.
Adi and the other servers dash up and down the market steps with bowls of food, expertly slipping off their shoes as they step onto the mats. The kitchen is a simple set-up by the curb, sheltered behind a kaki lima food cart. There are rice cookers bubbling away full of porridge, bowls swimming with raw eggs and fresh sambal, and chicken carcasses strung up behind the glass. Guavas, starfruit and avocados are stacked ready to make juice.
The staff here are all male, and young. They laugh and joke in their uniforms, shoving one another out of the way in the makeshift kitchen. When there’s little to do, they’ll sing along to the music, or even take the mic themselves.
Aside from the fact that these young guys can throw together a mean bowl of bubur ayam, it’s the friendly atmosphere that keeps people coming back.
“I used to eat here all the time with my friends,” says singer Tiwi. “They used to encourage me to get up and sing. Now I’m here five nights a week.”
Bubur ayam at Pasar Hias Rias Cikini
Jl. Cikini Raya No. 90
From 9 p.m.