For newcomers to the city, going to one of Jakarta’s traditional markets can be a daunting mission. Many people decide to skip the experience entirely, sticking to the packaged and imported goods at the supermarket. Next to the glossy oranges imported from the United States at the higher-end supermarkets, the bruised and battered ones at cheaper establishments can give the impression that local produce is substandard. But a trip to any traditional market will prove otherwise.
Wanting to experience Jakarta’s fruit and vegetable markets for myself, I asked a friend to accompany me to one last weekend. I expected to peruse the offerings down by the river at Manggarai, or join the jostling throngs at Jatinegara.
But my friend had other ideas. She wanted to take me to the mother of all markets, Pasar Kramat Jati in East Jakarta.
From midnight through early morning, Pasar Kramat Jati rumbles with trucks bringing produce from across the archipelago. When you see a vendor pushing a cart laden with fruit around the kampung, strawberries for sale on the busway bridge or an old woman selling a handful of veggies at an outdoor market, chances are the produce has passed through the cavernous warehouses of Kramat Jati.
It may be a large-scale operation, but Kramat Jati is like any regular “wet” market in the capital. My friend advised me to wear three-quarter-length pants and plastic flip-flops to avoid the sludge. We set off before dawn, at the first call to prayer, and arrived at the market when the trucks were still hauling in snake beans, corn and towers of bananas, with a moat of organic waste piling up at the warehouse doors.
Inside, we found many of the vendors in a state we could relate to: They were still asleep. With sarongs tucked around their bodies, vendors and drivers were snoozing inside wooden crates, on benches or on the floor. The walkways were coated in a layer of slimy vegetable peels, as predicted, but the market otherwise was a comfortable place to be. The morning sun was slowly creeping over the stalls, with cobwebbed fans blowing showers of dust into the light. Idols lined the walls: Sukarno, Iwan Fals and local football champions.
Plenty of cafes and eateries in the capital aim to replicate this look: The vintage posters, the barrels of produce and bulging hessian sacks. But Kramat Jati is the real deal. It felt like I’d arrived at the fabled cornucopia of this fertile country — there were staggering amounts of food.
Here, red onions came in 20-kilogram sacks, lugged from place to place on the broad shoulders of strong men. Cabbages were piled almost to the ceiling and celery was bundled like bales of hay. One area was completely barricaded by watermelons.
I wondered how anybody in Jakarta could ever go hungry.
Baffled by the range of goods, my friend and I began to pare down a menu in our heads. Everything looked so fresh and tempting, but most vendors were looking to sell things by the kilo, and we already knew we’d be going home with too much.
We started with an armful of snake beans, four bundles of them for little more than a dollar. Lugging the beans on our hips, we looked for garlic, onions and chilies to cook with our tumis buncis (stir-fried beans). We found a group of women sitting on the floor, removing tiny red onions from the stalk.
Their hands moved quickly, even as they gossiped away. It looked like repetitive work, though not an entirely unpleasant thing to do with friends. There was a production line going, from removing the stalks to clearing away the skins and sorting by size. We took a plastic bag full of the shiny, purple buds.
The garlic we found at a stall specializing in spices: Bags full of cinnamon sticks, knotted piles of ginger and yellow fingers of tumeric. The smell of chilies permeated the air, making me sneeze.
We bought a bag of bright, curly red chilies from a vendor who told us that because of unpredictable weather, the price of chili was still on the up. He also had a collection of vegetables in wicker baskets: Eggplants, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers. We took a selection of things for our spread, and he weighed each portion on a set of balance scales.
The market was beginning to wake up. Women carried trays of fried bananas and sweet black coffee covered with plastic lids, while men sat eating bubur ayam (chicken porridge) in the doorways.
We found a stall piled high with tempeh wrapped in banana leaves and plastic cases. The compacted soy beans looked like great slabs of nougat, and we soon started dreaming of fried tempeh pieces. We bought some, along with more chilies and tomatoes to make into a dipping sambal.
For dessert, we decided on a fresh platter of papaya, taking one wrapped in newspaper and some sweet lemons to squeeze over the top. Topping off our bags with a few ears of corn, we were ready to head home. In all we spent less than Rp 100,000 ($11), but had enough food that night to feed ourselves and four friends using only half of what we bought.
When the land provides so much, it’s hard to imagine why imported and packaged foods so often fill our kitchens. For those who want to taste what the archipelago really has to offer, a trip to a market like Kramat Jati is well worth the early morning trek.