The Flavours of Indonesia in Batam

Despite the proximity of the two cities, the last time my parents had been to Batam was almost a decade a go, so off we went for a day trip, we were there to witness the change in the city and also to enjoy the food. We planned everything, this blogger said that we should try this mee rebus, that article suggested we should go to that seafood restaurant, money was changed, transport was arranged, we were going to pamper our eyes, cleanse our soul, relax our muscles and feed our stomachs!

…then we got stuck at immigration.

By the time we arrived at what was supposed to be the best mee rebus in Batam (Kedai Kopi Sudi Mampir in the Nagoya district), it was already midday and late breakfast had turned into lunch.

“Hello kak, sini ada me rebus tak?” (Hello, auntie* is there mee rebus sold here) I turned into the stall to ask.

“Habis, hari ini mee rebus sudah habis” (No more, the mee rebus is sold out already)

The famous mee rebus stall had closed for the day, we had missed it because we were stuck at immigration. Mee rebus is a malay and indonesian sweet curry gravy noodle dish popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. We wanted to try this dish because the options in Singapore seem to have deteriorated in quality over the years.

We turned to go, wondering if there were any other good local foods near by. But the many stores owners were determined to make a sale. They had determined that we were not locals, most probably the way we attempted to speak malay to them (with our clearly Singaporean accent) and were politely persistent, “what about chicken, our kampong chicken is very good and its very cheap too.. or you can take our xiao wan mia its very popular also…”

We couldn’t find anything else, so we sat down to try what was to be the first in a day of unexpected discoveries.

The stall was clearly made up for and prepared for chinese clients seeing that the list of food and the people selling them were all ethnically chinese and it showed in the food. Now we had come to Batam planning to try local Indonesia food, Indonesian Chinese food was not on the cards. But we were there, we were hungry and the salespeople at the stalls looked ready to make a sale. So we bought a selection of items to try. There was (clockwise from left) mee goreng, fish soup, kampong chicken and something called a little bowl of noodles (xiao wan mian). The overall standard was very good. The mee goreng was flavourful and not too spicy; the fish in the fish soup was fresh and tender; the kmapong chicken was sweet and juicy and the xiao wan mian was tasty. These dishes had the authentic flavour that my parents recalled from their youth. All this came to just over SGD 10 and this did surprise us since the price though was no less than what you would get at a food centre meal in Singapore.

Back on the bus we asked our driver to bring us to a place to get good kueh lapis. Not for us the machine made ones, we wanted a high quality local, freshly made one. Our driver looked at us and smiled before turning into a small alleyway, we turned left and right and left again until I lost count, emerging into a residential area. Just as I decided we would probably still be some distance from the place, he stopped outside a house with a large orange sign saying – Diana Layer Cake. It was a home factory. We stepped out and the fragrant aroma of cake being freshly baked from the oven greeted us.

The sight was new to me. The most popular local cake shop in Singapore is called Bengawan Solo, and I had always heard of how that large chain began life as a small home based kitchen, but it had only existed in my head. Seeing the stall as it was, with local staff making the cakes was a huge surprise to me concretised the concept of a home kitchen, we were buying kueh lapis from one. Kueh Lapis translates into english as layer cake and originated in Betawi just outside of Jakarta. It is popular in the malay speaking world (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) as well as the Netherlands (due to their colonial links)

The cake is made and baked in layers with each layer alternating in colour. The preparation process is painstaking and as you can see above is still done in this home factory by hand.  The benefit of seeing the cakes made in front of you was the additional confidence it gave that the product was fresh and made the traditional way. There is something to be said for a kueh lapis that has good layering but not robotically perfect distribution of the layers, something beautifully imperfect about a kueh lapis prepared this way.

Did it taste good?

Without a doubt. It retained its fragrance and moisture after baking and had a beautiful layered presentation. Compared to the machine made ones that we were used to, this looked more “alive”.

We had tasted Chinese meals and Betawi cakes, we had done the touristy things too, to add more flavour to our experience the next and final meal that day in Batam had to be neither Chinese nor Betawi. We avoided the tourist heavy, chinese-styled seafood restaurants littered throughout the city and headed 45 minutes out to the edge of Batam island, to a restaurant called Barelang Seafood.

The restaurant is primarily an Indonesia Malay restaurant but is able to accommodate our palates (i.e. tone down the spice levels). Located facing the Barelang Bridge and hidden inside a resort the place was still quiet when we arrived but was filling up with patrons by the time we left. The food was good, live seafood is always good when you let the flavours speak for themselves, and that was what we got.

In a way, this was a generally good representation of the flavours of Batam. Did we miss the something here? The warungs… well, all the more reason for another day trip in the future. Tummies filled, we returned to the port to catch our ferry back to Singapore.

Immigration was slow when entering the country, it was a breeze when we were leaving… hmm…

*Using the term uncle and auntie in Asia is a social convention in that part of the world, it doesn’t actually mean that they are your relatives.

ON THE MAP (Kedai Kopi Sudi Mampir)

ON THE MAP (Diana Layer Cake)

ON THE MAP (Barelang Seafood)

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