The One With Tasting The High Life in Surabaya

You might have heard that recently I got published in print for the first time – a story of my culinary adventure in Surabaya, in South China Morning Post’s Spring 2013 edition of Encounters. Well, technically it is not the first time my writing is published; however this piece is written entirely in my style – instead of a structured review form – and hence is something very dear to my heart. Posted below is the full, unedited and uncondensed version of my original submission to the editor. Click here to read the published version online.

Symphony Surabaya Day 5

When you had your fill of volcanoes and waterfalls, refuel your body with some truly local and delicious Indonesian fare

It was five in the morning. White, fluffy clouds appeared to roll away from my feet, stretching across the plains towards the distant volcano. Even as the sun rose in the east, I can look skyward and still see thousands of sparkling stars.

It was the closest to heaven I have ever been, and yet all I could think of was, “God, that was a decent amount of calories I burned climbing up here”.

Symphony Surabaya Day 5

Welcome to Seruni Point, one of the few viewing points in Probolinggo in Jawa, Indonesia, where you hike up the mountain in the dead of the night armed with little more than a jacket and an energy bar. I was told that during peak seasons, from June to August each year, the view point is packed with hundreds of visitors hoping to catch the stunning sunrise, as well as the iconic postcard-view of active volcanoes Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru.

Even as I took in the incredible sight of the fogged up savanna and smoking craters, part of me was dreading the eventual (second) hike up Mount Bromo to look at the volcano in the eye. That would be another thousand calories, I told myself, and soon I will be able to enjoy a proper breakfast.

Surabaya 2013

Already the thoughts of famous Indonesian food like gado-gado (vegetable salad served with a peanut sauce dressing), ayam penyet (lightly mashed fried chicken) and rujak cingur (a mix of cow snouts, young raw mango, pineapple, cucumber, rice cake and tofu, all served in a black sauce made from fermented shrimp paste) spurred me on to complete the nature itinerary of the day.

And I did.

Surabaya, the second largest city of Indonesia, is certainly not high on the list of places to visit in Indonesia. When my friends found out that I was visiting the city for a six-day trip, they were perplexed. What can you do there? Many asked. Those who know me better asked shrewdly, you are traveling that far for some Indonesian food?

Surabaya 2013

To have a culinary adventure in Surabaya was certainly my main agenda of the visit. I arrived at the city armed with a to-eat list courtesy of my many foodie friends. For my first experience of rujak cingur, I cabbed my way to Plaza Surabaya, more commonly known as “Delta” amongst the locals. At a shop simply named “Rujak Cingur”, I sampled the cooked slices of cow snouts. It was certainly an acquired taste, but the fragrant shrimp paste and fresh cut fruits balanced the contrasting flavors very nicely.

Surabaya 2013

There are many places in Surabaya where you can enjoy a plate of delicious soto ayam (yellow spicy chicken soup with rice cakes); I discovered mine at the surprisingly nice café attached to House of Sampoerna, a museum dedicated the Indonesian tobacco company, world-famous for their hand rolled cigarettes. Our tour guide, a very friendly and efficient Mr. Mawi advised me to also venture out to the roadside stalls alongside the river across Hotel Sahid for some of the best soto Surabaya has to offer. “Sir must try the soto ayam there,” he chuckled with a mischievous grin. “Eat like an Indonesian; have your soto by the roadside!”

I was all for a local eating out experience, but the dusty streets and thundering traffic didn’t do much to whet my appetite. Yet despite my reservation I found myself eating by at a roadside stall – not by the city street, but high up in a mountain.

Surabaya 2013

It was the second day of our trip, and we found ourselves up the winding slopes of Mount Welirang towards the Cangar Hot Spring. We were joking with our tour guide (a chirpy Indonesian girl named Riesta) that we would love some sate kelinchi (skewers of grilled rabbit meat), after discovering what the name meant. Riesta promptly deposited us at some stalls built on bamboo stilts over a flowing river, right by the mountainside.

Surabaya 2013

It was, without a doubt, a true local experience. All around us were greens and more greens… and Indonesian teenagers smoking up a storm while chilling out in pairs and in groups (apparently the mountain is famous for couple rendezvous). Our entire lunch – including an amazing plate of nasi goreng (fried rice with sambal topped with a fried egg) – was cooked over wood fire and served by some very smiley kids. My travel companion and I were obviously the only two tourists in the vicinity, since we are the only ones enjoying a bottle of Bintang, the locally produced beer, while everyone else was sipping milk tea and coffee.

Surabaya 2013

You can take a boy out of the city, but you can never take the city out of the boy. After days of simple dinner and plenty of nature – which include some really dreamy waterfalls like the heavenly Madakaripura – we were itching for some nice food at a posh restaurant. After a few attempts we found our fix at Indragiri, a restaurant famed for its herbal mutton soup and gurami goreng (fresh fish that looks like it was “flying” while it was deep fried). Despite the language barrier – even the menu was entirely in Indonesian, and the staff spoke little else – we enjoyed the attentive service and the luxury surroundings.

For once in my life I didn’t feel guilty being a total glutton during a holiday. When you have survived that much nature in one trip, you are of course entitled to binge a little. To that, Indonesian food will not disappoint.

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