Sun, 13 Jul 2003

Legendary area revisited as food hawker center

Emmy Fitri, The Jakarta Post, Surabaya

Just like the shy Japanese prostitute it is named after, the area of Kembang Jepun (literally "Japanese flower") has two faces.

During the day it is a business district for mostly ethnic Chinese traders. At night, it turns into a massive open air cafe area, with dozens of food hawkers selling a variety of food, from the traditional to the modern.

Visitors are welcomed by a giant red gate (there is also one at the exit), on which there are creeping green dragons. Along the one-kilometer road, which is closed to traffic at night, Chinese paper lanterns provide dim illumination and an exotic, enticing aura.

On both sides of the street, food vendors display their meals and drinks. Plastic chairs and low tables are arranged in the middle of the street, sparing only a small space for passersby.

The torture of walking along the narrow space, and sometimes having to gingerly squeeze past diners, is fully compensated by the delicious aroma of the cuisine and fragrant fresh fruit at the juice stands.

The night hawker area, starting from 6 p.m. and closing at about 2 a.m., opened in March with the intention of making Kembang Jepun the place to grab a bite to eat and take an evening stroll.

Kembang Jepun was once the city's Chinatown, a pulsating hub for passersby, shoppers and street vendors. When modern retail areas and shopping malls opened, it was increasingly overlooked by the younger generation.

Its transformation draws visitors by providing two of the favorite local pastimes.

"Surabayans like to kya-kya (Chinese slang for taking a stroll) and ciak (to eat in the local Chinese dialect)," said Handoko, who, with his wife and three teenage children, makes a half-hour drive from his home to the area two to three times a week.

"We might come more than three times a week if we have visiting relatives as it's a good place to treat guests."

The rich array of food, and getting a place to sit and take in the night air are luxuries in Surabaya, the country's second largest city, which is plagued by the same traffic jams, pollution and overcrowding as Jakarta.

"All kinds of food can be found here, from traditional delicacies to modern ones. We have rujak cingur (chopped cow's nose and ears with vegetables in a chili sauce), to burgers and milk shakes," one of the vendors boasted.

He added that business was booming even though the monthly rental fee was Rp 1 million.

Most of the cuisine, like tahu campur (tofu and vegetables served with chili sauce), lontong kikil (steamed rice in banana leaf and sliced shank served with coconut milk sauce), various types of soto (a clear soup, usually accompanied by chicken, beef or offal), or rujak semanggi suroboyo (Surabaya-style cloverleaf salad), can still be found in Surabaya, but scattered at different locations.

There is also sambel tumpang, made from coconut milk, chili, diced shrimp and tempeh, served in banana leaf with steamed rice, fresh and boiled green vegetables, together with peanut crackers, fried chicken, chicken livers, tofu or tempeh.

A wide variety of Chinese food can also be found, like "bicap" the acronym for pork in soya sauce, pork satay, kwetiau (noodles) and seafood.

One night will by no means be enough to try all the dishes, and a trip to the hawker center sure beats the boredom of room service. It's also a good example for other cities to follow in revitalizing a neglected area into one that will attract the crowds anew.