Photo: Charles Dharapak / AP Photo
President Obama spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia in the 1960s, and recently made an official presidential visit to the southeast Asian archipelago. But what excited the most public attention in Jakarta were not any diplomatic initiatives he proposed, but what he said he missed from his time there. And what he missed was bakso.
Bakso (a.k.a. bakmi) is Indonesia's premier street food, a soup that can contain any number of things, but always includes meatballs -- which are also called bakso. Confused? This soup is sold from stalls in the street, from trucks, and, most memorably, by vendors who ride bicycles that have a bakso-assembling set-ups attached to the front, complete with little steam-table tubs heated by Sterno flames or charcoal.
The meatballs themselves are usually made with finely ground beef, but can also be composed of chicken, fish or shrimp. Sometimes, they're formed from bovine variety meats like tendon and liver. But the quintessential feature of these orbs -- which can be as small as marbles or as large as tennis balls -- is that the meat is extended with tapioca flour, which gives the meatballs a bouncy consistency.
Once the bakso have been deposited in the bakso, the soup is filled out with a wealth of other ingredients, and the diner is usually given some choice. Noodles, definitely. Sometimes egg noodles, sometimes rice noodles. Other additions include fried wontons, bean sprouts, various greens, crisp shallots and marinated mushrooms. It's up to you to squirt in the condiments, which include katjap, the forerunner of ketchup. Bakso (the soup) is considered Chinese in origin, but the Indonesians have mutated the hell out of it.
The president finally got his bakso, served at a gala state banquet flanked by Indonesian dignitaries. I can almost guarantee it wasn't as good as the kind you get in the streets of Jakarta.
Since I'm a New York City-based critic, I can recommend a few places to get basko here, though it's not easy to find. That's because, while the city has a wealth of Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese joints, Indonesian eateries are few and far between. Our most prominent and long-running place, Bali Nusa Indah (651 Ninth Avenue, 212-974-1875) in Hell's Kitchen, serves a simple version containing beef balls and a choice of egg or rice noodles. In Greenwich Village, tiny cafe Satay Junction offers a rudimentary rendition with beef balls and the egg noodles called mee. Over in Brooklyn another old-timer, Java Indonesian Rijsttafel (455 Seventh Avenue, 718-832-4583) in Park Slope, has a more elaborate bakso featuring bean curd, celery, crisp fried onions and beef meatballs. Though there are several Indonesian restaurants in Elmhurst, Queens (Upi Jaya, Bromo Satay House, and Minangasli are three), they tend to serve Sumatran food, which doesn't include bakso.