Jakarta. Nasi goreng, or fried rice, is the closest to a national dish that Indonesia has. With so many different variations – whose mother makes the best nasi goreng? – the meal is so much more than just rice cooked in a wok, it's a mouthwatering combination of history, family, passion and at times out there ingredients (nasi goreng with dragon fruit anyone?).
Where to find the best nasi goreng in Jakarta? One thing is for sure, don't go to restaurants! The best fried rice is almost always served from a simple wooden cart parked on the side of the road.
Everyone has their own favorite nasi goreng spot, but these are ours:
Nasi Goreng Kambing Kebon Sirih
The second youngest out of seven siblings, 45-year-old Rahadi has been helping his parents run the famous goat fried rice warung since he graduated from college.
"I've always wanted to have my own business since I was in high school and my parents told me the best way to learn how to do that is to work here and help them out," Rahadi said.
Rahadi's father Haji Nein and his mother Hajah Ratna came up with their own special spice mix for their signature goat fried rice in 1958.
"Goat meat is an acquired taste, some people don't like the smell. My father's special spice formula gets rid of that aroma," Rahadi said.
Rahadi checks the spice mix everyday, making sure everything is made to specs.
The portion is generous at this tarp-roofed warung, located on a narrow side street off Jalan Kebon Sirih in Menteng, Central Jakarta. There's an option to get a half portion, but why?
The lamb is gamey, and kind of tough, but has a spicy punch. And the minyak samin (ghee), keeps everything just the delicious side of oily.
The slightly bitter emping crackers is a perfect accompaniment for the bold, curry-ish flavors. Get an extra plate of acar (pickles) on the side if you feel like you need something to relieve all that greasy goodness.
If you don't mind the occasional cooking smokes wafting past your face or buskers coming up to your table and screaming their bad approximations of radio hits then Nasi Goreng Kambing Kebon Sirih's long communal tables are perfect for a hearty dinner.
The warung is only open in the evening, but they are making plans to open in a house nearby in August, which will be open for lunch as well.
Address: Jalan Kebon Sirih Barat Dalam 1, Menteng, Central Jakarta
Opening hours: 5 p.m. - 2 a.m.
Nasi Goreng Gila Gondrong
This place is also known as Nasi Goreng Obama since the food cart is parked permanently across the street from the former US president's old elementary school when he lived in Jakarta as a child.
Owner Suparudi said he knew Barry, as Obama was called around Menteng in the late 1960s. "I knew little Obama. He was naughty, but very smart," he said.
Suparudi, who sports a long ponytail, is known to his customers as "Pak Gondrong" (Mr. Long Hair).
He refuses to tell us his age, saying "I'm actually not that old, I just look old, because I think too much."
He began making fried rice in 1984, selling it to households around the old money area of Menteng by pushing his cart around its back streets.
Back then, he had to do everything himself – buying the ingredients, cooking the food, pushing the heavy cart.
Now he has a total of six employees helping him out.
"I am the happiest when someone finishes my food," Pak Gondrong laughed.
His Rp 20,000 ($1.40) nasi goreng is nicely browned and comes with a heap of toppings, including chopped pink sausages, bakso (beef balls) and scrambled eggs.
The obligatory kerupuk (crackers) comes in the rainbow-rimmed variety and a cold bottled drink to wash all the stickiness off costs Rp 5,000.
"I've alway used the same toppings. I don't want to change them because my long-time customers still like them," Pak Gondrong said.
The toppings are chewy and add a bit of texture to the soft rice. The rice is only flavored with sweet soy sauce, and is a little bland.
"I never count how much I sell per day because the most important thing is that we [he and his staff] enjoy ourselves and people enjoy the food," he said.
Address: Jalan Besuki No. 1, RT 3/RW 5, Menteng, Central Jakarta
Opening hours: 5 p.m. - 4 a.m.
Bakmi Jogja Apjay (Pak Ivan)
Pak Ivan rarely visits his nasi goreng stall anymore, preferring to entrust the bustling business to his nephew Misbahudin.
"Alhamdullilah [thank God], we always sell out," Misbahudin says, telling us they sell at least 200 portions of their kebuli fried rice each day.
There's constant commotion in the kitchen area as there are five stoves going off at once, while blurry skilled hands fly around, finishing orders.
The way the rice or noodles jump as if on a trampoline, it's a small wonder how the spatula stays in the grip and the wok intact.
Though Misbahudin's ratty notebook is already filled with pages of orders, people are still willing to put down their name and patiently wait for their order in the stifling heat.
Kebuli (fancily spelled "kebuly" at Apjay) is a dark brown spice mix – it looks like granules of brown sugar – made with Arabic ingredients.
Apjay's kebuli nasi goreng has a sharp savory flavor, but not as curry-ish as it looks.
You can find people standing, sitting, squatting, smoking in front of the 24-hour pharmacy where the cart is parked: all waiting for their orders.
Some, like true Jakartans, prefer to wait in their air-conditioned cars and have their nasi goreng delivered inside when they're finally ready. Some finish off their oily plates sitting on plastic stools under the neons of the nearby convenience store.
But all of them have to wait at least 30 minutes during busy times to get their fill of Apjay's famous nasi goreng kebuli.
Address: Jalan Panglima Polim IX, South Jakarta
Opening hours: 5 p.m. - 2 a.m.