Will Meyrick’s career as chef and restaurateur has taken him from London via Sydney right to the streets of Southeast Asia to explore the region’s culinary landscape. The owner of three restaurants in Indonesia — Sarong and Mama San in Bali and the recently opened E&O in Jakarta — Meyrick has turned street food-style cuisine into a fine dining experience.
Meyrick chatted with the Jakarta Globe’s Katrin Figge about how to wheedle out a secret recipe, discover local culture through food, and the importance of hygiene and fresh ingredients.
You are widely referred to as the Street Food Chef. How did you get that name?
It happened really organically. I spend so much time hunting down street food — cooking with the ibu-ibus (women) in tiny villages, in backstreets, talking about the best kaki limas (food carts) and warungs (food stalls) sharing tips for the best hawkers — that quite a few people started saying ‘Aaahh, you’re quite the street food chef,’ and it just sort of stuck.
Eating at food stalls on the street can be both a good and bad experience. Could you share some of yours?
I’ll start with the good. And I’ve had so many brilliant, unexpectedly wonderful experiences. From actual street food stalls through to discovering regional dishes from families, and both are interlinked.
Street food comes from families, and it’s always recipes and techniques that are passed down through generations. You get an insider experience, a peek into the real lives of the people who are cooking and eating the food you find on the street.
A great example of this was when I was in India. My driver took me back to his home, where I met his wife, who was a great cook. We cooked all day together, she shared some of her family recipes with me, and in return I took her to the latest Bollywood movie in town. It was great.
I often get tips about where to go for the best street food, in a particular town or village. People often insist — or warn me — that the family who runs it will never part with their secret recipes. But after a bit of a chat, before you know it I’m back the next morning, chopping up a whole kid goat for a kari kambing (mutton curry) and jotting down notes about how to get the bumbu (spice paste) just right. So there you go. That’s pretty fantastic. And it just goes to show that food is something that connects us all. Street food might be rough and ready, but it’s real, and the stories behind it are always worth uncovering.
One of the worst experiences was probably went I sent my publicist, Raechel, to check out a warung in Denpasar that I had gone to the week before, and where I had had a great meal.
She unfortunately got typhoid fever and was sick for a month. I felt guilty as hell for sending her, as you can imagine.
What do you personally like about eating at street carts?
The best way to get a feel for a new destination, an unexplored city, is to get out there and get amongst the street food scene. It’s a great way of discovering a place’s culture, habits, attitudes, religious history and beliefs, the kind of stories that you’ll remember for all the right reasons.
Street food is woven into the daily fabric of a culture. What the people eat, where they eat it, is who they are. It’s also a way of communicating, of connecting. People catch up on the day’s news over bowls of noodles in Asia, or with humble street-side enchiladas in Mexico, or crammed on tiny stools on the side of the road to share some samosa chaat in India. It’s the living, breathing, eating heartbeat of every city, village and island in the world.
How do you usually decide where to go?
Not surprisingly, in my line of work I need to be super careful of where I eat, and what street food I recommend.
One of the first things I look for is to check that they have access to clean running water, and to look at how clean the cooking equipment and prep areas are. That’s crucial. You might be cooking on the side of the road, sitting on a plastic crate, with the most basic, crude cooking equipment — a blackened wok over a fire — but it can still be clean.
I also make sure that there’s some kind of refrigeration or cooling equipment — even an icebox, especially for fresh meat. In the middle of Jakarta on a hot day, this is absolutely essential.
What should someone look out for when eating at a street cart?
Here’s a tip: the first thing to look for is how long the queue is! Even hole-in-the-wall warungs and kaki limas often have a crowd of people or a queue when they’re serving up one of the best meals in town. Then you know the turnover is fast, so fresh ingredients are used, and food doesn’t have a chance to sit around for very long. Plus, word travels fast when it comes to street food. Anyone worth their salt will always be busy, so follow the crowds!
Do you think there should be any rules regarding hygiene and cleanliness?
That’s a great question. Obviously in a country like Indonesia, as in many regions across Southeast Asia, trying to put in any kind of mandatory protocols or regulations would be almost a logistical impossibility.
That said, though, I think vendors should be able to apply for a license that gives them basic hygiene education and training, and that allows them to pass a test for food safety and standards, so they get a sticker or some kind of registration that tells people they’ve passed and are one of the good ones. I think something this would really put a lot of people’s minds at ease and make them more comfortable about getting adventurous and eating street food.
And let’s face it — for all the brilliant street food experiences there are, there are just as many terrible ones, that are a total disappointment, or that are a bit of a danger in terms of hygiene practices. So it can be hit-and-miss. But so can dining in restaurants. You can eat a bad meal in a restaurant, and many have questionable hygiene practices — everything from reheating and storing food, to cleaning (or not cleaning). So these issues aren’t limited to street food.
That’s one of the great things about my restaurants. On the menu at Sarong and Mama San in Bali, for example, you’ll see dishes that you can find on the street in different regions of Indonesia.
I’ve gone out there, tried dish after dish, eaten at hundreds of warungs, brought back my favorites and polished them up a little for a more refined dining experience. But it’s the same flavors, the recipes are the real deal. You’re not compromising on authenticity.
At my new place in Jakarta, E&O, quite a few of the dishes on the menu are Thai street food favorites. So if you’ve never hung out in the hill tribe regions on the border of northern Thailand, exploring the unique street food of that area, you don’t have to worry. I’ll do it for you. How’s that for a street food story?
This article is part of a series titled ‘Healthy Streats’ by the Jakarta Globe, to raise public awareness about food safety among street food vendors in Jakarta.