A Taste of Indonesia in Perth's Mid-Pandemic Food Scene
Perth. Local Indonesian restaurants in Western Australia are taking the aussies' palate and the Indonesian expats missing home, thousands of kilometers away to the archipelago.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, these Indonesian eateries are back in business and going stronger than ever.
West Australians are incredibly fortunate to live in an environment almost untouched by Covid-19. After a comparatively short lockdown, life is continuing almost as it was before the pandemic. This includes life for the Indonesian expats in Perth and the many Indonesian restaurants that West Aussies frequent.
The most obvious hint to the pandemic is the QR codes at the door of every restaurant and café. Patrons must scan the QR code upon arrival using the free 'SafeWA' app. The state government first launched SafeWA for efficient Covid-19 contact tracing.
But the lockdown and the current restrictions have starved restaurants of their businesses.
“With the advent of Covid-19, there was a general shutdown of not only Indonesian restaurants, but also restaurants generally, and some I regret to say - including some Indonesian restaurants – went to the wall," Balai Bahasa Indonesia Perth (BPIP) chairperson Leon Walker said.
For instance, popular Indonesian takeaway restaurant Sparrow had to take their last order. But for some others, things are still looking bright. Leon said there are Indonesian restaurants thriving in Perth.
“Western Australia, I think, has been free of community-transmitted Covid for nearly eight months, I think, and so the restaurants have reopened and there have been at least two - to my knowledge - new Indonesian restaurants, or ‘warungs’, [that] have opened, in the last few months, the last few weeks," Leon said.
“So, I think it’s quite vibrant.”
Two Indonesian restaurants in Perth that have managed to defeat all odds are Manise Café in Northbridge and Monggo restaurant in Mount Lawley.
First opened in 2000, Manisé Cafe is now in the hands of the second-generation owners Joana Sirliem and Benny Lim. Joana's parents first moved from Ambon, Maluku, to escape riots at that time. They later retired from the restaurant around six to seven years ago.
Joana's mother comes from a restaurant background, whereas Joana's husband is a professional chef. The restaurant's name is inspired by the phrase 'Ambon Manise' which means beautiful Ambon.
The restaurant originally targeted students, but now focuses on local and Indonesian customers. They have also spiced up the menu -- from only serving East Indonesian food to adding a wider variety of Indonesian dishes.
Among the many dishes, beef ribs have become a hit. Different types of sambal or hot sauce such as pickled mango are also available.
Manisé Cafe is off to a sweet start in the new year.
“Monday used to be two or three tables - quiet days and things – and now it’s packed, Mondays, Sundays, I pretty much have people queuing up for tables,” Joana said.
There are nearly 80 expat communities in Perth and many crave food from back home. Marsela, whose family comes from Surabaya, has been dining at Manise Café ever since it opened.
“It’s pretty authentic, it’s like close to what we get back home, which is really important and special,” she said.
Her favorite dish is the bakso or meatball soup which comes from her family's hometown in Malang. She also enjoys the fried chicken or ayam goreng and even finished the interview by saying the food was "so good. I'm so full."
Meanwhile, owner and chef David Wijaya first opened Monggo in June 2012, after leaving a restaurant in Applecross to start his own business.
The name 'Monggo' is a Javanese word meaning 'please'. Customers can enjoy an array of dishes from Bali's Jimbaran fish to Sumatra's beef rendang. David said there are many who would like to try something new on Beaufort Street.
Monggo would also sometimes cater for the Indonesian Consulate in Perth, as they have canapes and finger foods that are suitable for functions. But their most unique offering is the 'rice table', a combination of a selection of food on one plate based on a specific region in Indonesia.
“We create a story basically in one plate,” David said.
According to David, Monggo is among the hundred diaspora restaurants that are part of the Wonderful Indonesia campaign. Coined by the Tourism Ministry, the campaign seeks to promote Indonesian cuisine and tourism to the world.
David even made friends with fellow diaspora chefs. They have a group chat where they share recipes and try to create dishes that challenge the foreign public’s preconceived notions of Indonesian dishes.
Not just Monggo or Manise, Australians can also visit the Coventry Village Shopping Center for an Indonesian culinary adventure. The center has two restaurants specifically catering to Indonesian cuisine.
"Coventry Village offers a variety of multicultural food, fashion, and services under one roof," the center manager Joanie Chan said.
Like many others, Manise Café and Monggo restaurants were both hit hard by Covid-19 last year.
“We needed to shut down for a couple of months when it started in March,” Joana said.
Manise then tried their luck with meal pickup services. But many people were too afraid to leave their homes, even to simply pick up takeaway food. Then they started delivering food, but the available radius of customers was just too small with Uber. Manise later turned to another food delivery service, DoorDash.
The government eventually slightly eased the restrictions. But Manise could only have two or three people at the restaurant, in accordance with the social distancing rules. It was then when Joana and her husband decided to temporarily close the restaurant.
Now that they have reopened and business is getting busier, Manise Café aims to serve the best Indonesian food in Perth.
As for Monggo, Covid-19 dealt a huge blow on the restaurant. Takeaways and preorders did not help with the situation. Even so, Monggo managed to survive when many other businesses did not.
But regardless of surviving the pandemic, it has not all been smooth-sailing for these businesses. Manise Café has been struggling to find committed staff, enough storage as well as storage rules and regulations.
Whereas Monggo faces another kind of obstacle.
"The biggest challenge is [that] people underestimate Indonesian food and think it has to be cheap," David said.
“That is the hardest part for us, to bring up that Indonesian value.”
Even so, they still remain optimistic. Manise is looking to expand to a larger building. Monggo's owner David seeks to open new premises in down south Bunbury or Margaret River.
"And of course, the Michelin stars," he said.
According to Leon, the Indonesian-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) will further strengthen the bilateral ties, whereas BPIP will play a role in attracting more people to visit Indonesia. The decade-old organization promotes Indonesian language and culture through classes and events.
“[The IA-CEPA] brings a great potential for trade between Indonesia and Australia, and BBIP has a position that this is going to create increased demand for people living in Indonesia," Leon said.
"At the state-level, we [also] have a Western Australia state Asian engagement strategy, and the learning of Indonesian - of Asian languages - is part of that strategy."
These schemes will increase the awareness of not only Indonesian food, but also its language, culture, and economic framework among West Australians.
While the outside world is being ravaged by Covid-19, Western Australia remains in its own small world, beating on like a boat against the tide.
The only constants in the struggle for normality in an increasingly uncertain world have been the food and culture of Perth residents, who come from a variety of diverse backgrounds.
As Leon Walker said, “I think the Indonesian community brings a richness to the community of Western Australia which is increasingly multicultural."
The future of the Indonesian cuisine and culture remains strong in this city, and will stay so with the continued support of Western Australians.