Indonesiana: A Call To Preserve Indonesia’s Street Food Vernacular

Hamzah Al Asadulloh

“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning roads, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Think of your favorite street food. Imagine the delight of walking up to the vendor, handing her your money, and collecting your prize. This is a shared pastime by everyone in Southeast Asia where street food defines cities—and Indonesia is no exception. The country’s love story with food, informality, and convenience places street food in a position that is inseparable from the Indonesian experience. But what makes street food so memorable here?

The evolution of street food and their visual and spatial typologies is one that speaks to the country’s culture of food and informality that persists today, defying multiple political and economic regime changes. If you walk through any city in the country, particularly on the island of Java, you will see living artifacts of Indonesia’s vernacular graphic design: tents selling chicken and rice, carts whipping out bowls of meatballs, and even men shoulder-carrying portable kitchens, all of them boasting bright colors and striking typography. These visuals have become commonplace and are immediately recognizable as uniquely urban.

Street food in Indonesia has been documented as far back as 1811. When Thomas Stamford Raffles, then ruler of Singapore, issued five-feet wide sidewalks to be built in Singapore, locals quickly occupied them and set up shop. A mistranslation of five feet in Malay meant that food vendors actually had five feet, resulting in the term ‘Pedagang Kaki Lima’ (Vendors with Five Feet) that spread to neighboring Medan in Indonesia, through Jakarta, and eventually to other cities in the country. A surge of these Pedagang Kaki Lima (PKL for short) was reported to happen in the 1930s during the Great Depression, leaving many to turn to start small businesses to make ends meet. Since their inception, PKL have resisted much disciplining from local governments who deemed them to be unattractive for the city.

Persevering against state control, nowadays variations of PKLs range in form, scale, and permanence. You will find food carts, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, kiosks, tents—all piling on top of one another forming a vibrant conglomerate of unbeatable urban experience. Jakarta-based research group Rame Rame Jakarta has undertaken the highly ambitious research project KOTANATOMI where they catalog the different typologies of informal street vendors in Jakarta. As an ode to urban resilience, they document the multitude of ways informal actors in Jakarta overcome economic and political hurdles.

Many of these different typologies have turned into de facto public spaces where people gather to socialize and enjoy themselves over food, expanding the definition to what public space means to Indonesians. Out of all of them, the warung tenda (roadside tent) has to be one of the most iconic. As night approaches, rows and rows of roadside tents pop up in areas otherwise empty during the day, creating transitory public spaces that are neither interior or exterior. Their neon colors and attention-grabbing typography are inseparable from the city at night and form architectural facades that last a few hours every night. An entire city is constructed at night and toppled before morning.

Recognizable from a distance, these roadside tents have become a definitive archetype of Indonesian street food, particularly the Warung Pecel Lele, which sells fried catfish with sambal on rice, among other things. Their striking visuals originate from Lamongan, a city in East Java whose culinary exports are well-known nationwide. With bold letters, bright neon colors, and simple depictions of the different animals served, these tents are hand-painted by Lamongan artisans. The Lamongan emigrants of Jakarta came together and founded Forum Silaturahmi Putra Lamongan (Pualam), a society of Lamongan brotherhood that dates back to 1972.

The preservation of this high-level craftsmanship in a seemingly lowbrow industry has become a rarity in the information age. However threats of this artform are looming as neoliberal corporations start to gain a stronghold on small businesses. We see this through sponsorship deals that make compulsory the use of corporate graphics and colors, overriding all sense of character and rich vernacular identities of small businesses, and transforming the city into a series of primary reds, corporate greens, and synthetic blues. From water bottle companies to network providers, these corporations provide a portrait of what our visual urban landscape looks like under unbridled capitalism. So far, PKLs are still relatively safe from these threats as of the writing of this essay; but there is no telling the severity of our loss in the future.

It makes sense then to acknowledge the inherent cultural value of the Indonesian street food vernacular as emblems of an intrinsically democratic expression of healthy commerce. These visual cultures have become a shared heritage that crosses class and ethnic boundaries, bringing people together in a uniquely Indonesian manner. While institutional recognition of an inherently informal form of expression is indeed ironic, some form of protection of these living artifacts is required to reconcile our shared culture with contemporary market practices. We must move past outdated notions of heritage as that of manufactured material value, and instead veer towards celebrating that which makes us richer as humans.

© 2021 Hamzah Al Asadulloh All Rights Reserved

© 2021 Hamzah Al Asadulloh All Rights Reserved