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Tea Leaves

Indonesia in a 'bakso' ball

Culture revealed in popular street food dish

A brightly painted handcart loaded with "bakso," Indonesia's most popular street food. (All photos by Ian Neubauer).

As a bell chimes through the air, my dog's ears stand up because she knows she's in for a treat. It's the "bakso man" passing my home in Bali with his brightly painted handcart loaded with Indonesia's most popular street food.

Bakso are fluffy white meatballs made of minced chicken, beef, seafood or pork, and tapioca flour. They're served in a soup with ingredients such as vermicelli, tofu, noodles, egg, mustard greens and crackers, and seasoned with soy sauce, pepper, salt, chili sauce and sambal -- homemade chili relish.

"When Indonesians refer to bakso, we actually refer to the whole bowl of it -- the salty broth, the smooth fragrance of garlic or shallot oil, the crunchy green choy sum, the slithery vermicelli and above all else, the chunky-meaty-gummy bakso balls," says Kevindra Prianto Soemantri, narrator of the Indonesian episode of the Netflix miniseries "Street Food." "We crave food with textures, even in a soup," he adds.

Bakso was probably introduced by Chinese migrants, but has been localized across the archipelago, says Fadly Rahman, a food historian at Indonesia's Padjadjaran University. "Every region has its own bakso with its own characteristics," he says. "Where I live in Jakarta, five different bakso sellers regularly pass my home. My favorite is bakso wongiri from the town of Wongiri in Java, [which is] also known as Kota Bakso -- Bakso City. It comes in a beef-bone broth, he says.

The most common variation of the dish is bakso ayam -- chicken bakso, which sells for as little as 8,000 rupiah (54.57 cents) and is a lunch staple for tens of millions of construction workers, sales assistants and delivery drivers across Indonesia. But it's not a matter of one bakso fits all. "One of the reasons we love bakso so much is that you can adjust the seasoning to your likeness," Soemantri says. "A common scene in Indonesia is where a family calls a bakso vendor over to their house and eight out of 10 of them have different requests. "And it's not just a street food. "Bakso is very popular across the entire socio-economic divide," Rahman says.

Bakso Rudi in the surf mecca of Canggu is widely rated as one of the best bakso restaurants in Bali.

Widely rated as one of the best bakso restaurants in Bali, Bakso Rudi in the surf mecca of Canggu charges between 12,000 and 24,000 rupiah for 11 variations of the dish. "The big boss Rudi has been selling bakso since he was 15," says restaurant manager Eddie. "He started with a handcart and was able to charge more than the competition because his meatballs are 90% meat while a lot of street bakso is made mainly out of flour. "Named after the Javanese city of Solo, the Bakso Solo Samrat franchise has 24 outlets across Indonesia and is the go-to bakso for the middle-class. "Our specialty is our broth. It's based on beef. Our meatballs are also beef -- never chicken," says Arna, manager of the franchise's newest venue in Bali.

The signature dish is bakso urat granat (bakso vein grenade) named for the beef off-cuts set in the meatballs -- and because they're big as tennis balls. The crackers are the size of an outstretched hand. The dish has a price to match -- 46,000 rupiah -- half a day's wages for the average Indonesian. But loyal customers say it's worth it. "This is one of the best bakso in Indonesia," says Lala Samsura, sales director at the W Bali resort. "It is not a modern bakso. It's a classic bakso done exceptionally well." 

"Bakso urat granat"(bakso vein grenade) was named for the beef off-cuts set in the meatballs that are as big as tennis balls.

At the top of the bakso food chain is lobster bakso, which first surfaced at Lobster Permata Cibitung, a seafood restaurant in Jakarta. I sample it at Sangsaka Bali, a modern Indonesian restaurant co-owned by Australian chef Kieran Morland.

Morland, who first tried bakso while holidaying in Indonesia as a child, has left no stone unturned in his contemporary realization of the iconic dish. "I took all the meat out of the lobster, chopped it all up and seasoned it with chives, ginger, soy sauce, salt pepper and a touch of sesame oil," he says. "I used half of it to make bakso dumplings using prawn and tapioca flour to give it the correct texture. The other half I stuffed back into the head of the lobster and fried it; there's so much good flavor in there." 

Lobster bakso at Sangsaka Bali, a modern Indonesian restaurant.

The dish comes with homemade vermicelli, Jakartan laksa (noodle soup) made with coconut milk and lobster shells, and a trio of flavored crackers: chicken skin, prawn and squid ink.

"I'm just trying to re-create the flavor of my favorite bakso from the street, but bring it up to date with really high-quality ingredients and season it properly," Morland says.

It's so good I don't know if I'll ever be able again to enjoy a simple chicken bakso again.

There's only one way to find out.

Ian Neubauer is a Southeast Asia-Bali-based writer.

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