This is a reflection I wrote at the end of my first week in Jakarta, in early 2016.
Jakarta in three words right now: malls, food, and cars. My team and I spend our days working on our car care products project for a small, family-owned manufacturing company and spend our evenings taking in the sights of urban Jakarta through Indonesian cuisine and the ubiquitous shopping mall…
When I’m bored in the States, my gut reaction is never to go to the mall. If I lived in middle America or the South, it might be, but I’ve always lived in a bustling city. When boredom hits, I might start reading online, go to the gym, go for a really long walk and call my mom, or reach out to a friend to spend some time together. But, in Jakarta, the thing to do is to go to a shopping mall – maybe even several. I’ve already been to three this week, from the ultra posh to the more casual, everyday mall. They’re all teeming with department stores, coffee shops, restaurants, groceries, shiny electronics stories, fun bubble tea vendors, and the people that shop at those businesses, meandering their way around. The difference between the ultra luxury and average shopping malls is striking. I’m not using the term “ultra luxury” as an assessment relative to what my expectations for a developing country are. These are ultra luxury malls by any country’s standard. I can’t afford to shop at any of these stories without taking out a loan! Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, and the likes are housed in slick, gold-hued, marble lined rooms. Pretty women stand next to handbags, watches, and extremely structured apparel that costs more than the average Indonesian’s income times two.
The more casual malls are more or less the same as what I see in Boston / NYC / SF. I see familiar brands like the GAP, Zara, and H&M. The wonders of branding and global marketing… But, the casual malls here definitely have better food than what one finds in American malls. Mall food in the U.S. is…mall food. You don’t eat it for pleasure – you don’t tell your friends to meet at the mall (after college, at latest) to grab dinner, you don’t eat mall food because you want a healthy, filling meal. If you can afford to spend a little more money navigating to another neighborhood for a decent meal. (Fun fact: I had my first piece of “sushi”, a California roll, at a mall in suburban Queens.)
But, in Jakarta, and Indonesia more broadly, malls are centers of social activity as well as commerce. Competition within malls is fierce and the restaurant market is well developed – catering to a range of tastes and budgets. In fact, My top two favorite meals here so far have been at a classy, expat-heavy Indian restaurant that wasn’t inside a mall and at a Japanese restaurant, Ootaya, which was in a mall.
I’m excited to try more food in Jakarta and really hope I can find dishes that are more vegetable-heavy, most dishes seem to be some combination of fried rice/noodle + fried egg + a protein. I’ve reasoned that given Indonesia’s hot climate and largely rural state, fried and hot foods are sanitized (and delicious), but I’m surprised that a tropical country doesn’t make better use of its vegetation.