One of the ways in which Indonesia and America differ most is the extent to which daily life happens on the side of the road. The degree of difference certainly depends on where you are in Indonesia and where you are in America. But in general, Indonesians lead a much greater portion of their lives streetside than Americans—often in liminal spaces that are not quite inside but not quite outside either.

A typical example of this transitional space is the warung, a kind of ubiquitous eatery that exists somewhere in between a food stall and a diner. Some are little more than tents or shacks. Others are free-standing structures with four walls, windows, a roof, and a doorway. But even at this latter sort of warung, one feels much closer to the street than at a traditional restaurant. The tables and stools are dusty. The flies are buzzing. The floor, whether tiled or concrete (like the floor of your garage), is level with the ground outside. Put it this way. If you can forget about whatever’s “outside,” it’s not a warung. If you can’t—if your meal feels more like a continuation than an interruption of the goings-on all around you—then it is.

Martabak stand.

Family-run warung.

Another reason that the warung experience feels so connected to that of the street, apart from physical proximity, is that even though your meal is served quickly, it retains its personality and human touch. A plate of, say, nasi goreng or mie goreng (fried rice or noodles) takes about five to ten minutes to prepare, from the the first egg being cracked to your first mouthful. That’s slower than your typical drive-thru. And yet it somehow seems faster when you get to watch a teenager wearing ripped jean-shorts and flip-flops nonchalantly toss the ingredients around in a sizzling, glistening wok, occasionally jettisoning a morsel of meat or noodle that a scrawny cat proceeds to scarf shamelessly in front of you. Bastard, that’s my food, you fume silently to yourself. But only long enough for the cook to finish topping your pile of saucy, piping hot, carb-goodness with some krupuk and cucumber slices and plating the whole thing up. This kid is as practiced as any fast food worker. But he’s actually cooking a meal from scratch, as opposed to assembling a part of one. Also, when you hand over a wad of crumpled bills and sit down to eat while he smokes a cigarette, his toddler sister runs around the place squealing, and his mother peels garlic over a plastic tub, you remember that your patronage feeds many mouths—a fact that having a happy meal and a plastic toy thrust through your car window helps you forget.

Depending on the warung, however, much of the food could be prepared ahead of time. Many proprietors start cooking in bulk at daybreak and then display it all in the front window: pots and basins full of rendang and fish soup and stewed or stir-fried vegetables, mounds of fried tempe and tofu, platters of chicken wings and drumsticks and hardboiled eggs stacked on top of each other—often into pyramid-like structures that resemble the target of a carnival knock-down game. The effect is at once “grandma’s kitchen” and “barracks canteen,” both of which, if you think about it, are variations on what I’m guessing is the bigger theme they’re going for: “plenty” (as in, the taller the tower of eggs and deeper the basin of stew, the more you’re supposed to want to eat there). Still, there’s no such thing as an all-you-can-eat warung. Mealtime rushes aren’t really discernible either. Customers trickle in throughout the day and can pick whichever toppings they want to go with their scoop of white rice and dollop of sambal. But they still have to pay by the plate and the proprietor dictates the portion size. (If you only want the stewed meat, you might get two pieces. But if you want the fried tempe too then expect only one piece of meat.)

It’s not the amount of food that makes dining at a warung so rewarding. It’s not just what you get and how fast and for how much. It’s the recognition that you’ve contributed to somebody’s livelihood and not just their business. It’s the total absence of corporate excess and the uncontrived simplicity that somehow always intensifies pleasure. It’s the sense of having met in the middle, whether for a cup of coffee or a home-cooked meal.

Ready to be grilled and served on the spot.

Roadside corn.

More roadside corn.

In the end, I think that’s what defines street life: the immediacy of contact with other people and the lack of forces and agendas any bigger than those of individuals. I also think that many from the so-called “developed” world make instinctive value judgments about other societies, whether they care to admit it or not, based on the extent to which daily life has abandoned the street and the sidewalk for the concrete wall and the glass window. And yet, many of these same people fetishize and sentimentalize the street—fear, at times, that they’re missing out on the “real” life happening outside of their own bubbles and ivory towers. The inconsistency shows, at worst, how deeply rooted our classist, colonial attitudes are, and at best, that we’re confused about our values and where they’re actually located in this world. If we could cast a generous and complex look beyond the dust, the flies, and the plastic toy alike—if we could define dignity and worth more capaciously—maybe we’d find the authenticity we really crave more universal than we thought.

Kupang, Indonesia
September, 2019

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