For Jakartans fasting during Ramadan, finding the right place to slake their thirst or fill their empty stomachs at the end of the day can be a challenge.
While roadside or traveling vendors are often the go-to guys due to their availability, their limited quantity and choices will disappoint those who want to break the fast with something more substantial.
The traditional market in Central Jakarta’s Bendungan Hilir area, or Pasar Benhil, is one great option. During Ramadan it becomes a food emporium where you can find delicacies unique to this time of year.
Choice is not a problem here, as the market’s corridors are filled with sweet and savory foods that vie for attention through their color and variety.
The market opens at 11 a.m. but it really comes alive at around 3 p.m., three hours before it is time to break the fast. By then, the real rush begins for the array of foods on sale, among them porridges, iced fruit drinks, savory appetizers like lemper rice cakes as well as fish cakes like pempek or otak-otak .
Other specialties include main courses Sundanese pepes filled with crab roe, shrimp, squid and grilled fish, and also mutton curry.
“I often go for the putu mayang [rice flour cakes in a coconut oil and palm sugar broth], kolak pacar cina or tapioca starch pieces in a coconut oil, palm sugar and pandanus leaf broth, and l emang ketan or sticky rice cakes,” said Nanies Effendy, a freelance digital marketing consultant who lives in the nearby Pejompongan area.
“I’ve been regularly coming to the market to get food since it opened more than a decade ago. The market helped put Benhil on the map in Jakarta, so as a local resident I can be proud of that. Being here is a nice experience and a worthwhile highlight of Ramadan every year. ”
The market’s location near the Sudirman business district, Wisma Sudirman and Atma Jaya University means it also appeals to office workers and students. It also attracts visitors from other parts of Jakarta keen for a quick bite to break the fast, or take some foods home to loved ones.
“My favorite foods at Pasar Benhil are the assortments of tajil or foods to break the fast. These include cakes and kolak , which vary from those with bananas, sweet potatoes, or biji salak [a mix of sweet potatoes and tapioca starch, in spite of its literal meaning as snakeskin fruit seed],” said Eko Jayaputra, a bank employee who lives in the South Jakarta district of Ciputat.
“But as someone who comes from West Sumatra, I’m happy to note that they have a wide variety of foods from the area, among them breaking fast starters like lemang tapai or fermented sticky rice cakes.”
“Much of the market’s appeal is that it’s near my office at BRI Bank in Sudirman. But Pasar Benhil’s main draw is that one can get a variety of foods at reasonable prices,” Eko added.
It didn’t take long to see what he was talking about. Prices range from Rp 5,000 (50 cents) for tajil, to Rp 20,000 for heartier fare like pempek or pepes. The bargains don’t end there. The vendors are known to offer discounts of up to 50 percent as they seek to sell off their wares before the day’s business winds down in the evening.
And even then, the action doesn’t stop. While most people opt to head home and enjoy their foods there, one can stick around and go to a restaurant in the area, such as the Santika Baru seafood restaurant. The no-nonsense outlet serves fresh seafood for as little as Rp 35,000.
The market draws vendors from throughout Jakarta.
“I’ve been selling foods at the Pasar Benhil Ramadan Market for about 10 years, after a relative told me about this place,” said Ubay, who sells foodstuffs like lemang and putu mayang.
“I used to sell at Pasar Senen until another vendor took over my counter there. But it was a blessing in disguise, as business here is better than there. I can make about Rp 500,000 per day, which is more than enough to pay the market’s Rp 2.5 million monthly rent for the counter.”
Fellow vendor Joni agreed. “I’ve been selling pempek and serabi pancakes at Pasar Benhil for more than eight years, and the ingredients that I work with here are fresher than in Pasar Baru, where I used to sell my wares,” Joni said.
“Sure we are affected by rising food prices, but we try to spare our customers the worst side effects by keeping price hikes to a minimum, like by about Rp 2,000.”
Getting to the Pasar Benhil Ramadan Food Market can be a battle given the traffic, and once there people can face jostling and elbowing from fellow customers.
But this Jakarta culinary highlight is worth a try — it is not every day that one gets to savor the flavors of Indonesia and Ramadan in one place.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 25, 2013