To Stir With Love: Zara or ‘nasi liwet’ at Soekarno-Hatta?

One of the greatest attractions about Jakarta these days is the Soekarno-Hatta airport. Well for me anyway.

For the first time in my life I have been arriving at Indonesia’s busiest airport more than two hours early, waiting for my return flight to Bali, a mere short domestic run. I kid you not. And that’s coming from someone whose reputation for being late is known far and wide. Hard as I try, I am rarely on time for anything, except now when I am flying from Soekarno-Hatta airport, Jakarta, to Bali.

In my early days my name was constantly being blasted over the loud speaker at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne.

I was always checking-in late and was usually the last on the plane for my regular flights to Indonesia. You could almost hear the huff in the person reading my name over the loudspeaker, with that not-you-again attitude.

Why hurry, I used to think, when I have important duty-free shopping to do.

But times have changed. Just the other day in Jakarta, I ignored the lure of Zara, my all-time favourite fashion store, Guess and a multitude of glam malls and succumbed to my new airport addiction.

“Take me to the Garuda terminal”, I told the taxi driver confidently, sitting back and relaxing in air-conditioned Bluebird bliss as we sped towards the toll-way.

I resisted one more visit to Senayan City and Plaza Indonesia to satisfy my airport urge. We zoomed past a multitude of elegant stores with shiny windows spotlighting “the” latest fashions and restaurants full of delicious promise but I was not to be tempted. My heart was set on one thing and one thing only. The Soekarno-Hatta airport.

Now when I say airport, let me be a little more specific. I am talking about the Garuda Business Class lounge. At the risk of seeming presumptuous, all you have to do is buy a Garuda business-class ticket to reap the rich rewards.

And a feast awaits. Why else would I spend time there! As a self-confessed glutton who will travel to all corners of the globe for a luscious meal or an exotic delicacy, the lounge is the place for me.

Over the past year, I have sampled wonderful Indonesian dishes here that I have never tasted before. They have subsequently starred on the Casa Luna and Indus restaurant menu. My greatest difficulty is concealing my excitement as I gaze at these newfound Indonesian specialities. I can become embarrassingly ebullient over a new culinary find and nowadays try to be mature about these things. Of course, I am not saying that I succeed.

But my love for the Garuda lounge was well and truly sealed a few months ago, reaching new heights of adoration. I arrived just after midday, exactly when my gastric juices were begging for some sustenance. Aduh lapar, I thought to myself while I wheeled my bronze carry-bag into this nirvana terminal.

The lounge was full of elegant business folk, male and female, in batik shirts, suits and pressed dresses. A few tourists where there in their casual best of worn, torn jeans and tee shirts. Some were reading or watching the news, some were belting away at laptops and the rest were hovering around the food or munching. The mood was serious. That’s what happens in business-class I guess.

I scanned the room and suddenly noticed a new addition to the culinary offerings. Standing alongside the buffet was an antique wooden table set with a number of rustic terracotta bain-maries manned by a number of neat young Indonesian women wearing white lace cutwork kebayas and sarongs. My attention was grabbed instantly. Ah, the seduction of spices.

What lay before me was a nasi liwet banquet; a glistening array of side dishes and steamed rice that make up this Solo-based extravaganza. I oohed and ahhed like a small child, refraining from jumping up and down on the spot (hard to do in high heels!). I remember eating nasi liwet at the Darmawangsa Hotel many moons ago and marvelling at the romance of flavours that begged examination. And here I stood, with each little side dish set before me, winking at me seductively, secrets laid bare. I would now unravel the mystery. “Mau makan nasi liwet, Ibu [Would you like some nasi liwet, Mrs]?” I was asked by the polite server’. Yes please,” I replied with a huge dose of enthusiasm.

What is nasi liwet, I hear you ask? First of all, it is rice that is steamed in fresh coconut milk and aromatics, resulting in moist grains that hum with the elegant subtlety of salam leaves, lemongrass and nutty coconut.

Served alongside is opor ayam, a delicate chicken curry scented with galangal and lime leaves; choko or green melon in coconut milk, tempeh (hands up who doesn’t love tempeh) and half a tea-coloured boiled egg that has also been simmered in spices.

The texture of the egg is an interesting mix of firm but grainy, tasty not spicy. What’s not to love? Can you understand my excitement now?

But wait, there’s more and this is what threw me. They topped my rice with a slice of omelette, that had also been cooked in coconut milk and then... a spoonful of a luscious thick aromatic coconut cream. A passion statement of the coconut kind! There is something about this exotic nut that speaks volumes; of love, nurturing and tropical islands. Nasi liwet is a marriage made in heaven.

Two dozen eggs later, I am still trying to master this amazing white paste and I am determined to perfect the rice. In the meantime, I will continue to arrive early at the airport but sadly, nasi liwet is only served during lunch hours.

No more late-night flights for me. So some major decisions will have to be made in future. Zara or nasi liwet at Soekarno-Hatta!

Janet DeNeefe 2010

The writer is the founder of the Casa Luna and Indus restaurants in Ubud, author of Fragrant Rice and creator of the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival. She can be reached at

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