Ding, ding, ding!
As a bell chimes through the hot tropical air, my dog's ears stand up because she knows she's in for a treat. It's the 'bakso' man wheeling his brightly painted handcart past my home in Bali. He's come to dish up Indonesia's most popular street food and by writ of the country's booming 270 million-strong population, arguably the most popular in all of Southeast Asia.
“I still remember the call of the vendors. Sate! Bakso! It's all so delicious,” Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, said while holidaying here with his family in 2017.
Bakso are fluffy white meatballs made of minced chicken, beef, seafood or pork bound together with tapioca flour. They are served in a soup with elements like vermicelli, tofu, hard-boiled egg, mustard greens and crackers, and seasoned with soy sauce, pepper, salt, MSG, chilli sauce and 'sambal' – homemade chilli 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, one of the country's top restaurant critics and narrator of the Indonesian episode of the Netflix's mini-series Street Food. “We crave food with textures, even in a soup,” he says.
While its genealogy has never been formally documented, bakso was probably introduced by Chinese migrants, opines Fadly Rahman, a food historian, author and lecturer at Padjadjaran University. “There is so much Chinese influence in Indonesian cuisine,” he says. “The Dutch influence cannot be ruled out because they also brought meatballs to Indonesia, though they were very different from the bakso we eat today.”
Irrespective of its origins, Bakso has undergone a great deal of localisation throughout Indonesia. “There are so many varieties. Every region of Indonesia has its own bakso with its own characteristics,” Rahman says. “Where I live in Jakarta, five different bakso sellers regularly pass my home. My favourites are Bakso Wongiri from the town of Wongiri in Java that's also known as 'Kota Bakso' – Bakso City. It comes in a beef-bone broth. My other favourite is Bakso Malang where the vendors add wontons – crispy Chinese dumplings stuffed with vegetables, noodles and meat.”
The most common variation of the dish is 'Basko Ayam' – chicken bakso, which sells for as little as 8,000 rupiahs (55 cents) and is the lunch staple of tens of millions of construction workers, sales assistants and delivery drivers across Indonesia.
But it's not a matter of one bakso fits all. I like mine with small meatballs that I share with my dog, vermicelli inexplicably dyed blue, shredded cabbage, fried tofu, a double serving of crackers for extra crunch and a touch of sambal.
“One of the reasons we love bakso so much is that you can adjust the seasoning to your likeness,” Soemantri says. “Add more chilli sauce, add sambal, add more soy sauce, add vinegar – it's up to you. 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. Fundamentally, bakso is an all-round meal. Breakfast, lunch or dinner. We love eating bakso anytime.”
But it's not just street food. “Bakso is very popular across the entire socio-economic divide,” Rahman says. “From the lower class, to the middle class, to the elite, there is a bakso to suit everywhere taste and budget.”
Consistently rated as one of the best in Bali, Bakso Rudi in the surf mecca of Canggu charges 12,000 rupiahs ($1) and 24,000 rupiahs ($1.50) for a bowl of goodness.
“The big boss Rudi has been selling bakso since he was 15,” says restaurant manager Eddie, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. “He started with a handcart and was able to charge more than the competitions because his meatballs are 90% meat while a lot of street bakso is made mainly out of flour. In 2012 he opened a restaurant down to the road. But we moved here a few months ago because that place got too small for us.”
Bakso Rudi sells 11 variations of the dish. The most popular is 'Mie Bakso Ayam' – vermicelli with chicken balls – while the priciest is 'Bakso Telur' with eggs wrapped in mincemeat dough.
I order a bespoke bakso with a serving of shredded chicken cooked in a Javanese spice mix. Matthew Respodo, a tourist from New York City sitting on the table next to me who the staff have dubbed 'Spicy Bule' – Spicy Foreigner, orders his lunch with a triple dose of sambal. “I love spicy food and I love soup, that's how I got into bakso. It's addictive,” he says.
Named after the Javanese city of Solo, Bakso Solo Samrat is a franchise with 24 outlets across Indonesia and the go-to bakso joint of the middle-class.
“Our speciality is our broth. It's based on beef. Our meatballs are also beef – never chicken,” says Arna, manager of the franchise's newest chapter near Bali's airport on Sunset Road.
The signature dish is 'Bakso Urat Granat' – Bakso Vein Grenade, named after the beef off-cuts set in the meatballs for added texture; and their girth, for they are the size of tennis balls. The crackers are also massive, bits of fried dough the size of an outstretched hand. The beef-bone broth is rich, hearty and screaming with flavour and has a price to match – 46,000 rupiah ($3.40) – half a day's wages for the average Indonesian. But according to loyal customers, it's worth every penny.
“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.”
At the very top of the bakso food chain is Lobster Bakso, which first surfaced at Lobster Permata Cibitung, a seafood restaurant in Jakarta. But with the capital facing a second wave of Covid-19 and partial lockdown, I sample it at Sangsaka Bali, a modern-Indonesian restaurant co-owned by Australian chef Kieran Morland. Like Obama, Morland first tried bakso while holidaying in Indonesia as a child and has loved it ever since.
Morland has left no stone unturned in his contemporisation of the iconic dish. “This morning I asked my seafood supplier to give me his freshest small lobster. They were shedding their shell with the change of season so they have the texture of a soft-shell crab,” he says.
“I took all the meat out, chopped it all up and seasoned it with chives, ginger, soy sauce, salt pepper and a touch of sesame oil. 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 flavour in there.”
It comes with homemade vermicelli, Jakartan laksa made with coconut milk and lobster shells and a trio of flavoured crackers: chicken skin, prawn and squid ink. “I'm just trying to recreate the flavour of my favourite bakso from the street but bring it up to date with really high-quality ingredients and season it properly,” Moreland says.
It's so good I don't know if I'll ever be able again to enjoy a simple chicken basko again.
There's only one way to find out.
- Asia Media Centre