Internationally acclaimed Master Chef and Food Ambassador for Indonesian cuisine, William Wongso is humble well beyond his accolades. With a following of almost 70,000 on Instagram, an award-winning cookbook to his name along with a television series which rates highly, it was a long shot when we sent Pak William a request for an interview. Then it happened. We hit the jack pot! Pak William said Yes! So after a little dance of jubilation and a bit (a lot) of fist-pumping, I calmly replied. We organised a date to officially meet just as soon as Pak William had returned from his whirlwind food-inspired trip to Madrid, Paris and Los Angeles.
On the day of the interview held at Pak William’s office in South Jakarta, we enjoyed relaxed, friendly and inspiring conversation over a most delicious lunch – definitely the jack pot!
In today’s AJB blog post, we present you with some intimate insights into the early life of Pak William Wongso, share in his life’s journey and deliver you some excellent advice on:
Where to eat the best local food in Jakarta (and beyond)
Where to buy the freshest produce in Jakarta
Which kitchen plants can easily grow in your Jakarta garden
So have your note paper & pen poised (or your smart device!) and Say Hello to Pak William Wongso.
*Kenalkan Pak William Wongso
Can you tell us a little about your childhood.
I was born in Malang in East Java in 1947. My birth name is William Wirjaatmadja Wongso. When I was young, my father, Soewadi Wongso was a war cameraman, as well as photographer to the then-president Sukarno. He was so busy that I didn’t see him that often. Then in the early 1950s he ceased being the President’s photographer due to chronic bronchitis. Instead he established his own film studio.
What are your childhood memories growing up in the East Javanese city of Surabaya? At the age of one year of age, my family moved from Malang to Surabaya in East Java. It was my maternal grandmother who controlled the kitchen not my mother. As my father was a film producer, I grew up in a very social environment as we always had lots of people around including film stars and other famous people.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A Doctor. When I was in Junior High I made all the medical students envious by the number of medical books I owned. As my mother wanted to support my interest, she would buy me these books.
From whom/where did you get your inspiration for cooking and food?
My father was very interested in food and it was he who ignited my interest and opened our palates to taste everything! As eldest of 3 siblings, my father encouraged me and my brother and sister to smell then taste all food.
One of my unique childhood memories is eating white rice
with tea poured over the top one day each week. My father believed that this would bring our palate back to neutral.
My father was from Shanghai, China. He knew how to cook. He made sure my palate was eclectic from an early age. In particular, my father liked to cook home specialty food and because of him, I always recall how to make shaolin pork steamed buns. My father would always tell me, “You have to have a title when you grow up”. He was not officially educated so wanted the best for me.
Can you share a little about your studies and your career?
After graduating from high school, I went into amateur radio. I was sponsored by the Australian Information Bureau. I remained in radio until 1986. I was mainly in charge of music selection. In between all of this, I had a business in printing as well as a travel agency and advertising agency. In hindsight, the skills I acquired from working in so many different fields have been useful throughout my career.
In 1972 I started a bakery in downtown Jakarta. I went to Australia looking to observe and learn from bakers but in 1978 there was little baking knowledge in Australia. I then went to Noumea to observe French artisanal patisserie skills. I realised I needed to find a way to get to Europe. Without a mentor, I had to find my own way, which I did. I made contacts with suppliers. I made a habit of always arriving 1 week ahead of schedule so I could ‘taste around’ and familiarise myself with ingredients. This definitely sped up my learning.
What has been your most memorable moment in your career thus far..
I grew up with a very eclectic life. I had no real goal so my greatest success is exactly what I’m doing now.
If a person asked you to describe Indonesian food, what would you say?
There is no official ‘Indonesian food’ – only region cooking. You need to start with an appreciation of how food is created in each region. You may not like the food but you cannot say, “it’s bad”. Every dish has been created for a reason.
Street Food is a big part of Asian Cuisine. Tell us more about the street food scene in Jakarta.
Jakarta is a melting pot and as a result, the street food reflects this. The sad thing is that the traffic restricts the flow and access to street food. Fortunately this has improved since the introduction of GoFood where food from many street stalls, cafes and restaurants can now be delivered to you by motorcycle.
Every visitor to Jakarta must eat…
1. Saté, especially Saté ayam – the smokiest and the best can be found in front of Rumah Sakit Pusat Pertamina in South Jakarta.
2. Noodles – Jakarta is the Noodle Champion city! Here exists the greatest variety of noodles compared to anywhere else in the world. Each region has brought their noodle dish to Jakarta. I think pork mie keriting (curly noodles) in Pluit, North Jakarta is outstanding.
3. Soto – many favourites, but you must start with soto ayam (chicken soup).
Best places to eat authentic Indonesian cuisine in Jakarta…
I like to entertain at Padang restaurants, in particular I recommend Resto RM Sari Bundo – around 11 am is best.
Eating ikan bakar (barbecued fish) and other seafood dishes at restaurant Pondok Aroma Laut in Cideng Timur, Central Jakarta.
In South Jakarta seafood is also a specialty at restaurant Ikan Bakar Ujung Pandang .
Does Indonesia have an official ‘National Dish’?
I’d say that the most popular food is Padang cuisine from West Sumatra as well as Saté ayam Madura (most saté sellers are from the island of Madura in East Java).
What do you feel is the most underrated Indonesian dish?
Very few people know the food of Kalimantan. It is often comprised of indigenous ingredients like terong asam. A lot of food in Kalimantan is similar to Sumatran food and includes ingredients that have been foraged like rattan shoots and other local vegetables (that we are not familiar with) as well as exotic river fish from the Sarawak River. The Kalimantan dishes Soto ayam Banjar and Saté ayam Banjar are very good.
When Expats leave Jakarta, what Indonesian dishes must they be able to cook?
1. Nasi goreng
2. Gado gado
Essentials in the Indonesian food pantry include…
1. Bumbu merah – red spice paste (made with red chillies, shallots and garlic)
2. Bumbu kuning – yellow spice paste (made with tumeric, candlenut, shallots and garlic – blended into a fine paste and then sautéed in oil)
3. Bumbu putih – white spice paste (recipe for yellow paste minus turmeric)
What is Indonesia’s ‘unsung’ ingredient?
Andaliman. Although not commonly used, it is often found in Batak cuisine. Andaliman can be a substitute for sichuan pepper.
Another excellent ingredient that isn’t that common is Asam Sunti from Aceh in Northern Sumatra. Asam Sunti is the name for salted, dehydrated sour carambola.
What edible plants (fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices) can we easily grow in our Jakarta garden?
You’ll be surprised what you can grow! Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Daun kemangi (Indonesian basil), daun pandan (pandan leaf), cabe (chillies), papaya (pawpaw), sereh (lemongrass), daun popohan (Pilea app.) – this can be eaten raw or used to make pesto.
In your opinion where are Jakarta’s best pasars for fresh produce?
For Best Wholesale Ingredients
Pasar Induk Kramat Jati (Central Jakarta)
Pasar Mayestik (South Jakarta)
For Chinese Specialty Ingredients
Petak Sembilan – Including one of the best Chinese ingredient stores in Jakarta P.D. Jaya Abadi (Central Jakarta)
Pasar Pantai Indah Kapuk (West Jakarta)
For Fish and Seafood
Pasar Muara Karang – especially good for fish (North Jakarta)
BSD Modern Serpong – Tangerang (good general market)
Pasar Lama – For great quality ingredients and prepared food – especially pork (Tangerang)
For Specialty ingredients in other Ethnic cuisines
Pasar Senen – Jakarta’s oldest market which specialises in Batak ingredients (Central Jakarta)
Pasar Minggu – A good local market, especially for Aceh ingredients (South Jakarta)
Can you share with us a secret or two regarding accessing quality food and produce in Jakarta?
It is always best to go straight to the pasars, although you must know the pasar well and know which stalls to visit. My advice is to take note of how the produce has been selected and displayed. Not all stalls are equal.
What is the future of Indonesian cuisine?
It is apparent that many people who have travelled overseas are returning to Indonesia and opening restaurants. This is certainly happening a lot more than a few years ago. However, there still aren’t enough good professional Indonesian Chefs. Many of our Chefs have been trained in 5 Star restaurants and as a result, their skills are more Western. This will change by nature as Indonesians crave of their own home-style dishes. Familiar food gives Indonesian people great comfort.
Hobbies and Freetime
Favourite place to travel.. I like to visit third world countries as I find their cultures exotic and interesting. I like to take pictures of humans, people, food and life.
Favourite music to listen to.. I like music. Yet I also like quiet. I especially don’t like a noisy restaurant so loud that I can’t speak. I enjoy conversation.
How do you most prefer to spend your free time? At home in my apartment.
Where do you go to relax? I don’t need to relax. I cannot sit on the beach reading a book, or flicking a device. I much prefer to be active. Walk. Move.
3 words to describe Your Jakarta.
I. LOVE. JAKARTA!
Best place to drink coffee… In the morning I might go to Javanegra or 1/15 Coffee . My favourite coffeehouse is Giyanti Coffee Roastery in Jl. Surabaya. I also have another favourite in Pluit called Ombé Koffie. In BSD I enjoy Kong Djie Kopi.
Publications and Social Media
Can you tell us about your latest cookbook ‘Flavors of Indonesia’, which won The Gourmand
2017 “Best Cook Book of the Year” award.
It really is better described as ‘a food book with some recipes’. I needed to publish something to introduce Indonesian food not by cooking or taste but by culture and experiences. It took me 6 years to write. I am now planning for my next book.
Other Indonesian Chefs/Cooks/Food Bloggers that you recommend our readers follow?
Pak Yudi Buldog (who also goes by the name Gede Buldog). His restaurant is called Warung Sunset in Bali. It’s especially famous for its barbecue pork ribs.
In Aceh I recommend Ibu Flora who is an expert of Acehnese cuisine. You can contact her on +62 822 3350 6868
And from Padang I suggest Pak Uda Dian Anugrah who describes himself as a Minangkabau Culinary Enthusiast. Find him on Instagram @udadiananugrah @rendangminang
… And finally, True or False: “A Padang Restaurant cannot be called ‘Restaurant Padang’ without presenting the dish “Rendang” on the menu”
True!! – Because it’s the signature dish of every Padang Restaurant. Personally the best Rendang is made with flying fox meat – selected from Manado in North Sulawesi, but maybe to begin with you will prefer to try the beef version!
We hope you enjoyed today’s AJB Blog post – we certainly delighted in meeting Pak William and learning from him.
Thank you Pak for allowing us the time to meet with you and for also taking us on an impromptu tour of Petak Sembilan and Pasar Glodok markets. It was a most memorable experience (and one that we will share with our readers in a future post)!
Looking for more Foodie posts? Here are a few that are guaranteed to satisfy your curiosity. Happy Reading 🙂
Petty Elliott – Hidden Treasures in Indonesian Cuisine
The story of Krupuk and other Indonesian snacks
Exploring fresh produce market, Pasar Minggu
Jakarta Street Food – The heartbeat of the City
Tropical Fruits of Indonesia
*Kenalkan: Let me introduce
Words: Jo Stevens Photography: William Wongso and a Journey Bespoke