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Why The Warung Is A Special Part of Indonesian Society

Culture

Why The Warung Is A Special Part of Indonesian Society

The warung, specifically the warung makan.

That little restaurant-thing on the side of the street serving simple local dishes. It is by all means a mundane component of Indonesian life, as common as your daily cup of coffee. Strewn all over the country, from Aceh to Merauke these  humble eateries are visited on a daily basis by hungry Indonesians after a cheap feed. Not very special.

That is unless you look at it a little deeper…

Painting by Josias Kornelis Rapard (1882-1889), Source: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures

In a country of 270,000,000 plus people, it’s fair to say that Indonesia has developed a wide range of socio-economic levels and even more sub-cultures. With those differing interests and a very wide range of spending abilities, consumerism has grown to please certain markets and niches – just as it happens elsewhere around the world.

In the big cities, fine dining restaurants on rooftops and glamorous nightclubs have grown in numbers to please the top-percenters, whilst the casual and fun-themed cafés have popped up to keep the growing middle class (with their newly-expendable income) entertained. Everyone has their place; a Saturday night out on the town has you surrounded by your ‘demographic’, people more-or-less like you, in the same stratosphere of society (plus or minus a few varying degrees).

Jakarta Rooftop Bar

Skye Rooftop Bar in Jakarta. Source: travel.grivy.com

This is true in many areas of life: the common-folk go to the puskesmas whilst the rich enjoy their private clinics; the wealthy swipe their credit cards at the latest boutiques and branded shops, whilst the discount department stores are filled with ‘the others’; inside a cool, air conditioned car, one person looks out the window to another person on a motorbike, sweltering in the heat. Two worlds apart. This is not a critique, this is simply a description of the way things are.

However, there is one special place in Indonesia that sees these seemingly different worlds come together. Like an oasis in an African savannah, where predator and prey both come to drink in peace, the warung makan is the oasis of the Indonesian people.

Warong Pak Ghofar, Surabaya. Source: Inijie.com

Think about it: from your masakan padang to the angkringan solo or the kaki lima serving satay or nasi gila, Indonesian’s of (almost) all backgrounds gather to enjoy the delights of the streets. The air conditioned car and the rackety motorbike will park side-by-side, as the woman in her business attire and the gojek driver sit mere 2 metres apart to enjoy the same Rp.15,000 touch-screen nasi campur. ‘Punk rockers’ next to young urban creatives, Muslims next to Christians, Batak next to Medanese, Blue Bird drivers next to Uber drivers(!) . Yes, the warung is everyone’s home, a neutral space where fashion sense, bank accounts and religions on our KTP dissipate into nothingness and all that matters is the meal in front of us.

Warung Pak Ghofar, Surabaya. Source: Inijie.com

What is it about these humble spots that seem to command all levels of Indonesian society to assemble under one roof? It is simply our love for food? Our need for a cheap bite? Perhaps… or maybe its that deep down the warung is somewhere we can all go and be free. Where we don’t feel judged, where we don’t feel the need to impress, we can simply be. (But okay, we do love our food).

So, next time you’re in a warung , take a look around, you’re in the oasis of Indonesian society.

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