In light of the 494th Anniversary of Jakarta, it seems only fitting that we explore the very essence of what makes the capital ‘Jakarta’, with its plethora of cultures merging, and its history that’s rich with pride and struggle, the Betawi culture carries centuries of continuous amalgamation and union, birthing traditions and costumes that are bespoke to the capital.

Behind the Name

Derived from Batavia, the capital’s name under Dutch colonial rule, Betawi refers to the ‘original’ inhabitants of the city. Thus, they are not an ethnic people per se, but rather a ‘creole’ community of peoples from across the archipelago who were travelled, or brought into, the city. Together, over hundreds of years, they developed collective traditions creating the Betawi culture we see today. It is in and of itself, a melting pot, which speaks of Indonesia’s unity in diversity.

Traditions form a culture, and in order to really understand the Betawi culture we must explore the traditions that build it. Here we share some of the notable elements of Betawi culture, from its cuisine to its cultural dances and more. Stay tuned to our ongoing column ‘Buku Betawi’ to continue discovering and learning more.

Nasi Uduk

It is believed that this staple dish comes from the mixing of Malay and Javanese cultures in Batavia, i.e. colonial Jakarta. After the fall of the Sultante of Malacca in 1511, this saw fleeing Malay’s enter the East Indies capital, bringing with them ‘nasi lemak’. A century later, the Mataram kingdom fought the Dutch colonial powers, and though they lost, it saw an influx of Javanese in the capital. Thus, this mixing of Javanaese and Malay cultures was said to birth ‘nasi uduk’.

Nasi uduk is steamed with various herbs like ginger, galangal, bay leaves and coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon grass. This combination gives the rice its particularly sweet and fragrant flavour that makes it so loved along with the different side dishes, including tempe orek, omelette or boiled egg, shredded chicken, fried bihun (rice noodle), plenty of sambal and a serving of colourful kerupuk on top.

The real and authentic experience of eating nasi uduk is to buy it from the small vendors in your local Betawi neighbourhood. Always warm, freshly made from the kitchen, a cheap and affordable breakfast for those whose day about to start. 

Rumah Kebaya

Rumah Kebaya or Kebaya House is famous for its roof that resembles a folded saddle and if seen from the sides, the folds then become similar to the lower edges of the kebaya traditional attire, which is, of course, where from the architectural style takes its name. 

Just like everything else that is ‘Betawi’, Rumah Kebaya derives from the amalgamation of various cultures, sharing some similarities with other houses from other ethnic groups. Its exterior resembles that of Central Java’s Joglo House, the foundation made from stilts is reminiscent of the Sundanese ‘stilt house’ or rumah panggung, and the ornaments adorning the doors and windows, are adopted from Arab, European and Chinese architecture. 

Rumah Kebaya is also known for its wide terraces, with bale-bale (a long and shallow seat made from woods or bamboo that can fit up to four people at once) and coffee tables, where most of the people in the house would spend their time in, be it from greeting guests or having an intimate conversation with family and friends as they enjoy the breeze from the outside of the house. Reflecting on the hospitality and friendliness that is rooted within the Betawi people and culture. 

Ondel – Ondel 

Though their bright and festive appearance seems to have degraded over the years — with (somewhat frightening) street-side buskers cheapening the city’s mascot for a little extra change — no one can deny how iconic and recognisable Jakarta’s ‘ondel-ondel’ are.

These large puppet figures, always a pair, a man and a woman, tower to 2,5 metres high. Their frames are made of bamboo, and their faces, eyes glaring, are made with wood. Atop their heads, a wild crown of black ijuk palm fibres spring in all directions. They are worn atop the shoulders of the performer, who parades and dances to traditional songs; ‘theatre without speech’. The ondel-ondel also represent duality: the male’s face painted with an evil red, the female’s a pure and innocent white. Holding the balance of the world upon one’s shoulders. Some theories state that Ondel-Ondel are a Balinese influence, seeing similarities with the ‘barong landung’ from the island. Balinese slaves were transported to Jakarta in the deep colonial past and may have ‘donated’ this element to the Betawi cultural repertoire.

The use of ondel-ondel became normalised, when Ali Sadikin — Governor of Jakarta between 1967 and 1977 — wanted to uplift Betawi traditions to give Jakarta a unified culture. Ever since, the ondel-ondel grew as icons of the city, while their unknown origins harkened back to the intriguingly tangled roots of Betawi culture itself. 

Sirih Kuning Dance 

The Sirih Kuning dance was born from years of adaptation from the cokek dance, a Chinese performance that acculturated over time. Traditionally performed by merchants who settled and integrated into the local customs in Batavia, the cokek dance was showcased in pairs between men and women, but as time went by, another version performed in groups – mostly girls – became more common with its own twists and turns, birthing the Sirih Kuning.

The beauty of this dance lies in the synchronisation of the performers and the rhythm accompanying them by the gambang kromong ensemble, playing the famous Sirih Kuning song. The lyrics to the song tell us a story of a young boy trying to court a beautiful girl to marriage and hence it also signifies the most common event where people would perform this dance: in Betawi weddings, right at the handover procession of Sirih Dare, which is a cone made of yellow betel leaves with a rosebud in the centre. The groom will give the Sirih Dare to his new bride whilst a Sirih Kuning dance is performed, a tradition that symbolises a man asking his new wife to stand by his side as they begin their new life together.