Sambel Setan Bu Mut tastes like the devil. Blistering hot, bright as a morning star, and sinfully sweet going down the hatch, the sauce gleefully sets fire to your asshole in the wee hours of the morning. Die-hard fans of the restaurant attribute the otherworldly flavor of the sambal to kuntilanak spit—a claim that the owners deny.
The devilish sauce in question is sambal ulek. This means that during production, piles of brightly colored chilies and tomatoes are ground in a gigantic stone mortar, after which a secret sauce (which contains more more shrimp than ghost spit) is spritzed into the mix from a plastic bottle.
I have to admit I was a bit worried walking in. Despite averaging 4.4 stars out of over 1,000 reviews on Google, reviewers on Zomato had posted pictures of maggots popping out of their deep fried fish while complaining about the place's lack of cleanliness.
Like many of the best culinary institutions in Jakarta, Sambel Setan Bu Mut is an open-air hawker stall perpetually swathed in smog. The warung itself is located beside the parking lot of a residential flat in Pejompongan. According to the cashier, the flat’s resident spirits come down to visit once in a blue moon, perching up on three trees right in the middle of Bu Mut’s seating area.
But when I asked him if the spirits had anything to do with the food, his eyes widened as he quickly shook his head.
“The spirits from next door are friendly, but we don’t play like that. Our food is the result of recipes passed down from Cirebon. Maybe other places do that, but not us.”
Indeed, when I confronted a ponytailed line cook about the recipe, he insisted that the sambal’s signature fruity burn comes from a special variety of Lombok chilies. Their primary colors and diminutive, cone-shaped shells reminded my brain of cheap holiday lights, and their sting in my mouth made me imagine what it must feel like to eat holiday lights.
The entire warung is built around a massive open kitchen. Two woks filled halfway with sizzling hot oil sat atop a flame-spitting range facing the street, flanked by a prep station stacked with mountains of sambal in one corner and a paint bucket filled with slush and fish carcasses in the other.
On the menu, Bu Mut’s fish selection is limited to catfish, salted mackerel, and perch, but I saw at least four other species jumbled up between the melted brown ice. While initially surprised to see a red-bellied piranha peering at me from the slush, I quickly realized that any fish plunged into the boiling oil would look the same coming out.
The piranha is not considered a regular food fish anywhere outside of the Amazon, so the sight of this one had me worrying about where Sambel Setan sourced their ingredients. I settled on some chicken offal and jengkol instead.
Since our table had plastic bowls of water instead of silverware, I ceremonially rinsed my hands and savaged the meal with my fingers. By the two-minute mark the explosions in my mouth had me feeling like the rat from Ratatouille, and by the five-minute mark I was sweating bullets.
“Dan, stop,” My coworker urged me.
My face had become so wet I couldn’t tell if the droplets on my cheeks were tears or sweat. I was blind and possessed. It hurt in the best way possible and I couldn’t stop.
After mustering up enough self-control to look around the warung, it appeared that some of the other guests were having similarly transcendental experiences. I had been worried about going through this alone, but the wet t-shirts and loud gulping noises around the establishment reassured me otherwise.
Haunted or not, Sambel Setan Bu Mut is not for the fainthearted. A common adage among street food aficionados is that the grimier the spot, the better the food. If this wisdom rings true then Sambel Setan Bu Mut ranks among the top restaurants in Jakarta. The conditions at the prep line are so derelict that it wouldn’t make a difference if some spirit decided to hurl a wad of spit from the trees.
Eventually the endorphin rush subsided and I was left marinating in an afterglow of sweat and burning lips. After drying off the upper third of my body with a toilet paper roll courtesy of the waiter, I approached the cashier again to pay.
“How was it? See any ghosts?” he asked.
I hadn’t, but between the weird fish, demonic sambal, and random stray cats in the parking lot, it was one of the most magical meals I’d had in a while.