The walls of the atrium-shaped Mall Ambassador were lined with neon light boxes all the way to the top floor. It's a rare sight in Jakarta. Most neon signs are placed outdoors to pull customers into the mall. But Mall Ambassador isn't just any mall. It's a shopping mecca for cheap electronics, bootleg clothes, and pirated DVDS. It's a warren of overstuffed kiosks and passive-aggressive hawkers trying to convince you they have the lowest price on knockoff Cheap Monday jeans. It's also one of the best spots in the city to find Manado food.
The mall, which is located on the always congested Jalan Prof. DR. Satrio, is crammed between two major business districts: Kuningan and Sudirman. The inside of the mall looked like an aquarium, if you replace the fish with clothes and electronics. Most of these vendors attract customers by offering insane discounts—as long as you can haggle well enough. All this shopping and haggling must make people hungry, because an entire floor of the mall is devoted solely to food.
It's upstairs, on the fourth floor, that I found the mall's main attraction: its Manado restaurants. There are more than a dozen Manado joints on the fourth floor, five within Mall Ambassador itself, and too many to count in the neighboring ITC Kuningan, said Derry, of the mall's marketing office.
Manado cuisine is one of the more famous branches of Indonesian food. Its roots extend to North Sulawesi's Minahasan culture, where a history of trade graced the region with a wide range of flavors, from European to Chinese.
The majority of the Manado people are Christian, so much of the food offered for sale here is non-halal. This includes pork, a common-enough meat in non-halal restaurants, as well as more exotic fare like dog and vampire bat.
I asked how the mall become such a hotspot for Manado food.
"Accidentally, few of the tenants who were selling Manado food [back then], began attracting each other," said Derry. "Eventually people started coming because of the quality of the Manado food here."
My mission at Mall Ambassador was simple: find good Manado food, hopefully of the non-halal variety. I asked multiple people in the food court where the non-halal food was at, but most didn't know much about the options at the Manado restaurants. They pointed me to Lapo Ni Tongdota—a Batak place with pretty good roasted pork—instead.
A lot of places sell pork in Mall Ambassador, but few advertise it openly, one of the food stall owners told me. But as I was wandering around, I spotted a small handwritten sign reading "B1."
"What's B1?" I asked.
"Erwe," the waitress said
"Erwe? You mean dog meat?" I said.
Most of the dog meat sold in Mall Ambassador is sold on the sly, but that doesn't mean it's entirely prohibited. Most of the Manado places have large quantities of dog meat on display, as long as you know where to look. The food court's customers told me to try Meimo if I want to eat some dog meat.
Meimo has been around since 2006, said Elly, the restaurant's owner. "A lot of the earlier building managers were all from Manado," she explained. "So it started with family and friends. Now there's a lot. But the old managers sadly aren't around anymore."
Erwe, or rintek wuuk, is Mandonese for "soft fur"—it's a slang word meant to describe the physical appearance of dog meat. The meat has a similar texture with pork, in terms of the fatty parts, while the white meat is high in protein. Historically, the human digestive system is more accustomed to eating dog meat than we might think. In terms of taste, dog is a pretty gamey meat and most Manado dishes go heavy on the spices to mask the taste. It also smells a bit like a dog, which, for some, will instantly trigger thoughts of their childhood pet.
Dog meat doesn't stand out visually from all the other dishes on display at Meimo. I needed to ask the owner for help to figure out that the black-colored mix of mystery meat and spices was erwe. The whole dish—which came with rice, bakwan jagung and brenebon soup—cost about Rp 45,000. The meat, which is similar to pork, mixed well with the earthiness of the Manadonese spices.
The dog meat at Meimo was surprisingly palatable, but I still had to think up all sorts of reasons to justify that it was OK to be enjoying the dish. It's just not that easy to sit down and enjoy eating dog meat for the first time.
On the other side of Mall Ambassador's fourth floor, the owner of Payangka offered me another, even rarer meat.
"Besides dog meat we can usually offer bat meat," said Carol, the owner of Payangka. "But you'd have to order it in advance. It's difficult to obtaining bat and we need to order it from back home."
Next time, I thought.