Some point to Yemen, others India; yet while the details of its exact origins aren't entirely clear, one thing's certain: the 'martabak' or 'murtabak' has become one of Southeast Asia's most popular street foods - particularly in Indonesia.
The stuffed, pan-fried 'pancake' is a hot, oily and a rather simple snack that has locals and tourists lining up at vendors across Jakarta and Java. Although sweet and savoury martabak share the same name and are sold at the same carts, there's hardly anything similar about these Indonesian bites.
Savoury martabak is made with thin stretched wheat dough which is gathered and overlayed onto an egg and minced meat filling. When fried, the texture is much like an Indian roti canai or paratha flatbread; oily and flakey. In Arab countries, they call the dish 'mutabbaq' which literally means 'folded'. The concept is similar to Turkish flatbread gözleme, a Mexican quesadilla or even a savoury crêpe, but the martabak becomes blistered when cooked, making a crunchy outer layer that encases subcontinental flavours.
The base of the filling is egg, shallot onions and coriander, but the added meat be minced chicken, lamb or beef. More upmarket vendors in Indonesia will use duck eggs, making a more rich and fuller centre.
When golden and crisp, martabak is taken from the vendor's large deep pan and sliced into squares. In Malaysia, the snack is usually served with a curry sauce to dip, but Indonesians prefer a garnish of raw hot chillis, fresh coriander, red onion and pickled cumbers.
Sweet martabak or 'martabak manis' is very different. Not just in taste, but also in its texture, consistency and cooking method. However, the main principle remains as the batter is placed or 'folded' on top of its filling.
When ready, layers of butter, chocolate sprinkles (a clear influence of Indonesia's Dutch colonial history), fresh grated cheese, a drizzle of condensed milk and peanut and sesame seeds are added, making it the ultimate source of guilty pleasure.
Sweet martabak begins with a very eggy batter, which is then poured into the same large, deep vendor skillet as its savoury counterparts are cooked in. It slowly heats up as small bubbles emerge from the yellow mix, similar to cooking a pancake or crumpet, and identify when it's ready. Layers of butter, chocolate sprinkles (a clear influence of Indonesia's Dutch colonial history), fresh grated cheese, a drizzle of condensed milk and peanut and sesame seeds are added on top, making it the ultimate source of guilty pleasure. The circular martabak is then cut in half and one crescent is squashed on top of the other side.
Variations of this sweet treat have seen Nutella and marshmallows used as filling. Red velvet, with a vibrant coloured sponge, is another twist on this pancake-like dessert.
Like most Indonesian street food, martabak is incredibly cheap for overseas visitors. Depending on the fillings chosen, the average price for a plate of hot, fried, delicious squares is about $2 - $4 AUD.
Neighbouring countries Malaysia and Singapore give Indonesia a run for their money in quality savoury martabak, and the streets of Bangkok have also seen an increase of martabak carts with long lines. However, sweet martabak manis continues to be largely exclusive to Indonesia, buttering the finger tips and satisfying the sweettooths of Java's passers by.
A variation of roti canai, these savoury breads are filled with a spiced lamb mixture. The special ingredient, Malaysian meat curry powder, contains a variety of spices including cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and coriander, and is available from Asian food shops.
Lead image: Flickr / Paul Reiss
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