A few weeks ago, I asked my friend for recommendations of where to eat in Kemang after work. “Alone?” she asked. She was slightly puzzled by my unbothered ‘yes, of course’ answer. Although she gets the working-alone-in-a-cafe part, going for an intentional meal alone seemed odd to her.
Well, truthfully, I get it. Most Asian cultures, including here in Indonesia, consider eating to be a communal activity. So it’s not surprising that dining out alone might be unfamiliar and terrifying for some. The rowdy commotion around, people looking at you (presumably) weird, the fear of awkward interaction with strangers from the next table. Especially for a hyper-self-aware kid like me, those situations sound like the worst nightmare. Yet somehow, I’ve always strangely found comfort in eating out alone. With no one to talk to and nothing particular to do, I find it comforting to sit back silently and just enjoy being a tiny part of a larger affair happening around.
She gave me a couple of options, and with the Chinese New Year withdrawal still on, my choice biasedly landed on Rao He; a fairly new noodle place just right around the corner, serving authentic halal Taiwanese cuisine and small bites. So off to Rao He I went, and not long after, the amplified red neon-lit signage welcomed me from afar.
The restaurant is inspired by and actually named after one of Taiwan’s oldest street night markets, which served as a home to an endless line of light-strung food stalls and local delicacies in Taipei. Rao He certainly captures that spirit, building the restaurant’s nuance with a red-dominated interior, rattan seats, and bare concrete walls for an old-school touch.
Because most tables were still barely occupied (which is expected, as it wasn’t quite lunchtime yet), the waiter quickly brought me the menu as soon as I sat down. The menu is designed by one of Masterchef Indonesia’s finalists, Hamzah Ghani Arifin, and you can find typical Chinese delicacies that Indonesians, at least Jakartans, know and love; like baos, Chinese barbeque, and dumplings. Though everything looked so tempting, being a first-timer here compelled me to opt for their signature: “Mala Noodle Soup with Chasiu Beef” and “Collagen Wonton Soup”.
I then soaked the atmosphere in without distraction, watching people indulging in their steaming bowls of soup while waiting for mine to come. Over the next 30 minutes, the space start to fill up with groups of young adults coming in for lunch, a quick catch-up, or for some, an impromptu photoshoot. The place began to hum with activity, and I felt the lively market’s energy even more.
A bowl with slices of slightly charred beef and a handful of fresh cilantro piled above a mound of noodles then arrived, covered by the broth with large pools of chili oil and sesame seeds floating around. After a quick whiff, I scooped the velvety broth and found it surprisingly bright and clean tasting. The Mala’s numbing sensation was crippling, slightly pricking the tongue without being too overbearing. It wasn’t long before my nose got runny from the spice, but that didn’t stop me from slurping the bowl until it no longer remained and my appetite sated.
It quickly emerged again when the server brought me my second bowl, now a soft wonton dumpling soup with plain collagen soup. The wontons were satisfyingly plump and encased in a chewy yet soft dumpling skin. For the rest of the afternoon, the refreshing broth and dumplings prolonged my enjoyment as I nestled in my chair and watched the scene grow even busier.
At some point, the act of dining alone becomes another form of self-appreciation for me, even somewhat meditative. It’s where I can sit with my thoughts, mindfully appreciate the plate in front of me– and in some way– where I belong in the fast-moving world.
Although it sounds unnerving, being comfortable in your own company is a valuable life skill to have, and picking the right setting is crucial for making the experience convenient and not intimidating. The joviality of Rao He indeed welcomed me to do so, for its vibrant backdrop, lively surroundings, and warm cooking are all the right ingredients to dispel any feeling of gloom or loneliness from dining here alone.
Jl. Kemang Raya No.34a, Bangka, Kec. Mampang Prpt., Kota Jakarta Selatan, Daerah Khusus Ibukota Jakarta 12730