As the train rolls into the station in Madiun, East Java, a cacophony of shouts erupts from the vendors on the platform: “Pecel, pecel, pecel Madiuuuun …” They balance plastic baskets full of banana-leaf-wrapped bundles on their shoulders and cluster around the open train doors. I buy a packet as I disembark, the first of many portions of nasi pecel in the coming 24 hours. Madiun lies in the basin of flat green land between the towering Lawu and Wilis volcanoes, and few travelers stop off here. But for many Indonesians, mention of Madiun brings only one thing to mind: Pecel, for this is the home of this quintessential East Java dish, and I am here on a culinary pilgrimage to seek out the very best. The key component of pecel is a spicy sauce made from a paste of peanuts, red palm sugar, lime leaves, chili, tamarind, garlic, and any number of secret extra ingredients. A good pecel sauce manages to be sweet, sour, creamy and spicy, all at the same time. It is served over rice and fresh greens, and topped with peyek, crispy crackers studded with peanuts or anchovies. Several towns claim pecel as their own, such as Ponorogo, Blitar and even Klaten in Central Java. But as the banners above street-side stalls all over Java make clear, Madiun is the one true pecel capital. The train station vendor’s pecel isn’t the best, but it’s enough to whet my appetite. Outside the station gates, I ask a becak driver to take me to the best pecel in town. His choice, Depot Bu Wo, is hardly controversial, and is a locale that I was already familiar with from both friends and Internet searches. Depot Bu Wo is a simple building with an open facade marked by a flapping yellow banner on Jalan S. Parman, across the street from Madiun’s branch of the French hypermarket chain Carrefour. I tell the staff that I’m hunting Madiun’s best pecel, and they say I’ve come to the right place: “There isn’t anywhere else; we’ve been on television!” Bu Wo herself, a chain-smoking 65-year-old matriarch who’s been selling nasi pecel for 40 years, is a woman of few words. When I ask what the secret of her success is, she snorts and flicks her cigarette. “It’s a secret.” It’s time to test the wares. The pecel comes served in a basket of pinned banana leaves with two kinds of peyek and a selection of greens. The sauce is creamy and sweet, and the peyek suitably crispy. But as a true pecel aficionado, I’m somewhat underwhelmed. The flavors are a little flat, and the greens could be fresher. I’m too intimidated by Bu Wo to tell her, however. My second stop stands right next door in an identical open-fronted warung, another suggestion from a friend. Mbak Yayuk is a younger upstart snapping at Bu Wo’s venerable heels. The eponymous Mbak Yayuk herself is not on duty, but the two women in charge, Narti and Wati, are delighted to hear of my search, and dish me up a prime portion. The price is the same as next door, and my pecel and iced tea comes in at a princely Rp 6,000 (70 cents). Once I’ve eaten, they ask for my verdict, and with Bu Wo in earshot, I have to whisper it: Mbak Yayuk ’s pecel gets my vote. The sauce here has a cleaner, fresher taste, and a spicier kick from the chili. And the peyek is perfect — rumpled leafs of crispiness with a salty, oily taste. After three portions of pecel I’m beginning to feel a little full, so I lumber off to take a look at the town. Between the ubiquitous concrete shop fronts, I spot fine old Dutch-era villas with crumbling dormer windows and mildewed roofs. I check into a guesthouse near the station and quickly resume my mission, querying the receptionist for his personal pecel recommendation. He sends me in the direction of the alun-alun, the town square, to visit Mbak Lina. The sun has set, and the sky behind the minarets of Madiun’s blue-tiled Grand Mosque is smeared with fiery light. The palm-studded alun-alun is busy with courting teenagers and gamboling children. I ask a parking attendant for directions to Mbak Lina, and he points me to the northern side of the square. But he’s not convinced of the quality of her pecel. “To be honest, it’s just standard. The really delicious one is Pecel Rahayu on Jalan Haji Agus Salim,” he says. But I’m duty bound to make the rounds. Mbak Lina herself, a cheerful woman with cropped hair, presides over a low table loaded with pecel add-ons including fried eggs and hunks of chicken and bean curd. She’s doing a roaring trade, but I’m inclined to agree with the parking attendant. Her pecel is decent enough, but nothing special. Deciding that four portions of pecel is enough for one day, I walk back to the guesthouse and fall into a heavy sleep, full of peanut-flavored dreams. Pecel can be eaten at any time of day, but it is particularly popular as a breakfast food. The next morning there are stalls open all over town, with office workers and students hunched over plates of pecel to start their day. On Jalan Agus Salim, however, neither Pecel Rahayu, nor another recommended spot, Pecel Murni, is open for business. I head instead to a souvenir shop to pick up some packs of pecel spice. The sauce is made by pounding the various ingredients into a thick, sticky paste that is let down with warm water. I ask the checkout girl to suggest a place for breakfast pecel, and she sends me to a spot called Warung Pojok. If I ever want to get out of Madiun, I need to stop asking random strangers where to find the best pecel. Everyone, it seems, has their own personal favorite. Warung Pojok, however, turns out to be a good call. It’s a little corner cafe with pale blue walls on Jalan Cokroaminoto, and has been in business since 1967. The breakfast rush is over, and the staff are watching television. There’s a choice of “spicy” or “medium,” and this early in the day, I go for the softer option. It’s fresh and creamy, and I can taste the lime leaf and tamarind. One point counts against it, however: The peyek (which turns out to be very average) is not included with the meal and has to be bought separately. I promised the staff at both Bu Wo and Mbak Yayuk that I would report back when my journey was over. I am beginning to feel like I’m drowning in peanut sauce by now, and can only manage a half-portion at both places. Bu Wo is in a cheerier mood and asks for my verdict. Yesterday, I was convinced that Mbak Yayuk had the edge, but now I’m not so sure. The sweet creaminess of Bu Wo’s sauce seems better suited to the morning. Bu Wo takes this pragmatically, as do her neighbors. “If you want spicy, come to us,” says Wati, who’s busy frying peyek in Warung Mbak Yayuk. “If you want sweet, go to Bu Wo.” And I think she’s right. These two neighboring warungs are, in the end, the twin queens of pecel Madiun. I bid the pecel ladies goodbye, clamber into a becak (no doubt heavier than I was 24 hours ago) and head for the station, feeling like I never want to see another portion of pecel in my life. The vendors are waiting for the incoming train in the shade of the platform. “Pecel Madiun, mister?” they ask. I pause for a moment, and then reach for my wallet: I might get hungry on the journey, after all.
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