Traditional Markets (Pasar) in Indonesia
For generations, Indonesians have bought their food at traditional markets, pasar. The term pasar can refer to a gathering of tukang sayur (vendors who sell off carts which go through residential areas), to a rough, temporary structure where sellers gather in the morning, to the large, multistory buildings run by PD Pasar Jaya, Jakarta's market authority.
Throughout Jakarta, the items sold in pasar are basically the same - fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, spices, dry goods and household items. Selection may vary slightly to better serve the needs of the ethnic groups which live in the area. For example, if the pasar is located near an area where there are many ethnic Indians, they may have more Indian spices or, if there are a lot of Minangkabau people living nearby, more Padang spices will be available.
Daily Trip to the Pasar
Going to the pasar is a daily activity for Indonesian women or their household help. Since refrigerators are too expensive for the poor and Indonesians like their vegetables and meat fresh, this necessitates a trip to the pasar each day to buy ingredients for that day's meals. While shopping in supermarkets is popular amongst the middle and upper classes, supermarket prices are generally too expensive for the poor.
Shopping is not all that's done at the pasar. It's also a chance to get out of the house and catch up on all the latest news and gossip with neighbors and friends.
Prices are not marked on items at traditional markets. Therefore, the fine art of bargaining is taken to new levels as housewives and household help try to get the cheapest prices possible. True shopping savvy means that you already know what the price should be before you start shopping. Prices are compared and news is spread from friend to friend on today's prices for various items.
Foreigners are not necessarily privy to the price information network and must bargain ardently to get the best price. Before you go to the pasar, ask your household help what prices you can expect to pay for the various items you want to buy. You could also check supermarket prices realizing that the items will be cheaper at the pasar.
It is important to maintain your cool in the bargaining process. If the first price quoted is double what you know it should be, show your shopping savvy by quoting today's price at the supermarket or yesterday's price from the pasar. Once the seller realizes you know what you're talking about, the prices will quickly come down.
Take time to talk with the seller and show your curiosity and interest in the various items. Once you establish a relationship (langganan) with one seller, you will get better prices by returning to that person each time you shop. Your household help have their langganan with which they always shop. From time to time, in appreciation for the repeat business, the seller may 'gift' your household help with an extra item for their use. This is normal business practice at neighborhood pasar and you shouldn't think that your household help is trying to personally benefit from your shopping money.
Prices and availability of many items depend on the season and the success of the harvest. The ever-increasing cost of living, as fuel and electric prices increase, has driven many prices through the roof.
Read these additional Bargaining Tips for Shopping in Indonesia
Your visit to the pasar
A traditional market is a beehive of activity compared to the average supermarket. The visit of a foreigner is rare, but undoubtedly will be welcomed with many smiles and much sincere interest. Indonesians are generallyappreciative of a foreigner's interest in their cuisine and foodstuffs. Your questions and attempts to speak in Bahasa Indonesia will certainly be met with a smile, in between bargaining with other customers of course.
Don't expect that anyone in the pasar will speak English. Take a good phrase book with you, like AWA's Words and Phrases, or better yet, AWA's Jakarta Market, an excellent guide to the various items available in the pasar. Use these books to help you identify the things you see.
Yes, traditional markets are dirty with rats in plain sight. Hygienic efforts are minimal, yet care is taken to keep food items clean. Wear comfortable shoes that will not be ruined by getting dirty or wet. While it will be warm, refrain from wearing sleeveless shirts or shorts as they are not considered polite. You will undoubtedly be the center of attention no matter what you wear. But if your clothing and manner is polite, the people in the market will also be polite in turn.
Taking pictures is generally allowed. If someone is resisting, it could be because they feel that they aren't dressed up enough to have their picture taken. Give them a chance to change their shirt. If someone truly doesn't want their picture taken (usually an older person), don't force the issue.
The sellers at Pasar Mayestik in Jakarta (more frequented by foreigners than other markets) may ask for money to have their picture taken. Instead of paying, offer to bring them back a copy of their picture instead. Or better yet, shop at another market that is rarely visited by foreigners. Make duplicate pictures and return on another day to distribute them; you will become the most popular person in the market! On the second visit, you'll hear lots of 'take my picture too' requests. Most Indonesians don't own cameras, so a picture of oneself is highly treasured.
Take enough small bills, Rp 500 and Rp 1,000 notes, to pay for your purchases. Few traders will have change for bigger bills. It is also advised not to bring a large amount of money with you or to wear expensive jewelry. No sense in further perpetrating the belief that all foreigners are rich.
PD Pasar Jaya
The city market authority, PD Pasar Jaya, manages the various two and three-story permanent market buildings around Jakarta. While at first glance the market may seem to be a bewildering, disorganized mess, subsequent visits will reveal a pattern to the arrangement of the stalls.
At first approach to the market, you will see small traders in surrounding areas, usually selling fruit. These traders usually cannot afford the cost of renting a stall inside the market. They are the target of roundups and 'discipline' campaigns to try to reduce the number of sellers around the market area that cause sidewalk and traffic congestion.
On the first floor of the Pasar Jaya markets, are permanent kiosks and stalls selling textiles, stationery, clothing, electronic goods, shoes, plastic goods, household appliances, traditional and modern medicine, cosmetics, toys, sewing needs and of course the traditional bank, a gold shop. This floor is basically a condensed, crowded version of a department store. Bank branches, travel agents and other services can also be found on the first floor of market buildings.
Up the stairs or escalator to the second floor you will see where all the action is, the heartbeat of the market. This is where the meat and fish, fruits, vegetables and dry goods are sold. Dry goods are sold towards one end of the second floor. Fruits and vegetables are sold throughout the middle area.
Meat and fish are sold in separate tiled rooms. The room marked Los Ikan Hidup sells live freshwater fish and the room marked Los Ikan Basah sells freshly caught ocean fish and other seafood items. Chicken, beef and goat meat are sold in yet another room. Pork is not sold in the main market, because the meat is forbidden to Muslims. There will usually be a small shop selling pork on a street near the market as well as in major supermarkets.
Due to the disinterest of small traders in occupying the third or fourth floors of most Pasar Jaya buildings, these floors are now occupied by department stores, like Ramayana and Borobudur, that cater to the lower and middle classes.
One stall on the second floor that you must be sure to visit is the one that sells flowers and other items for the traditional ceremonies. The necessary ingredients for betel chew, bunga tujuh rupa (7 kinds of flowers) and the various dippers, pots and other items used for traditional bathing ceremonies are sold here. The ceremonies that require these items mark the major transitions in a person's life: birth, marriage, pregnancy and death.
A visit to or a stay in Indonesia cannot be considered complete unless you've availed yourself of the opportunity to visit a traditional market. While you may usually choose to shop in air-conditioned comfort, you would miss a great cultural experience if you did not spend some time with the people in the pasar.
So take the time to check out all the different kinds of krupuk (crisps), buy some freshly ground coffee, taste a few kue basah (wet cakes) and become more familiar with the ingredients that go into your favorite Indonesian dishes. Check out the bumbu giling stall where spices are pre-ground into various mixtures and displayed in big red bowls. Daily life all starts here, at the pasar!