Spices Come Together at Warung Pak Chandra

by Indira Ichsan
4th March 2024
Warung Pak Chandra’s tiny and popular eatery in Wijaya sparks a delightful conversation between Thai and Indonesian flavours that breaks free from the conventional playbook.

Chandra Drews’ formal introduction to the kitchen is first owed to Manchester-based Thai eatery, Lemongrass. It was here, in 2002, that chef-founder Tum, a lovely lady with “wicked wok skills” took him under her wing and taught him the vast archipelago of Southeast Asian spices—eventually sparking a lifelong inquiry into the matter.

A decade of scouring cookbooks and deconstructing ready-made seasoning packets (a precocious routine for a fresh graduate missing home-cooked food) amassed him a trove of flavour and near encyclopaedic knowledge of spice. These came into play when starting his own Indonesian catering business when he settled in the Netherlands, before eventually opening Warung Pak Chandra in 2022, a humble eatery at Grand Wijaya Centre serving “non-authentic” and “half-and-half Thai-Indo” specialties.

Wedged between shophouses, there’s no such thing as idle for the tiny shoebox of a place. When the eatery opens just before midday strikes, one can expect a flurry of diners consistently coming in and out throughout the day to have a fill of Chandra’s homemade dishes that he and his small team still prepare every morning. Breaking away from the conventional playbook, he employs an instinctive approach by going without ‘fixed’ recipes, choosing to play out every dish by memory and feel.

This results in dishes that merge Thai and Indonesian ingredients akin to a dance, revealing a juxtaposition of flavour that builds a punchy, contrasting meal evoking something both familiar and new. In Gulai Daging Chiangmai, the classic Indonesian dish of tender beef chunks in a coconut milk broth—coloured brilliant orange with dried chillies, galangal, roasted cumin, and shrimp paste—is steeped with coriander roots to infuse a distinctly Thai character into the mix. Meanwhile, the Nasi Goreng Tuk Tuk, fragrant with Indonesian spice staples such as turmeric and lemongrass, similarly adds a peculiar kick to a local favourite with a crown of Thai basil. 

On top of the mainstays, the restaurant also serves a daily rotation of home-cooked selections like Ayam Bakar Petchaburi and Daun Singkong Tumis Teri, served nasi campur-style around a bowl of steaming white rice. Natives from either country may laugh at the dishes’ ‘inauthenticity’, but Chandra would airily laugh back, “That’s the point!”.

So while blue chequered tablecloths await to stage Chandra’s vibrant dishes, the shelved psychedelic rock CDs and an eclectic book collection set at the corner of the space offer glimpses into the man behind the curtain: incessantly curious, unafraid to bend the rules, and as each bite attests, one that cooks with heart. “I’m here every day, I cook, I take orders, I deliver the food. It’s all very personal, like I’m just serving them homemade food in my living room.”