We were talking about food last night and a memory came back to me – for the umpteenth time.
Narrow and dark and most of all hot. If I ended up at a back table, 3 or 4 metres inside, the sweat would pour from forehead and my hair would be wet enough to comb again in just 20 seconds. And the prickly heat itchiness would invade. Better to get a table at front, and visit only at night. So narrow, maybe 2 or 3 metres, and even narrower at the front – maybe one metre or 1.5 metres. It was narrower at the front because half the width was taken up with the kitchen. Sitting at the front one was almost being on the footpath. Sabang Street, in central Jakarta, in 1969 was a fun street. It was almost all restaurants, cafes and other eateries, with a row of Chinese owned general stores – also selling smuggled gin – and another row of photocopy shops, so needed for all the documents necessary for almost every activity in Indonesia.
In 69, there were still few cars. Becak trishaws dominated. No traffic, and the uneven sidewalk was enjoyable to walk along. At the right time of the year, small mountains of glowing red and hairy rambutan fruit added both visual and taste colour. The Padang restaurants still sold juicy, chilli spicy, beef rendang coated in its rich, thick, deep black coconut sauces. In the back lane that run along behind the shops, in the midst of jammed in, crammed in, packed in semi-slum houses, the kitchens cooking the rendang let out a steam engine sound as the huge stoves applied their massive heat to the giant drums of stewing beef, and coconut and chilli and a hundred other spices. And the aroma …..
The Chinese restaurants were more then than now. One on the corner with Wahid Hasyim Street had a nice courtyard and specialised in selling its own ice-cream. Outside, the footpath was populated by men selling chicken sate with home-made peanut sauce. Directly across the road was another cramped stall, with tables and benches outside selling goat sate, served with sweet soy sauce and chopped chilli. That stall is still there today and still selling its tough but tasty goat meet sate. Only one of the original Chinese restaurants is there today.The thick, black sauce rendang cooking padang restaurants have gone to be replaced by pallid replacements. And now cars smother the street.
But back to the narrow, dark, sauna of an eatery, only 2 or 3 metres wide. My visits to that place are one of those experiences whose memory seems to remain vivid no matter how much time passes. i can almost feel the prickly heat and sweat attacking my scalp at this very moment, as I sit here in a mildly air-conditioned room.
Narrow and dark and there was the roaring sound like a steam train engine blasting out of the tiny kitchen that was located at the front of the cafe. The massive kerosene stove inside was scolding the heavy metal, giant wok as either noodles or rice was tossed and turned, and scooped and stirred and mixed with spices and sauces and oils in an era before mono-sodium glutamate had completed its invasion of Indonesia from Japan. The roaring sound never stopped, a raucous muzak to accompany a gleaming plate of taste heaven.
Fried rice. Gleaming with what was no doubt the forbidden pork lard, mixed with other oils as well. Plain, with tiny flecks of vegies, and maybe chicken, or if you ordered it, crab meat. Try – but you can’t any more, of course – the fried rice with chopped pete beans with their methane gas like smell, when you eat it and when you pass it out later, with their delicious vinegar, pungent addition to the savory plate of gleaming, steaming hot fried rice.
But I often wondered if it was indeed the lard or the chinese spices or the massive heat on the heavy wok where the rice was tossed and turned with amazing speed that made this food the heaven to eat that it was.
I occasionally caught a glimpse of the hectic activity inside the kitchen, when the tiny window in the thin wall between the front table and where the stove and wok stood was opened to pass out a plate of food.. I could see the chef. He was old and thin but clearly strong to almost be able to wave that huge wok around, throwing the rice into the air again and again to turn it. Thin iron muscles in the arms – aching, exhausted arms too, no doubt. You could see the ridges of his rib cage through his thin singlet. Stark collarbones shaped his shoulders. He wore shorts. He was Chinese but with white hair. A middle aged woman helped him ready the food on the plate.
Was that the secret of his food, rice or noodles? (That was all he sold). His unity with the surrounds. Rice, wok, heat, hands on wok, arms with body, body with floor, skin with heat – his sweat poured off him, drenching his singlet. The kitchen must have been as hot as hell, and as red with flames and as noisy as well. Maybe it was not the lard, or salt, or sugar or spices, but drops of precious sweat from human labour that spiced the food with deliciousness.
And I paid for it far less than it was worth, and nowhere near enough for the pleasure it gave.
(December, 2011 – old piece, new title.)