Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ikan Bakar and Kopi Aceh --- Two Sumatran Culinary Treats!

Food in Banda Aceh runs the gamut of what's typically available in this part of the world. There are lots of Indonesian food --- Acehnese favorites, Javanese delicacies, and Padang (Minangkabau) dishes that represent everything that's wonderful about SE Asian Malay-style food. There also many restaurants serving halal Chinese food. Then there are other places that serve Western food, with varying degrees of success.

I thought I'd introduce you to a couple of places in Aceh that have become treats to which we look forward. One is a plain-roasted (BBQ'd) seafood (ikan bakar) restaurant --- most Indonesian coastal cities have them in abundance. The other is an Acehnese institution with a proud history --- the coffee shop!

A few months ago, I happened to take a camera along on a Friday dinner in the Lampuuk section of Banda Aceh. Juan and Pam Gonzalez, Margaret Stoffel, Siti Agustini (Titin), Tatum, and I went out for an evening of fine dining at the Awak Away restaurant.

As we go into the seating area, we pass by a counter piled with fish caught that afternoon by the Banda Aceh fishing fleet. The fish are on the table, and the squid and giant shrimps (prawns) are in their baskets.

As we tell the staff how much of what we want (we order prawns and squid by the kilo), they weigh and set aside the goodies.

The guys wisely keep quiet and let the women choose the fish.

The main dishes being ordered, we proceed to the seating area. It's an outdoor seating area, plastic seats and tables situated under tents set up against that ever-present danger of a tropical storm drenching us while we're eating! Tatum, our logistics expert, fills in the drinks order. Most of us order coconut water.

The beverage department receives the order and obliges by hacking the tops off young coconuts. They expose the inner reservoir filled with sweet coconut water, and stick a straw into it. The reservoir is lined with soft coconut meat that can be scraped off and eaten with a spoon.

The coconuts arrive, and we enjoy our pre-dinner drinks. Conversation flourishes (except for the poor photographer). If the coconut water isn't enough, there's always bottled water!

In the meantime, the chef is busy preparing our fish for roasting over coals. He cuts slits into the side for marinating with butter (... OK, margarine, most likely):

The fish is then split into two and roasted over coals. There's a separate fire pit in the back where scrap wood, coconut husks (from the drinks you saw earlier), and charcoal are converted to red-hot coals that cook the seafood:

The pot of margarine (or whatever) sits on the grill, waiting for the cook to slather it onto the fish and prawns on the grill:

Margarine is added to the fish, and they're on the way to getting done perfectly for our table! Note the fan to the left; not the highest-tech kitchen, but it works fine!

The prawns (giant shrimp) and fish arrive first. White rice, various condiments, lime slices, and dipping sauces also appear at the table. (That's not ketchup in the foreground, by the way.)

We get started while we wait for the squid. We use our hands for the meal. It's so much easier to peel the prawns this way. We just tear chunks of fish from the common dishes and place them on our rice plates.

The squid arrives, and we're busy stuffing ourselves with fresh seafood! I'd better put the camera down before all the goodies disappear. (It doesn't look like we'll ever run out, but we did a pretty good job of it!)

See? Toldja! There's only some debris left, all for Margaret to take home for her grateful cats:

We usually go from the ikan bakar restaurant to our favorite coffee shop for a dose of good, flavorful, and rich Acehnese coffee. For some reason, we didn't go that night. However, we did go to the coffee shop last night. Luckily, Margaret had a small camera with her. I borrowed it for most of the pictures below. Sorry about the graininess --- I was experimenting with flash-less photography a bit... Our coffee shop is the Solong coffee shop:

As you undoubtedly know, coffee from various parts of Indonesia is renowned throughout the world. Coffee from the island of Sumatra is known for its mild yet rich flavor. Aceh is one of the provinces in Sumatra blessed with the right climate for the crop, especially in the Gayo Lues district. Last night, Paul Woods, Margaret Stoffel, and I, along with a couple of our drivers, went to Solong after dinner:

The Aceh sultanate, because of its position at the tip of Sumatra, was long center of commerce between SE Asia and the middle east. I have been told that it was the Turks that brought the institution of the Coffee Shop to Aceh. Acehnese coffee (kopi aceh) is brewed very strongly in these coffee shops (though not anywhere near what the Turks like). I'd say it would be the equivalent of Peet's Coffee shops in the US, if you know what I mean. First and foremost, it's a place to come with friends, relax, chat, and drink coffee.

The coffee shop is crowded with patrons, especially in the evenings after work every day. The clientele tends to be male, but there is also a table full of women in the upper right. It's noisy as conversations ranging from gossip to politics take place and tremendous amounts of community information are exchanged:

Most of the coffee shops in Banda Aceh are concentrated in the Ulee Kareng district. It's where working stiffs come and relax after a long day. Our drivers A-an (center) and Mumum (right) come to join us for a cup of coffee. Here they sit with a buddy of theirs that works at the coffee shop.

Back in the production area, the coffee guy (the original barista, not one of the fancy-schmancy western ones) uses a "tarik" technique to create a uniquely SE Asian beverage. (Please read the Wikipedia link for Teh/kopi tarik!) Our barista is using a coffee filter comprising a fine cloth shaped like a miniature windsock (closed on one end). He pours hot water through the filter, and aims the filtrate into the coffee cups.

When the tarik technique is used with tea or coffee mixed with milk, you get a frothy drink like you see below. ("Milk" in the SE Asian coffee/tea context is usually sweetened condensed milk.) If you order black coffee, it comes loaded with sugar unless you specify otherwise. When I brew Aceh coffee in my room, I use a Melita-style paper filter for best results. The coffee powder is usually ground very fine. I once made the mistake ordering a second cup at Solong. I ended up staying up all night! This order was going out as I was taking pictures of the barista:

Solong also sells freshly ground coffee. I've distributed Solong coffee to friends in the US and Japan, and have received very good reviews. The fine grounds of coffee, available in 1-, 0.5-, and 0.25-kg plastic bags, are piled high behind the cashier:

Here's a close-up of the half-kilo bags of coffee. On request, the Solong shop will grind the coffee a little bit coarser to accomodate press-pots. My experience thus far has been best using the fine grind with a Melita filter.

But enough of picture-taking. It's time to sit down and enjoy my coffee!

(Note: Paul, whom you saw earlier, is leaving for another project in Ethiopia in a few weeks. Over there, I suspect he'll be sitting in a coffee shop very similar to this one! Ethiopia's another one of the great coffee-growing nations of the world!)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Wedding in Aceh

Henny, Margaret's room-mate and our former production manager in our office, got married last weekend to her fiancé Rizal. I am particularly happy to share this visual record of the ceremony with you all. We're all ecstatic for Henny and her brand-new husband Rizal.

You've seen Henny in my blogs these past few months. She and her friends have very much been part of my Aceh experience. When I took the trip to Lamno all those months ago, this was Henny and and fiancé Rizal. Henny couldn't go on the trip with us because she was picking out her wedding dress.

Well, a few weeks ago, we received an unusual invitation. Rizal's an engineer, and Henny's an extremely computer-literate editorial and administrative manager. So what kind of invitation did we get? An invitation printed on a mouse pad, of course!

The wedding would be in the town of Sabang, the district town of Pulo' Weh, the beautiful island you saw in my previous blog (below). So it was back to our favorite ferry boat, "Pulo' Rondo:"

As soon as we got off at Pulo' Weh ferry terminal on the other side of the island from Sabang, a sign greeted us:

Margaret, who had gone the day before to Pulo' Weh, told us to check into a beachside chalet resort while important business was being attended to by Henny and Rizal. So we took a cab to Freddie's Santai Sumur Tiga resort. The chalets were built on the hillside between the road and the beach. The hut you see to the left turned out to be my room.

The view from the beach up the hill. The larger building to the right contains the dining room.

The view from the room is fantastic. Crystal clear waters with coral (the dark lumps you see in the water). Freddie's resort lends customers snorkels and fins as part of the room rate, so we could go out into the shallow waters and look at pretty fishies and corals to our heart's content:

While we were on the ferry on the way to the island, preparations for the next day's wedding reception were underway. At Henny's house, the stage and reception area, both outdoors, were being built:

While I was in a cab from the ferry terminal to Freddie's, Henny and her fiance were at the civil and religious ceremony that would officially bind them as man and wife. This took place in a local government office in Sabang. Margaret went along to take pictures, and I've borrowed a few of her photos for the blog. The civil ceremony was apparently a family-only affair. Henny and Rizal pose for photos before going into the office. She is wearing a white kebaya:

The happy couple sits on a mat in front of the desk awaiting local officials, including a religious affairs officer, who will formalize their union.

Bye and bye the officials come in, prayers are said, and the paperwork begins. They both sign the marriage contract.

Gifts and vows are exchanged between bride and groom.

Then the rings are exchanged.

And the bride kisses her husband's hands. [Editor's Note: We can all learn a lot from Indonesian culture!!! ;-) ]

The two now acknowledge their parents and in-laws. Here Henny greets her mother and father.

Rizal does the same with his parents after greeting his in-laws.

The newly-minted married couple venture out with their families to pose for photos at scenic places around Sabang.

And they eventually make their way to Freddie's for beach-side pictures, and this is what I saw descending the staircase when they arrived. I was stunned at Henny's appearance; a true princess of Aceh!

They took a lot of pictures at the beach with their friend the pro photographer who would also be at the wedding tomorrow. But for today, the couple's ceremonies are over, and we were left at Freddie's to relax and enjoy the beach. Tomorrow would be a gruelling day for everybody!

Of course, for the poor bride, the day is not over. She has to be re-decorated for the reception and bersanding the next day. Henny goes back home to have a fresh application of henna applied to her feet and hands. Henny has to let the henna dry overnight. (Two photos below by Margaret S.)

And so a new day dawns over the beach at Santai Sumur Tiga --- the wedding reception/bersanding day!

Mumun (back to camera) picks us up from the resort and drives us to the house that's being used as the base for the groom's party. Margaret is in the bride's party. Eileen Simpson and I are assigned as members of the groom's party for the wedding. Rizal's parents live in Jakarta. His mother is a Sundanese from the island of Java. His father is from Padang, in the province of West Sumatra in the island of Sumatra (on which Aceh also sits), and is a Minangkabau, ethnically.

Henny's mother is also from Padang, and her father is Malay/Javanese. We are in for a visual treat because of the multitude of ethnic groups that come together in this union! But Henny was born in and grew up in Aceh (in Sabang)!

We lounge around with Rizal's relatives ...

Relatives, uncles, friends gather at the house to form the "groom's party," which will accompany Rizal to the bersanding ceremony/reception.

While the men sit around and talk outside, the ladies sit around and chat inside the house. That's Rizal's mother on the extreme right. Eileen joins them.

Meanwhile, since early morning, Henny goes through a grueling makeup routine at her parents' house. Note the henna patterns on her hands.

She uses a bun hairpiece, which is covered with gold netting.

The Acehnese head dress is placed on the bride's hairpiece and netting. She is going to start the ceremony wearing a traditional Acehnese bridal costume.

And the finishing touches go on...

As in most cultures around the world, the guys have it a lot easier. Rizal's costume is ready much, much earlier.

Margaret, in the meantime, is decked out in her own kebaya, in the blue color of the bride's party. Blue is the color of the day. The men of the bride's party and that of the groom's have their respective matching Indonesian batik shirts.

Rizal shows up at the groom's party base dressed in Acehnese groom costume. The headgear is unique to Aceh. I believe it is a replica of the helmets that were worn by Acehnese warriors in the days of the Aceh sultanate.

The gifts are ready to be brought to the wedding party. Rizal poses with his brother, brother's girlfriend, and mother's cousin.

Then Henny calls... "Where are you guys? Haven't you started out YET?" (Welcome to married life, Rizal!)

So we're off! Mumun is driving us in the third car in the motorcade, behind the groom's vehicle (blue ribbon on roof).

The motorcade stretches out behind us as we proceed through Sabang town to the beach where Henny's parents live.

The stage is set at Henny's, the wedding cakes are in position, and the thrones for the couple are ready.

When the bridal party arrives at the reception site, in front of the bandstand (to one side of the stage) a group of ladies sings praises to God and ask for His blessings on the young couple.

Folk dancers that will perform for us later line the street to form a colorful welcome for the groom's party.

Rizal and his mother lead the groom's party and proceed to the reception area.

Rizal and his party greet the bride's party, and asks for the bride.

His party follows, the gift-bearers going up to the stage with the boxes.

The gifts are laid at the foot of the stage, before the thrones.

Members of the groom's party are led to a special, more secluded dining area on one side of the stage.

Everybody is seated, waiting for the bride and groom to take their places at the head table.

Henny and Rizal take their seats. Interestingly, while the guests are seated in the cool comfort of a tent over the dining tables, the bride and groom's table is located outside the tent. Highly visible to the guests, yes, but they're starting to bake in the hot sun. It'll be a long afternoon for Henny and Rizal!

Meanwhile, on the sound stage, the hymn-singing ladies have been replaced by pop singers who belt out lively love songs and duets to honor the newly-weds. Invited guests, friends and neighbors are starting to arrive and sit in tents arrayed in front of the stage.

The bride and the bridegroom, in full Acehnese regalia, are installed on their thrones.

Local officials and the imam from their parish mosque take to the stage and say prayers and some speeches welcoming the guests and congratulating the couple.

Behind the scenes, the sound crew is busy doing whatever they do so that the speechifiers, musicians, singers, and MC's can do their thing.

The two sets of parents take their stations beside the thrones and brace themselves for the onslaught of well-wishers.

They start the process themselves. If you've read the Widipedia link earlier on Malay weddings, you'll know that Henny's dad is sprinkling scented water on the couple ...

and that Rizal's dad is feeding his son some yellow rice in the photo below.

The two mothers repeat the process for their children.

The MC is carefully orchestrating the well-wishers' procession as friends and relatives and invited guests start to come on the stage and congratulate the couple.

A family wedding picture, Acehnese version. One of many, many pictures with many, many people (and costumes) for today:

It's also going to be a very long and exhausting afternoon for these caterers serving the hundreds of guests that are about to show up in short order:

As friends and relatives troop up to the stage to bless the couple, a local folk troupe entertains the guests with what I think is a fisherman-related dance.

Invited guests watch the performance from their tents, eating their meal and waiting for their turn on the stage to honor the couple.

The food line is every busy, serving curries and other wonderful dishes of beef, chicken, fish, and veggies to be eaten with rice. Water is served in little plastic containers.

Gunawan Wibisana, our project's senior planner, shows up and has a meal before starting to snap pictures. Gunawan spent the rest of the weekend snorkeling around the beautiful coral reefs around Pulo' Rubiah, off Pulo' Weh (see previous blog).

Some of our office staff pose with Henny and Rizal. The guys around me are my computer programmers. Henny and Rizal stoically and good-naturedly put up with the parade of well-wishers. It's a really hot afternoon!

Then there's a lull as the bride and bridegroom withdraw into Henny's house for a quick refreshing and a costume change. The guests who haven't had a chance to see the couple on the stage wait around in the guest tent. It's pretty hot for them too. The entertainers are going full bore on the stage.

Ta-da! Henny and Rizal resume their places on the stage, this time dressed in a Sundanese wedding outfit. As noted earlier, Rizal's mom is a Sundanese from the Indonesian island of Java. (Now would be a good time to read the Wikipedia link.)

The guests resume their trek onto the stage to wish the couple well and take pictures with them on their big day.

I'm getting a bit exhausted at this point... Gunawan, our ace photographer and senior planner, took this picture of me taking a picture. He used a Nikon D200 (he actually knows how to use it!), while I'm using an entry-level D40 (definitely more my speed). Notice the lighting effects. He waited for just the right moment, he says, until the light struck me just so...

The MC joins in the festivities as he starts belting out some songs, relieving the couple that's been singing all this time. Also, he encourages folks from the audience to join and and start a karaoke-syle songfest to honor Henny and Rizal.

It's mid-afternoon on a Saturday, and the guests keep coming. Henny's family knows many, many people on Pulo' Weh. They sign in at the entrance, and receive a little gift. (A pair of ornamental chopsticks adorned with a seashell.)

The view below shows the reception area. Henny's house, (and the stage and tents erected adjacent to it), is built on a hillslope (and hence the angle of the tents and road). Just behind the camera location is the beach. Henny says the 2004 tsunami damaged most of the roof tiles on her house. This means that the tsunami level must have been as shown in the photo (white line). Henny says her father saw the beach waterline receding, and yelled at her family and neighbors to start running uphill. Their house survived, but with considerable damage, while the house that used to stand where the guest tents (the pointed one) are shown, was completely destroyed.

The guests keep arriving through the afternoon on foot, by motorcycle, or cars.

Then there's another lull as the couple again disappears into Henny's parents' house for another costume change. I take refuge, along with Titin, Margaret, and Eileen, under the cool comfort of a shade tree. They are all colleagues of mine at the project.

Then Henny and Rizal appear back on stage in the final, and most elaborate, costume of the afternoon. They are decked out in a Minangkabau wedding outfit. Beautiful gold threads on red silk mark the distinctive red Minang bridal costume. Check out the Wiki article... Minangkabaus are a matriarchal society!

Henny and Rizal resume their places on their throne...

and receive well wishers who have arrived late in that afternoon.

But the throng of well-wishes soon abates, and it's time for the concluding ceremonies of the afternoon. The couple cut into the wedding cake, feed each other a bite of the cake, and proceed to feed their parents.

Their walking back to the throne with the cakes (to give mouthfuls to their parents) gave me a chance to photograph the elaborate gold patterns on the backs of the Minangkabau wedding costumes.

Henny good-naturedly tolerated my photographing her henna'd feet and hands:

The cakes are cut up for distribution to the remaining guests and family members, while Henny and Rizal pose with the singers and sound crew for a last photo ... The singers and the audio crew have been at it the whole afternoon!

After 700 (!) guests, it's finally over! The guests are wandering away, and the sound equipment and singing stage are being dismantled. A happy and relieved "Father of The Bride" breaks out his cigarette, laughing along with Margaret, the couple, and Mumun.

I hope you enjoyed seeing the photos as much as I've enjoyed taking them! Best wishes from all of us to Henny and Rizal!