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!)


Joe said...

There was a Chinese lady operating a grocery store at JR Tachikawa station south gate, Tokyo, it read HALALA Food, I think I will take a closer look at her foods.

The coffee you gave me at first tasted abit strange, from a person who often used Nescafe for convenience...but after 2nd+3rd cup onward, I have began to appreciate its mild yet abit bitter taste....
Hey you sure there is no "opium" in it which made me hooked onto it?

Howard said...


Kopi Aceh doesn't NEED any opium for you to become addicted! It's naturally addictive! :)

busymum100 said...


The fishes really look delicious! And prawns and squids? Naim must take me back there.

As for the coffee, I can appreciate them though I'm not as hooked on them as Naim ;-)
I prefer Robusta to Arabica anytime :-)
The way they roast them is also important, right?

Now Air Asia is promoting RM0.29 tickets to Padang as well as a few other destinations. They should include Banda Acheh la...

Anonymous said...

Howard! We miss you terribly! You seem to be having a blast! OWP wishes you well! Come visit soon! mmm, coffee.....

Howard said...

Syabariah (busymum100),

Yes, you definitely need at least one more trip here, if anything for the ikan bakar and the coffee! Some of the handicrafts here are pretty interesting. Short blog on reviving batik next!


Hey, how are you guys? Believe it or not, I think of you guys a lot more than you might expect! I will be back on March 21, passing through LA and driving back from there with Pat. I'm trying to get John Johnston to take a spring break trip there (to see his son at Cal Arts) at that time so we can see him there. (Kuen will also be down there at that time.) Work on him, will ya? He works wa-ay too hard! I hope you have kept up the practice of brewing Pete's at the OWP office!

Miss ya all too!

busymum100 said...


Talking about Achenese Batik, on the day we were leaving Banda Acheh, the driver took us to a souvenir shop (by the name of "something Putera" or "Putera something", or something like that.

Since during our previous visits to Jakarta, Bali and even Bukit Tinggi, Malaysian Ringgit was widely accepted, so for the Banda Acheh outing I didn't carry much Rupiahs.

At that shop I saw some brooches of the shape of the Achenese dagger/sword, and got excited to choose then when my son Bok asked me to enquire first if they accept RM. To my disappointment, they DO NOT :-(
What a blow! It was Sunday morning, so no bank was opened.

I saw the batik from a distance, but we soon left the shop feeling very frustrated (Naim and Aina were waiting in the car with the driver).

Later at the iarport, I was told by some other tourists/visitors that Achehnese batik is different form others. Dang!

naim said...

hi Howard,

great ikanbakar + kopi tale there! after returning to kuala lumpur, i realised i forgot to procure a sample of local atjeh kopi. normally whenever i traveled, i would bring back the good local stuff. i guess time to return to banda aceh? :)

anyway sabariah just wrote an entry on the kemubu pump house, pls go to:

as for my own site,, we had a technical glitch 3 days ago which wiped out all new contents done in the last 3 weeks or so, which meant the whole newly-written chiangmai pictorial plus the banda aceh draft i was working on, went poof! at least for chiangmai, i could link it to my gallery which survived the catastrophe. pretty depressing losing all this stuff, needless to say. :-(


naim said...

sorry, above kemubu pump link is broken. pls try this shortened one:

jusdelima said...


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Yamaguchi,
By coincedece I found your blog in the internet.
My name is Laila, I am a 40 year old Acehnese woman, right now living in the Netherlands with my husband and our three daughters. I am really impressed to read all your stories about my hometown Banda Aceh. I was born and raised there. I have seen all the pictures of the coffee shop, the restaurants, and most important the new Banda Aceh after the tsunami.Thank you very much. with kindly regards, Laila Kadri.