— By Michael Miller —
Adam and Eni. Adam, Eni, and Acce. Adam, Eni, Acce, and Armang. Wait, is it Armang or Arman? Adam, Eni, Acce, Arman . . .
The jug on my shoulder had begun to slip. I was about 50 meters from my house and making it past my local Warkop without having to pause, set the water down, and move it to my other shoulder was becoming less and less likely.
I haven’t yet mastered the water-jug-on-shoulder-crossing-the street-while-wearing-flip-flops technique I have witnessed so many of my neighbors do every week. Neighbors who are four times my age: spindly old women make me look like a Freshman on college move-in day, lugging an oversized futon up two flights of narrow dormitory stairs, trying to look competent in front of my future floor mates (neighbors).
But I was on a time crunch. My ticket to fresh Bandeng smothered in Lombok Besar and dipped in Lombok Kecil, from Restaurant Ikan Bakar Batu Putih, was fading faster than Marty McFly’s brothers and sisters during “Earth Angel.” Ikan Bakar Batu Putih usually closes at 7:00pm, or whenever they run out of fish. It was 6:30pm, and when I had left my apartment on my weekly water-run, only a few Bandeng sat off the grill, the Cumi-Cumi and Paria Kambu had been finished off hours before.
And the darn Warkop. The Warkop would make sure I never heard “Johnny B. Goode.” Oh the wonderful, wacky Warkop. A Warkop, or Warung Kopi, is, from what I’ve gathered in two months of intensive field research in the never-ending quest to find reliable WiFi in Indonesia, a gathering of people, overwhelmingly older men, around a covered collection of misshapen benches and plastic chairs, near two or three instant coffee baristas. My local Warkop features NesCafe, 500 Rupiah plastic cups of warm Club brand water, no WiFi, and seven or so men intent on getting me a racing motorcycle. I don’t mean to disparage my local Warkop, I attribute my limited Bahasa Indonesia skillz and missed afternoon siestas to this crew, but I was determined to make it to Ikan Bakar Batu Putih in time.
This shouldn’t have been that hard. Ikan Bakar Batu Putih stands right outside the gate that separates my porch from the street, and I fill up my water jug about a block away from my house. I go through this every week. But, if I paused for a second to adjust my water within 50 meters of the Warkop, I would surely be stopped, asked countless questions about my day, my favorite motorcycle brand, and how many cups of coffee I wanted. (The offer usually starts at two cups: one of murky-brown liquid caffeine and one filled to the brim with large ivory grains of sugar.)
I struggled across the street, gave a quick raise of my head and eyes to acknowledge the men waving at me, and pushed on, the jug slowly centimetering its way off my sweaty shoulder.
After almost getting hit by two motorcycles and a three-child bicycle (you know, the ones that were made to have a five-year-old steer, a seven-year-old pedal, and a three-year-old act as the lookout), I abandoned my plan to go to my house and drop off the water first (I was tired) and instead went straight to my first and favorite Warung in all of Makassar, accompanied by nineteen-liters of lukewarm water.
The point of that exercise, both literal and metaphorical, was to show you that I like this place, and will struggle mightily, mainly metaphorically, to get there in time for dinner. I’m not sure it accomplished that – for many reasons. So to state plainly: Ikan Bakar Batu Putih serves really, very good fish.
Adam, Eni, Arman, Sinar. Sinar, yeah that had to be right.
That night, as I lurched my hungry body to the entrance of the Warung, I was greeted by a woman whose name I had written down in my phone, in a note that I opened more than any “To-do” list or “Music to listen to” list I had typed up since departing for Indonesia. Despite that, I sadly could not recall her name. She laughed off my attempt: “Neagnya…?” Then, Nanna led me inside with a simple “ada” as I asked about the Bandeng. They had some, I was in luck.
I usually wash my hands before eating at the Warung: pouring a thinned-out water bottle of displaced teal soap onto my left hand, and using my right elbow to lift the slimy spout of the jungle juice sized cooler of water that sits on a wood ledge outside the Warung’s front door. The murmuring begins as I scrub-up for my meal, but my celebrity as a new face in town has worn off here. I take my seat, a few of the names I surely won’t remember crowd around me, waiting to be remembered. Thus begins the process of trying to recall somewhere between four and twenty-two people that I may or may not have met before. I have been practicing this for two months at Ikan Bakar Batu Putih. While I still struggle to remember everyone’s names, I’ve grown comfortable with the teasing this increasingly familiar Warung community throws at me.
So far, I can confidentially name the seven individuals who work at Ikan Bakar Batu Putih full time: Adam, Eni, Sinar, Subaeda, Acce, Nanna, and Arman. These seven show up by 10am and depart at 7pm, everyday but Sunday. They are all from Makassar, a mix of Bugis and Makassar ancestors hang on their family tree. They are also all related to one another, but I’m not sure who is whose father-in-law or who is whose cousin. Many more people work/help/loiter in front of the Warung with less frequency, but I’m still working on those names.
When Ikan Bakar Batu Putih is humming, Adam usually greets the sweaty and eager patrons. Adam runs the parking situation, is second cook in command, and cleans most of the fish that the hungry customers consume at the eatery. However, he is not the big boss.
That would be Acce. Acce is head chef, dominating the grill during peak hours, chopping and slicing onions during the mid-afternoon for tomorrow’s Lombok. She smiles most of the time, bouncing from the grill of the Warung to the cash register, painting Rica Rica on everything but the Cumi-Cumi. Her joyful presence permeates the place, except when slicing up those onions. I’ve watched her slice onions a couple of times, each time I feel out of place. I couldn’t match her calm intensity in any moment, let alone while sitting outside the Warung, struggling to explain that I don’t need any more tiny bananas to relieve my mouth from the burning Rica Rica. My fat thumbs clumsily smashing the end of bananas are in complete juxtaposition to Acce and her knife, serrating thousands of tiny onions with speed, fervor, and impeccable accuracy.
The rest of the crew deserves a mention: Enee sitting outside in the official “nap-space” of the Warung. She stares at her cell phone, and always kindly waves me off as I interrupt her phone call with an obnoxious “SELAMAT SORE!!!!” Nanna, Subaeda, and Sinar keep the patrons fed with their deliveries. They slide rice, fixins, and cold metal glasses of ice down the two long, waist-high tables. Arman takes payments and never laughs when I say “Excuse me,” [Tabet] in the local Makassar language.
Ikan Bakar Batu Putih opened its metal doors 15 years ago, across the street from where it currently resides, on Jalan Batu Putih in Central Makassar, Indonesia. It’s a Warung, one of the small, semi-temporary restaurants that line the streets of Indonesia. Warungs in Makassar usually don’t have official addresses, existing somewhere between the houses and the street. A few years ago, a property developer bought the lot behind Ikan Bakar Batu Putih and forced Acce and her crew across Jalan Batu Putih (The Warung is named after the street), where they currently serve fish and rice to thousands of hungry Indonesians every week.
Makassar, Indonesia is a port city: a former Dutch fort and hub for trade with Indonesia. The city is the largest on Sulawesi and the 5th largest in Indonesia (According to a 2010 census). The (air)port connects much of East Indonesia with the domineering and more populous West.
Because Makassar sits on the ocean, fish [ikan] isn’t an industry: it’s a stream of food consciousness. While Coto, a beef-bone-innards based soup is the most famous of Makassar food, grilled fish is its most ubiquitously diverse, and its most entertainingly delicious for a displaced Midwesterner.
As a fellow Fulbright Scholar recently said to me: “We just don’t have ‘choose your fish that was caught that day and watch us grill it in front of you for a few dollars’ places in the United States.” That couldn’t be truer for the location of my first 24 years of life: landlocked Northwest Illinois. On vacations to the Atlantic of America, I’ve occasionally stumbled on “pick your fish” places, with mouth-watering entrées and un-stomach-able prices.
In Makassar, you can’t look up without seeing a lime green “Ikan Bakar” sign. They dot the street like ants dot the ground below them. As the Warungs sit low on the street, famous guide-book fresh-fish restaurants like Lae-Lae tower over them.
Lae-Lae is good though. Real good. The Warungs are good. It’s all good. It’s all so so so tasty and fresh.
Ikan Bakar Batu Putih is no exception. Eating there is a delight. After washing your hands but before ducking into the blue-green room filled with sambal and limes, you need to choose your fish. Ikan Bakar Batu Putih sets oily Cumi-Cumi (squid), wide-eyed Banteng (Spanish mackerel) and other shimmering scales to the side of the grill, Acce ready with her tongs to throw your choice into the smoke. Trying to find out where they sourced their fish proved futile for me: it’s a family secret. Every morning at 930am, a truck arrives and unloads ice for Adam and Acce to pour over their freshly picked entrées. I was told by my neighbor that Adam, Acce, and the rest of the crew scour multiple markets in Makassar each morning to find packets that fit their fancy. But those markets and when they go to each one will remain off the internet for at least a little while longer.
In case the embedded video above does not work in your browser, you can find the video here: https://youtu.be/MdcYgtx8w3Y.
Adam begins fanning the grill around 10am, for the hungry customers to begin meandering in at 11am. As the grill fires up, Cepa, Kakap, and Bandeng are launched into the flames and a familiar grey warmth fills the restaurant. Smoke helps keep the flies at bay, swirling around customers and billowing between the stacked plates of plump white rice.
After a simple point at an entrée and mutter of how you would like your fish cooked: grilled, fried, or in a soup, it’s time to find a seat. I always go for a plastic pink or lipstick red stool that faces the street, as I think enjoying smoky-tender fish topped with an aggressive amount of sambal goes well with the puttering of motors and constant shriek of Adam’s parking whistle. Patrons are brought their choice of soup first: either a salty, tan, thin cabbage soup called Sayur Asem (free with fish) or one of the many upgrades, which include the bitter Paria Kambu, a favorite of mine. (It’s also a source of constant teasing and embarrassment for me. For my first two months in Makassar, I could not remember the name of this soup: but I wanted to order it every time at Warung Ikan Bakar. So, I would mutter, “Minta Sop Hijau?” [May I have the green soup?] Which would get a quick giggle from whoever I asked, quickly spreading into resounding laughter once everyone became aware I still couldn’t remember the name “Paria.” Even as I type now, I’m not sure it’s spelled right.)
And then the entrée comes. First the soft, supple, warm white rice on a worn baby blue plate. Then two dishes, one of Acce’s special Sambal and one of Racca Racca Mangga. With damp hands, it can be tempting to push a finger into each of the sauces for a quick taste, and that’s not ill-advised. The sambal includes fresh Lombok Besar and Kecil Peppers, Bawang Putih, Bawang Berah, Garam, and Vitsin. Through broken Bahasa Indonesia, I was told there were other spices, but those and the grinding process would also be kept secret from me. The Racca Racca Mangga is a welcome relief to the spiciness of the Sambal. While having a little kick to it (Lombok Peppers are in nearly everything in Sulawesi), the fresh Mangga, not hard to come by in Indonesia, assuages a burning tongue as the bottles of water lining the back of the two parallel tables can’t.
Then comes the fish, which I usually order grilled, topped with Rica Rica. Rica Rica comes from Manado, a city on the northern tip of Sulawesi, about as far away from Makassar without leaving the island as you can travel. It’s a type of salsa, spicy, used on fish, chicken, and beef throughout the island. And oh goodness is it spicy at Ikan Bakar Batu Putih. Ikan Bakar Batu Putih grills its fish first and then lathers Rica Rica on top of it, about 3-4 minutes before the fish will be devoured. The spices seep into the open filet – when you flip over your entrée to begin picking at the other side, the chunks of white tender fish still nip at your lips.
Eating is an event, albeit a quick one. You eat with your hands, commonplace in Indonesia and essential at this Warung. Picking through the bones of your fish, especially if it is Bandeng, will annoy the inexperienced or non-Indonesian. But it’s worth it, time and time again. As you grab your first full piece of boneless Bandeng or Kakap, be sure to mix in the Sambal, Racca Racca Mangga, and white rice. You should have a little dollop of deliciousness in your fingers, one sure to make your brow sweat, and half of it will end up falling back on to your plate . . . but it’s worth the struggle.
I’ve spent many lunch breaks and early evenings at Ikan Bakar Batu Putih, eating, chatting, laughing, and guzzling water and scarfing bananas when I eat too much sambal. I wanted to write this because I like the food I eat when I’m there and the people around me when I’m there. I’ve never written a restaurant review, and I assume a cardinal rule when writing about food is to not talk about how much you like chilling with the staff before, after, and during your meal. I’ve never written a restaurant review, which means I didn’t do the food justice in this Word-Doc-turned-blog-post. I’ve never written a restaurant review, and that’s okay. Not writing well about the food is fine with me. They don’t speak English, and you all will get over it. But not mentioning these people is not that fine. If I can, and as this is my Word-Doc-turned-blog-post, I sure can, I’d like to point out that these people are good people. Some of the best.
And while the busy lunch hour is a fun exercise in muscling people for elbow room and an interesting lesson in metal wall vibrations, my favorite time to arrive at Warung Bakar Batu Putih is in the lazy evenings, when it’s not so busy, and I can sit outside, satisfied after a full meal, and chat with the family members who make my favorite place to eat run. Here, it’s always worth it to hurry across the street, water jug and all.
Grilled Bandeng, White Rice, Sayur Asem, Racca-Racca Mangga, Banana: 20,000rp
Michael Kirkpatrick Miller is a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Makassar, Indonesia. He co-created and co-hosts The Jockstrap Podcast, a podcast about American Football. Find him on Twitter, @MichaelKirkpat.