I don’t remember the first time I met Bang Jas.
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
I’d have been in Banda Aceh for a while, preparing for my wedding. I do remember that he was always jovial and kind. Curious about the outside world despite his limited education. Humble about life. Devout in his religion. Generous with his time. He would freely give fresh rice from his paddy, fruit from his jambu tree, bottled water from his general store for the wedding reception when we were running out. He would give generously though he owned and earned little by Western standards. His giving well exceeded his means and this was quite a contrast to my experience growing up in Australia. The bulk of my interactions with people before travelling to Indonesia were transactional. In Banda Aceh, there is little of the sort.
Jas runs a small coffee shop on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s far-flung western province. Warkop Tahiro Sama, he calls it. It means something about working together. It’s more shack, than café. There are no walls to block the panoramic view of surrounding rice paddies. The ambiance cannot be matched by anything in Australia. It’s like an outdoor Pellegrini’s. The rustic timber frame of the building, the unfiltered coffee grounds that slowly sink to the bottom of the glass, this is all part of the charm.
The coffee is simple, but good. Arabica from the Gayo highlands. Beans ground like powder are mixed with hot water from a thermos. In some parts of Indonesia you get more sugar than coffee. Jas goes lightly on it, by the local standard. The coffee has a sweet, raw flavour. In true Indonesian style there is no filtering, no paper, no press, no espresso machine. Just grinds, hot water and sugar.
Before this shit show that we call 2020 got started, I went to see our sales rep – I help manage a busy suburban pub in Melbourne – from Dimattina coffee in South Melbourne. Most of their blends were cool in the 90s. The era when if you wanted a coffee it came black or white. When Macca's coffee was actually good.
I was having a Melbourne whinge to her that the standard blend was a bit shit, and while she was far too professional to admit it, I could see from the look in her eyes that she agreed. They’d started bringing out single origin beans, low and behold, they happened to have a Gayo arabica. The rep thought it was a bit bitter and when I commented that the locals drink it crushed up like powder and lathered in sugar, she looked like she'd rather die. A classic Melbourne reaction, where coffee doesn't exist without an espresso machine, and needs bearded hipster named Gideon or Finlay to craft pretty pictures in your milk froth.
When you go to Warkop Tahiro Sama, or any warkop -- warung kopi or coffee shop -- in Indonesia, you have to wait for the coffee to settle and cool. Otherwise you get a blistered mouthful of grounds. Once it’s stuck together like glue at the bottom, you’re good to go. In Padang, the Minangese pour it into the saucer so it cools down quicker, and drink it from there. In Aceh they don’t bother, Bang Jas’s coffee is still excellent.
There’s a raw relationship with food and drink in Aceh, something that Melbourne misses completely. So many Melbourne restaurants and cafes have massively expensive fit-outs; beautiful décor, shit coffee and the same food that’s served everywhere. I remember working at the Portsea pub while studying, house made dips were all the rage for starters (this was after bruschetta, but before charcuterie boards). Following would be pineapple-cut calamari, American cheese (shit) on the burger, market fish of barramundi or salmon, a steak that hadn’t been aged long enough. Behind the great décor and the good-enough service was the same food. The same shit in most places you went outside of McConnell, Melbourne CBD and the great wineries.
In Aceh, it’s not about the prettiness of the plate. The aesthetic artwork on top of your latte. It’s about simplicity, rather than perfection. It’s about raw taste. It’s about flavour. It’s about being bold with your ingredients and wild with the chilli. There’s the guy cooking your martabak on a grill that’s just a piece of boiler plate – solid steel – that’s been cut into a circle, with a gas burner jerry-rigged underneath. The guy roasting your crab over hot coals. He doesn't give a shit about food safety, but he does care about flavour. The people he's cooking for, they're not interested about the prettiness of the plate. Food is yet to become a lifestyle trend and pursuit of the trendy. People are still far too grateful and gracious for that.
From meeting Jas and hanging out with him at family gatherings – over several months – I never had the faintest idea that his wife and three children were all killed together by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. The death toll from Banda Aceh alone is estimated at more than 100,000 people and these deaths largely occurred in one day. My wife often says that the good thing about Islam is that it helps you to accept what happens to you in life. It doesn’t make it any less painful, but it takes away the doubt and allows you to move forward with the knowledge that it was not under your control. I could never tell from meeting Jas of the trauma that he suffered, I only learnt later from someone else. From the outside, he did not seem to be visibly affected by it, and this was so common throughout Banda Aceh. People have been through so much, yet they go on with their lives.