Sate House At The Top Of The World Or At Least Somewhere Near The Top Of Java
The mustard yellow paint slapped on the cement walls many years ago is beginning to peel off. The Sate house, or warung, is dominated by a 5 foot long stay cooker. It stands waist high on four crooked legs and is stoked full with glowing bits of charcoal. The cooker is made from pieces of a forty gallon drum that have been hammered straight and then joined together to make a long tray. Smoke from sate of days long gone by sticks to the wall like flies to fly paper.
The fluorescent tubes hanging precariously overhead provide a soft sprinkling of light. The warung is two rooms; the dining room- with only low walls- is also home to the stay cooker. The second room has more light, and a 21 inch TV hanging from the ceiling showing a inter-province football game. At the other end of the room, on a dirty wooden table, lie an assortment of goat parts- ribs, meat, a couple of flaccid penises. It’s too cold for flies. An old green 1938 ex-Dutch plantation scale is used to weigh the carcases as they come in. The marbled hulks of Goats hang cut up and gutted from rusty hooks in the window. Slowly swaying in the wind generated from the rain outside.
In the dinning room there are long trestle tables and teak benches. The benches have seated literally thousands of dinners. Polished over the ages by bums sliding in and out, the solid teak has a mirror clean finish out of place in these surrounds. The tables are pockmarked by a generation worth of cigarette burns. The white vinyl surface cracked and lifting, showing thick and permanent grease stains below. The nails holding the vinyl in place are rusting red.
The floor was also once white- ceramic tiles typical of the type found in houses, bathrooms, toilets, airports, mosques and offices all over the archipelago. In the corners white remains, around the tables where shoes have cracked the surface, grey is the predominant colour. Under the Sate Cooker a brown glaze has become a permanent fixture.
There are windows separating the dining area from the room where the TV and goat meat is. The windows are adorned with a variety of stickers- “The Diploma Rally of Kalimantan”, “FHM Magazine”, “Sutra Condoms”, “Global America Lubricants” and the obligatory cigarette company stickers. On the wall there is an assortment of clocks, again with sponsor’s logos. Bank clocks, Gas company clocks – none synchronised in any way.
There are many sticks of sate being cooked; after all it is dinner time. The men cooking smoke lazily on Marlboro while circling the sate rack like watchful predators. Square fans made from platted rattan are used to fan the coals, with pretty much the same action a ping-pong player uses hid paddle to swap the ball. The fanning is an art, the fan and wrist blend as one. The coals glow red, the reverse current also accelerates the burning of the cigarette. Often long tobacco ash tails drop into the coals, or onto the sate. Those not cooking stand around the sate cooker in a semi-circle- hands outstretched. It is chilly up here. No women are allowed in the group close around the coals. The Sate tray holds the same masculine mystic as Kiwi and Australian BBQ’s do.
Inside the room Bottles are lined up on racks running the length of the wall in orderly fashion. Each group in a row. Red Fanta, Green Sprite, Black Coca Cola, Brown Tea Bottle, urine yellow Tea Tebs. The rain traps the smoke inside, curling it up to the ceiling and down to the floor, but leaving the gap between clear and fragrant with the smell of cooking meat.
One of the young boys watching the football has a shoe-shine kit. A dirty rag, a brush made from some kind of animal hair/bristle and a battered tin of Kiwi Shoe polish. In quiet moments during the game he scrambles under the trestle tables examining the customer’s shoes. Finding scuff or wear marks he cleans the shoes for 50 cents. Other street vendors sheltering inside from the rain cup kretek cigarettes in their right hands, while offering to sell bamboo back scratchers, glass beads, peci hats and prayer mats. Another whispers softly “Boss…boss…” while offering sugared roti from a handmade steaming dish.
The cliental is a mix of- well dressed Jakarta Elite, swarthy truck drivers and Arab tourists accompanied by tall, pale Sundanese girlfriends.
The Sate House is famous for its sated goat, or Kambing as it’s called. The sate is prepared so generous lumps of lamp are spaced out between globs of fat on the sate stick. The cooking process caramelises the fat, making it juicy and succulently sweet. Literally exploding like thick honey onto the tongue as the meat is pulled from the bamboo skewer.
The man cutting the meat wears a waist length apron over a pair of grimy Levis. He casually wipes his hands not on the apron, but on his batik shirt, brushing his moustache from time to time. Knife carefully paring goat meat from goat bone, his eyes never leave the screen action of the football match.
Lightening illuminates the sky behind the peaks, shapes eerily appear momentarily, jagged blue and black in the distant tree line. Thunder rumbles all around, endlessly, complaining like a hungry stomach. The rain that has been falling for hours, thickens.
The Coke Merchandising Fridge burns more electricity than all the other lights and appliances in the place combined. The illumination produced is white and clean. The fridge contains the normal company products, as well as a mix of traditional Jamu drinks and honey, with a label depicting a sad and apparently disorientated camel eating a date. The Coke Fridge has its own guard, a man smoking a oily clove cigarette from a long, carved bone cigarette holder. The bone comes from the hind leg of a Javanese Alpine Hare. He hunted, skinned, ate the rabbit- then carved the holder himself. His job is to make sure the sate diners chose wisely – Coke or Jamu depending on immediate thirst quenching need, or health consideration.
The Sate House has no dessert on the menu. The sticks and sticks (and sticks) of sate consumed normally satisfy the stomachs of most guests. However for the rare few still hungry, there is a shop next door that sells Bananas. Just Bananas. From the low ceiling hang small bunches spread about 10cm apart. Like walking through a plantation, bananas swaying at eye level. The walls have racks after rack of larger bunches. Even the nude calendar on the far wall has a bunch nailed to it, tastefully covering the interesting parts of the model.
After dessert it is time to leave the Sate House. Behind the red lettering on the rain splattered glass windows, the hanging goats almost look like wax exhibits. The car-park always full waits for those who have finished to be on their way. There is always another guest as Sate Kambing is served, hot and juicy 24hours.