In memory of the late George Orick, I attach it here, as printed in John Thorne’s Simple Cooking:
KOTA MEANS CITY. Like the City of London, Kota is the city within the city. Very old, Chinese. There is no Chinatown in Jakarta. But there’s Kota.
Chinese restaurants, my God yes, many and very good, all prices. But this evening, not for us. We wanted a special place, a 99. That’s the name of a restaurant. There’s a 99 in each big section of Jakarta, maybe ten for the entirety of the city.
On a dark street on the fringe of Kota, really technically in Pasar Baru (New Market), an adjoining section, that’s where the Kota 99 is.
But only after dark.
The street is a street of big warehouses and odd businesses of assembly and distribution, few company names visible, no white-collar traffic.
During the workday, the street is a street of trucks backed up to loading docks, waiting in the street for space, moving in, moving out, low thunder of big trucks always moving, except when they’re backed up against the loading docks of the warehouses and nameless old factories. Warehouses are called “go-downs” here.
For one hour before dark, that street is quiet and empty. Then, quite suddenly, the dark street becomes a bright street of restaurants, and what restaurants! In the concrete band where the trucks stood while they loaded and off-loaded, pipe frames are inserted in holes, bright canvas awnings are thrown over the frames, long rows of fluorescent lights are hung and plugged in, tables are rolled and carried out of flat storage places, table legs are snapped down, tables are covered with cloth, stackstools are unstacked and flung in place, high-pressure kerosene burners are placed and pumped with bicycle pumps, lighted into hissing flame, nested pots and pans are distributed, chopping boards are slammed down (oh, the Chinese love to chop!), and the food arrives in vans, just-in-time delivery of crabs, prawns, clear-eyed fish. No refrigeration for the food; that’s for Cokes and beer. When the food is gone, that’s when that restaurant closes for the night.
In half an hour a dark empty silent street is a bright noisy teeming street of restaurants flung up where the trucks parked.
99 was the first, the best. It’s not a chain; it’s a buying syndicate: the best and freshest seafood at economy-of-scale prices. Your taxi cruises by maybe a hundred canvas-covered, canvas-sided restaurants named 28, 33, 112, 04, 88, even one other 99, small, obviously inferior. The imitators advertise their food on the canvas: fish, crabs, prawns. 99 advertises nothing, just 99.
You walk in, past the tables of fish and crabs and small fluted clams. Only the fish are on ice. The others are alive. My wife Gigi’s hometown in the Philippines is on the sea, so she knows how to select crabs and fish. She ignores the very big crabs, hefts and pokes the smaller ones to gauge the amount of roe in them, tweaks their mandibles to test their liveliness, clunks two of them (more than a kilo) onto the scale.
On the way to our table, Gigi gives the rest of our order: prawns and bird’s nest soup and cold Coke. The crabs are cleavered into four or six chunks, the claws cracked with the backside of the cleaver, and all this handed over to the crab chef, the same stocky Chinese master whom I’ve seen in that 99 for years. His kitchen boy pumps up the kerosene pressure flame, and in five or ten minutes our crabs and prawns come, slathered in thick sauce. We have eaten our bird’s nest soup by then, so we fall to.
You can use spoons and forks if you’re fastidious, but you cannot really eat a crab or a big prawn that way. Hands, fingers, no other way. The prawns are split. You pull off the head, suck out the mushed delicious stuff in it, peel the prawn and eat it. You break the cleavered too-hot crab into subsections, thumb out and suck out the meat, fight over the roe. There’s a box of tissues on the table and aluminum finger bowls, water with chunks of lime, replaced when your waiter sees you need new ones.
A word about the crabs. Asian and North American crabs truly reflect the peoples. American crabs keep their claws ahead of them, like boxers’ fists, always moving. Asian crabs tuck their claws tight to their bodies, concealing their intentions. What’s to conceal? Well, that’s Asia.
There’s a smell to a 99 in full action: cooking and kerosene flame. There’s a sound: clanging, chopping, cleavering, and that loud roar of high-pressure kerosene flame. You don’t hear much talking; people are eating. You say “Tidak, terimah kasi” a dozen times, two dozen, to drive away the vendors: smuggled cigarettes, dictionaries, watches. “No, thank you.”
You watch a cockroach moving along the broken concrete paving where the trucks were. Satisfaction, endorsement. I won’t eat in an open restaurant where there are no cockroaches. They can’t get on the tables or the food surfaces, too busy, too risky, too remote for a wary cockroach.
Two hours, average for a good 99 dinner. It takes a little time to reduce crabs and prawns to rubble. You watch the families come in, select their crabs, find tables, Chinese, parents, grandparents, kids.
Tourists looking for some kind of Jakarta ambience would love 99, love that street of sudden restaurants, but how would they find the place? It doesn’t exist.
George Orick, retired from ABC News, has a house in Provence but these days is more often found in Indonesia, where his wife, Gigi, helps co-ordinate humanitarian aid for the strife-torn Malukus ( Spice Islands).
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