All my early life was tied up in tales of nasi goreng.
November 8, 2017
The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang wrote that “patriotism is the taste of our childhood foods.” This sentiment is sharply exploited in Puthut EA’s story, evocatively translated by Annie Tucker, which asks what happens when these remembered childhood flavors come with complicated baggage.
“Koh Su” evokes the particular melancholy of Indonesians born well after 1965 and its immediate aftermath—left trying to trace a sociopolitical history of state terror and mass trauma that is always oblique, puzzling over a residue of loss that remains intangible and yet clings to everything. In Bahasa Indonesia, the spirit of a situation is known as its “rasa,” which also means flavor, or taste. “Koh Su” uses literal taste to capture the rasa of this psychological or existential position with a story about a vanished town cook and his fabled signature dish.
In the story it is implied that Koh Su, a mysterious, mythologized cook of fried rice, was murdered during the mass killings of 1965. At the risk of stating the obvious, to Indonesians Koh Su is a Chinese name, and Chinese Indonesians were targeted in these killings, ostensibly because of links to communism but also due to long-standing racial tensions expressed in numerous incidents of violence both before and since. The town has never forgotten him, however, and seems to be in a state of unresolved grief that takes the shape of a constant search for any trace of Koh Su’s legacy.
By the end of the story, it becomes clear that the most integral food of the town, the dish from which the city gets its very identity, revolves around a hollowed core, a missing man and a massacred community. The taste of fried rice, in its close approximation to the real thing, metonymically reanimates Indonesia’s hidden history of state violence, local complicity in mass murder, and collective amnesia about these atrocities—a history of tragic loss that, much like the character of Koh Su in the story, has up until recently been addressed in Indonesian public culture primarily through rumor, conjecture, suspicion, and urban legend.
by Puthut EA, translated by Annie Tucker
I have to say, this man is exactly how I’ve always imagined Koh Su to be. For almost the entire half hour I’ve been here, I haven’t heard him speak or seen him even glance at the people waiting on line for their orders. He is distant—completely in his own world.
He pours the oil. He takes something from a nearby box, pounds it, crushes it, throws it into the frying pan. He does that a few times. No tomato, no soy sauce. There is only one bottle near him, which is filled with a brownish liquid and wrapped in a cloth that I would guess used to be white but now is also turning brown.
A month ago, when the news started to creep across the neighborhood, I didn’t pay any attention—it was probably just some food stall owner spreading gossip, making big claims to help launch his business. This kind of thing has been going on for as long as I can remember, it’s happened more than a dozen times. Even as a child, I was already accustomed to such minor dramas. Mouths would start talking in this little town, saying that Koh Su’s nasi goreng recipe had been discovered. Soon after, a food stall would spring up, serving nothing but fried rice. People would gather and stand in line. It would get quite crowded. Then, after only a week or two, the stall would fall silent—abandoned. Closed forever. It was like that time after time.
In this small city, the relationship between nasi goreng and Koh Su was so close the two had become synonymous. The name Koh Su had turned into a verb that meant making fried rice. If someone said, “This morning I ngohsu,” earlier that morning he had made nasi goreng. Or if someone said, “Come on, let’s ngohsu…” she was inviting you to fry some rice.
Here you could find almost all the same kinds of food that you could find in any other town. There was only one thing missing: a food stall serving nasi goreng. Because every time one appeared, it would be preceded by spicy stories and grow overrun with buyers as soon as it was built, but not long after that, it would perish as I just described, adding to the string of disappointed folks who had tried their hand at selling nasi goreng, and lending more power to the legend of Koh Su.
I look at the seller, there absorbed in his cooking. It’s as if everything I ever imagined about Koh Su has come to life in him. His hair is long, straight, and thinning, tied back in a pigtail. A black kopiah skullcap is perched on his head. His mustache is sparse and his goatee is wispy but he has let them both grow long. His eyes are narrow, encircled by puffy, sagging flesh. He is tall and has a bit of a potbelly. There is a clove cigarette perpetually slipped in between his lips. I would guess he is about forty, or a bit older.
The man always concludes his cooking process the same way, with two hard pounds of the wok, before pouring the rice out onto the plate. Then his assistant, a child of about twelve whom everyone calls Mbeng, serves it to the customers.
I look around. Many people are still waiting to be served. My turn is still a long way off.
From upstream to downstream, start to finish, the story of Koh Su has always been mysterious. There were those who claimed that he wasn’t actually Chinese—he was from Madura and his real name was Sukendar, but because he looked Chinese he was called Koh Su. Others said Koh Su was Javanese, but he had gone off to study with a Chinese cook in Tuban before returning to his village and opening the nasi goreng stall that made him so famous. His real name was Surono. But many people still insisted that Koh Su had in fact been Chinese. Of course, I didn’t know what was the truth.
The story about Koh Su’s disappearance from this city was in doubt too. Some said Koh Su had run off somewhere. Others said he had been a master of mystical wisdom and meditated until he vanished, rising directly to heaven in moksa. And then there were those who believed that Koh Su had died, but even they had their own versions. There were those who swore Koh Su had been murdered at his food stall and his body left on Genuk Mountain. There were those who said Koh Su had been buried along with dozens of communists in an old well out behind the elementary school. Still others maintained that he was invincible, and if someone had somehow managed to slaughter him, he would still have died without a scratch on his body. Which story was accurate? Of course I didn’t know.
It is said that Koh Su’s stall was located on the western side of the town square near the mosque, under the banyan tree that is still standing strong to this day. Koh Su was known as a quiet man. He didn’t talk much and was always busy cooking. He also refused to serve customers who had special requests. In Koh Su’s recipe, nasi goreng was nasi goreng. He never allowed orders for spicy nasi goreng, nasi goreng without salt, or meat, or egg, or anything like that. Everything was uniform, everything identical. The strange thing was, even though the recipe was the same every time, Koh Su always cooked his food order by order. His customers had to be patient—and besides that, nobody was allowed more than two orders to go.
Everyone knew that Koh Su didn’t use soy sauce or tomatoes. And everyone knew that he used a brown sauce, but not a single person knew what it was made of.
Once, a long time ago, I asked my grandfather what Koh Su’s nasi goreng tasted like. He just shook his head saying, “It’s impossible to do it justice.”
Another time, when we were drinking coffee at his stall one afternoon, my friends and I asked Pak Pardiman, the coffee seller who is also quite famous in this city. He described it almost exactly the same way. “This is Koh Su’s nasi goreng. This is heaven. The difference between them was only this much…” and he moved the thumb and forefinger of his right hand towards each other until the two fingers almost touched, as if he was pinching a cigarette.
I see more people arrive, order, and then join the line to wait. Soon, new arrivals are forced to turn around and go home empty-handed, because even the nasi goreng orders that haven’t been cooked yet have already been claimed. It’ll be quite a while until my order is ready, but I still feel lucky, because at least I am getting a portion.
I don’t know whether it’s because of Koh Su or not, but nasi goreng is clearly the signature dish of this city—it’s so special here that it is difficult to buy or sell. The first cooking lesson any child is taught is to ngosu. If there is a special holiday, like Independence Day or the Birthday of the Prophet, there is sure to be a ngosu competition. People are frequently tempted here to see if their recipe has what it takes. A long time ago, these arrivals used to create quite a stir. Now people mostly just take it in stride.
I was still in elementary school during the first hullabaloo about Koh Su’s nasi goreng recipe having been discovered. Just like the stories about Koh Su himself, the story about how exactly this happened was ambiguous. But after a few weeks, near the hospital, there stood a nasi goreng stall that claimed to use Koh Su’s recipe—for days it was packed. The line was so long that little kids, including me, moped about every day, pouting at our parents because we hadn’t gotten a chance to taste it. After a few weeks, the stall grew quiet, and when I finally got to try that fried rice, it was no different from what I cooked myself when I would ngosu with my classmates.
The second time, there was even more of a commotion because this new food stall was right where Koh Su’s used to be: under the banyan tree near the town square. On the banner was clearly written: Koh Su’s Nasi Goreng. That banner only survived a few days—the police forbade it because they thought “Koh Su” reeked of communism. So the banner was taken down, but crowds still lined up, including cops. That stall only lasted a few weeks, like the one before. After everyone had tasted the rice and realized it was ordinary, the stall grew deserted, and then it closed.
The third time, and every time after that, was no longer a surprise: there would be gossip, and a nasi goreng stall would appear, first welcomed with hope and long lines, then met with disappointment.
I look around again. People are waiting without too much talk, as if anticipating a moment that will determine the rest of their lives. People who have received their orders are eating their meals mindfully. Reverently. Those who have finished pay and leave in tranquility. They look as if they have just been praying.
After just a few more people, my turn will come.
In this city, ngosu is a time-consuming activity, because of the secret recipes and techniques that people claim came from Koh Su himself, and pass along to one another.
It is said that the rice that Koh Su used came from a paddy in Dusun Ngandang, a small village on the slopes of Genuk Mountain. That rice was cooked in the usual fashion, then poured out onto a banana leaf and fanned continuously with a bamboo ipit until it was almost cool. After that, it was wrapped up tight in the banana leaf. This rice then became the main ingredient for Koh Su’s nasi goreng. To produce truly delicious fried rice, a banana leaf bundle had to sit for at least five hours. It is said that Koh Su would always finish wrapping his bundles of rice after midday prayers. And then after Magrib, at sunset, these bundles were opened one by one to make nasi goreng.
Many people make nasi goreng with shrimp heads. The shrimp have to be true ocean shrimp and they have to be fresh. The shrimp heads are separated from their bodies, then their hard outer shells are peeled off and washed squeaky clean. After the oil is poured, the very first thing to do is crush the shrimp heads on a cutting board and throw them into the oil—they give a sort of base flavor. For one portion of fried rice you need two or three fresh shrimp heads, depending on how big the heads are. And another thing, the oil used to ngosu must be coconut oil.
Now there are only three people ahead of me, only three more orders to be served until my turn to sample a portion of the nasi goreng that has shaken up this town.
When this stall was opening, we thought it was sure to be just like all the ones that came before. But after a few days, the gossip about this nasi goreng only heated up. “It is truly Koh Su’s fried rice!” the people who had tried it exclaimed.
The news quickly spread, embellished by what seemed like extra proof: the new seller—we still didn’t know his name—cooked the nasi goreng portion by portion, just like Koh Su. He didn’t allow more than two orders of nasi goreng wrapped up to go, and only sold about fifty portions per night. He started after Magrib and finished just before eleven o’clock. The people who lined up had to wait at the stall—if they left before getting their order, it was considered canceled.
The news began to pick up momentum, along with some additional rumors along the way. Some people said the seller was Koh Su’s biological son. They claimed quiet Koh Su had had a wife and child in another city, and it was this child who had inherited his talent for making nasi goreng—along with his secret recipe for that brown sauce.
People still don’t know his name. It’s as if he didn’t even have one, choosing to live his life and sell his food in anonymity. All he had was Mbeng and a set of cooking utensils. Then he rented a kiosk near the market, and that became his food stall.
Now, it’s time for my nasi goreng to be prepared and cooked. My heart is pounding.
After people began discussing the taste of the nasi goreng from that brand new stall, my grandfather grew curious. I still wasn’t interested until he confirmed its deliciousness, saying, “His spices and the way he cooks it is just right. It’s almost exactly like Koh Su’s.” Then I couldn’t resist.
For people my age, Koh Su is a huge mystery. When I was a little child, people who had experienced Koh Su’s nasi goreng firsthand were still constantly telling stories about it. All my early life was tied up in tales of nasi goreng and ngosu and the leaked secret recipe and efforts to make sense of the incomplete instructions. Of course, sometimes we didn’t use coconut oil, we certainly didn’t use the brown sauce because we didn’t know how to make it, and there was no way we could use rice from Ngandang.
This is the third time I’m trying my luck on the line. The first two attempts ended with a hollow tongue. Each time I came, the line was already full, and Mbeng said politely, “I’m sorry, Brother, it’s already finished.” The first time I came at nine o’clock at night. The second time at eight. This third time, I came exactly as Magrib was ending. And even then there were already a lot of people waiting.
The sound signaling the end of the cooking process rings out. The plate is set down. The rice is spilled out onto the plate. Mbeng brings the nasi goreng towards me. My heart races as I receive the coveted dish from his hands.
I look closely at the rice before me. It is perfect, truly a beauty to behold. Every single grain is the same exact color, evenly mixed with spices and evenly cooked. Its aroma is also perfect. I slowly dig my spoon into the nasi goreng before me. I bring the rice into my mouth.
Later, I stop by Pak Pardiman’s stall, thinking the evening will be complete with coffee and some friendly conversation. When I arrive, the atmosphere is lively. From the snatches I hear, people are talking about the new fried rice at the stall I have just visited. Everyone agrees how delicious it is.
“Is it just like Koh Su’s, Pak?” asks a young child.
“Almost….” replies Pak Pardiman.
“So, how do you think it still falls short?”
“It’s the rice… but how could he get rice from Ngandang?”
“Well aren’t there still plenty of paddies in Bangunrejo?”
Pak Pardiman doesn’t answer. His face stiffens. Dusun Ngandang no longer exists. According to the old folks, almost every single person who lived there was lost in the bloody events that also swallowed Koh Su. Afterwards, the village was no longer called Ngandang, but Bangunrejo.
Pak Pardiman is silent for a few moments as he prepares the coffee I ordered. Then he sighs. “If only it was just a matter of changing back the name…”