Sunday, October 3, 2010

How 'bout some Java in Java?

Last week I visited Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java and the home of several highly regarded Indonesian universities. The city's a kind of living museum of Javanese culture and it's the entrepot for most people traveling to see the Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes. It's also pretty much ground zero for all things batik. The place is a sea of batik: Everyone is wearing it or selling it or both. People on motorcycles, the guy driving the bus, the kids walking home from school, the woman carrying a baby swaddled in batik. The city's also home to a huge sultanate palace, the country's most important gamelan, and traditional dance and leather puppet troupes that are the toast of academic cultural scavengers the world over.

So, sure, I went to Yogyakarta to see some sights. But I really went to do some shopping. And topping the absolutly-fucking-must-have-and-can't-live-here-without list was a French Press. When I visited a friend in Seoul two years ago, he and his wife were making their coffee using a stove-top percolator. I thought this was maybe an affectation, like they were eschewing Western convenience for more earthy living in the Far East or something. Like, Who needs appliances? We're in Korea! But I think I had it all wrong. If Korea's anything like Indonesia, at least when it comes to coffee, I now officially understand the percolator. You literally cannot buy a coffeemaker anywhere in Magelang. Can't be done. They don't even know what you're talking about. Coffeemaker? Hmm. You mean rice cooker? No, I mean coffeemaker.

I couldn't find the word for coffeemaker in my dictionary (a bad sign), so tried making up a compound word: kopi pembuat, literally "coffee" and "maker." No good. I'm pretty sure "maker" as I tried using it is more like a person who makes something. The appliance store staffers I tried asking got very funny looks on their faces and started giggling. No kopi pembuat, mister. Which meant no real coffee for my first week-plus in Magelang, which meant drinking the instant coffee mixes that are widely sold and consumed here as coffee. These are really just bad, single-serving instant coffee packages that serve as sugar-delivery solutions, maybe three parts sugar to one of coffee. After about three sips your teeth ache and you feel bad about yourself and you switch to tea but the tea's full of sugar, too--nobody drinks anything but hot and cold sweet tea here--and pretty soon you're asking for teh tawar, which means tea without sugar, literally "bitter tea," and nothing's worse than mildly disliking the tea, getting zero caffeine benefit from it, and being asked all the time why you don't put some sugar in it.

So I really needed some coffee and figured that since there was no chance I'd ever find an electric coffeemaker and even less chance I'd ever find filters for an unobtainable coffeemaker, I had better buy a French Press. I figured if you could find a French Press anywhere in Central Java it would be in Yogyakarta, and I was right. Inside a big mall anchored by the French so-called hypermarket Carrefour, I found a Starbucks. Right inside the door. And they had three French Presses, everyone of them marked up beyond all decency. I could have bought a small coffee plantation for what they were asking. But I took the least expensive one to the counter and handed over most of my volunteer stipend for the month and they threw in a half-pound of coarse-ground Starbucks coffee. It's source? Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Shelling out for the press.

I've been happily drinking this re-imported export coffee for more than a week now and feel much better. (Ad copy: “The carbon footprint of this organic and fair trade coffee is … .”) I've even found some Coffeemate creamer so all is pretty much right with the morning around here. But now that I've calmed down and can think a little more clearly, I've started giving some thought to how a country known for high-end coffees from Sumatra and Sulawesi and, uh, Java could have almost no meaningful coffee tradition of its own. One obvious explanation is that people here prefer tea, even if the Javanese actually prefer sugar, and I'm going against the cultural grain by insisting on drinking American-style coffee. I understand that. But what doesn't completely square is the availability of so much shitty coffee. You go to the grocery store and they have an entire aisle of instant mixes and fine-ground Folgers equivalents that some people just stir right into hot water. They have candied mixes and about eight kinds of powders and four kinds of creamers. Who is drinking this, and why?

I asked a friend who grew up in Magelang and who recently spent a couple years in Amsterdam. She suggested that Indonesia has always made coffee for export—a cash crop first cultivated by the Dutch—and it's never been a truly native drink. The best stuff goes overseas and Indonesians are left with second- and third-rate coffee that has to be cut with natural and artificial sweeteners. Interesting, but she still couldn't quite explain who drinks this bad coffee or why. Why this sort of half-measure, highly artificial kind of coffee—sterile, homogenized, intensely packaged—when loose-leaf teas, often made with water cooked over charcoal flames, can be had from just about every food cart in the country? Is there an aspirant class of Indonesians who see in bad coffee a link to Western affluence and modern, processed-food convenience? My friend looked at me with consternation. I'm not sure what you mean, Brett. And please stop shouting. It's not polite.

I didn't think I was shouting.


  1. For comparison, consider the French visitor to a typical American supermarket bread aisle... Really, why bother?

  2. Granted. But what if the French visitor can find decent bread? Tell me doesn't eat it. If not, why be French?

  3. I ran into this problem myself a few months ago. Some friends at work took a trip to Java so I asked them to bring me back some coffee. They got it...from the airport in Tokyo.