And this is his warung.
Koh Ati ('koh' for 'Elder Brother') cooks a mean kepala ikan (fish head). He's been doing so, in a miniscule shack tucked between a sundries store and a canal a short walk from Jakarta's Old Town, for over thirty-eight years. We find his warung by chance as we trace wider and wider circles out from Fatahillah Square, hunting architectural remnants of Dutch and Chinese influence on the city's past.
The sign, a plywood plank advertising three dishes in clear, no-nonsense lettering, speaks to us. So does the sight of Koh Ati laboring over a chunk of fish in his 'kitchen'.
Just inside the warung a helper stirs the burbling contents of a wok; we see cabe rawang - small green chilies guaranteed to leave a tingle on the tongue - and, in a nearby bowl, white tunafish heads and fillets. The fog wafting around the room smells of turmeric, coconut milk, galangal.
When our half a head arrives its eye socket is stuffed with chilies. Somehow, in Indonesia, this seems appropriate. The meat is firm, sweet, so fresh. The gravy is not as lemak (rich with coconut milk) as we thought it might be, but bright with lemon grass and that certain appealing galangal astringency, and tamarind-tart. We clean the bones of meat and finish every last drop of sauce.
And then, because we've seen other customers come, eat, and leave with smiles on their faces, and because Koh Ati is clearly serious about his food, we order more:
lao mie, chewy wheat noodles with sweet roasted pork, choy sum (Chinese mustard), and bean sprouts in a shallow pool of anise-flavored, soy sauce-enriched goo, and minced pork seasoned with five spice, wrapped tight in sheets of bean curd skin, deep-fried to order to a spectacular crisp. The latter reminds us of the Penang Nyonya dish lor bak.
We could, if we had the stamina, continue on; the two narrow metal counters in Koh Ati's warung that serve as dining areas hold bowls of crackly-skinned deep-fried chicken feet and steaming chunks of pork leg. Outside sits a plastic basket mounded with beautifully marbled pork belly. We could idle an hour or two, just to see what Koh Ati does with that belly.We could, but we just can't. Not today.
As we leave Koh Ati, finished chopping tuna heads in half, steps back in front of the wok. We get the impression he wants us to know that it's he, not his assistant, who does the cooking.
'Is this Chinese?' we ask, pointing to the contents of his wok.
Koh Ati has told us that his parents came to Jakarta from the southeastern Chinese town of Chaozhou. If he were in Malaysia he would certainly describe himself as Teochew. But the history of Chinese in Indonesia makes this all a bit more complicated.
'No, this is Indonesian food,' he replies. And the noodles and bean curd-wrapped pork? No, not Chinese - Indonesian as well.
We leave the parsing of origins and identification for another time. Right now, all we hope for is a chance to revisit Koh Ati and bear witness to his way with pork belly.
Warung Koh Ati, two blocks west of Kali Besar, a couple blocks south of Hotel Batavia, alongside the canal, Jakarta.