Sumatra is one of the larger of more than seventeen thousand islands comprising the Indonesian archipelago. Its North West part, the Batak region, is inhabited by people who, as they say, stand out in the calm country with their strong character, temperament, industriousness and bravery. It comes as no surprise then that Maiyon Batubara – a charismatic and energetic owner of a small Indonesian bar Warung Sumatra in the Piątkowo District of Poznań – came to Poland precisely from the Batak lands.
Eight years ago, when she was leaving her homeland in search of a more stable future she had already known what she wanted to do in life. Cooking has always been her passion, so the fact that she is doing it for a living is everything but coincidence. Before she decided to open her own business, she’d had an opportunity to cook in several places serving Asian cuisine in Poznań – at first she worked in the no longer existent Warung Bali in the Old Market Square, then in Mati Sushi, Thai Fast Wok on Ratajczaka Street and lastly – in Yetztu, a well-known place for those who love Japanese ramen. And this is exactly the place where she met Mikołaj Krawczyński, the love of her life and a work partner in one, with whom she decided to take a risk, stake everything on one roll of the dice and open their own bar.
Indeed, that’s what they did, they took a risk, for neither the location – a shopping center in the heart of the bleak apartment buildings – nor the metric area of the bar – up to 20 square meters – encourage visitors or imply the superb quality of meals we actually experience there. As a matter of fact, who said that the best food bars must be situated in the city center? And that a well-designed, fashionable space mirrors the quality of meals? Foodies living in Poznań? Certainly not. They keep visiting Warung Sumatra in swarms after quickly hailing the place as phenomenal at the city or even national level. Thanks to them, food sells like hot cakes every day. The location of Warung Sumatra transforms a simple dinner out into a real adventure. And I am more than willing to head off on an adventure to the wild and mysterious Batak lands in the middle of the concrete jungle.
I am the Sumatra-Woman! – is an answer Maiyon gives when asked about the phenomenon of her bar. A Sumatra-Woman is strong, steadfast, tenacious and, most of all, extraordinarily hard-working. Maiyon is a ball of fire and even though she manages Sumatra together with Mikołaj and a handful of friends her dainty figure keeps the business up and running. She wakes up at 5 every morning to prepare half-products from which, throughout a day, she or the boys will be conjuring up Indonesian delicacies. Recipes do not exist for Maiyon who believes that you empirically learn how to cook. So, the boys “firstly have to listen, and then, they have to learn how to cook by themselves, that’s it”. We can see that her apprentices are unusually talented because, in fact, it is difficult to say who prepared which dish – each one is equally good when we think of Asian flavors.
What we can eat here are dishes typical of the entire Indonesia – stir-fries, tempura, soups – but also traditional Sumatran food such as Rendang – a thick, dark curry with beef, the preparation of which is extremely time-consuming. In 2011, CNN announced Rendang as the tastiest dish in the world (a list of 40 dishes included other Indonesian goodies we can eat at Sumatra as well – chicken satay or nasi goreng). Since I do not eat red meat, my top 1 is Lontong, a dish based on coconut milk, rice pasta and millions of flavors, the most intensive being, in my opinion, the flavor of lemon grass.
After the consumption of an astonishingly perfect meal I hadn’t eaten in any of the places serving Asian cuisine in Poznań, both in terms of taste and service, the question arose – where did these cheap prices come from? And how come such wonderful food is being served in the bar among apartment buildings? Maiyon tries to convince us that, contrary to what restaurateurs say, Indonesian cuisine is very simple and unpretentious and that’s its biggest asset. When asked about her favorite place to eat in Poznań, she expresses her love of Tylko u nas – u Dziadka and says that their three-course meal, pork chop + potato dumplings + salad, is something she wouldn’t exchange for anything. She also stresses the fact that the phenomenon that guarantees this place’s popularity is the same as in the case of Warung Sumatra – fair prices, decent portions and a friendly atmosphere. And even though she’s far from creating stereotypes or generalizations, Maiyon thinks that Poles are very much like Indonesians who value good food as much as the family atmosphere. That’s why you have to know that Maiyon tends to address her clients as “kochanie” (“my dear”).
Be that as it may, the number and the availability of ingredients for potato dumplings and pork chops slightly differ from what it takes to prepare aromatic Rendang. It may not be so, for, as Maiyon firmly and coquettishly states, the Indonesian cuisine is mainly about onions, tomatoes, peppers, and rice. However, it’s only a second later when she says that, in fact, Asian spices and other ingredients are hardly accessible in Poland and far too expensive. But it suffices to go to Germany to buy everything she needs – good-quality ingredients at wholesale prices. She’s a woman of action and such “journeys” are no problem to her at all. She’s been dreaming though, that one day the attitude to Asian cuisine in Poland will change and people will realize that both sushi and Indonesian or Thai curry are simple meals for everyone! Coming back to the Sumatra-Woman, according to Maiyon, she is a little bit like our penera* - (‘A woman who works in the culinary world has to be tough!’)
*penera – is a word from the Poznański dialect (spoken in Poznań) and refers to a woman who is tough and has her feet on the ground.
Text, photos: Zuzanna Mielczarek
Zuzanna Mielczarek, ur. 1990 w Poznaniu. W 2014 roku obroniła architektoniczny projekt miejskiej farmy edukacyjnej na poznańskim Uniwersytecie Artystycznym, uzyskując tytuł inżyniera architekta. Aktualnie jedną nogą w Rotterdamie, drugą w Poznaniu, kontynuuje swoje poszukiwania projektowe na Delft University of Technology i na UAP. Interesuje ją projektowanie jako bodziec zmian społecznych i relacji międzyludzkich. Praktykowała w takich biurach architektonicznych jak Medusa Group w Bytomiu, SHAU w Rotterdamie, a także w meblarsko-rzemieślniczym Atelier365 w Brukseli. W swoim dorobku ma m.in. projekty mebli i tekturowych zabawek dla dzieci.