Monday, March 15, 2010

career on a cart

Sate... the Indonesian protein specialty. Tiny little kebabs of meat or chicken, depending on the specialty of the vendor, barbequed on coals and drenched in sauce, usually peanut sauce. Since West Sumatra food is characterised by the use of coconut milk in most dishes, naturally the characteristic local sate also comes with coconut milk.

I like sate well enough, but my colleagues love it. They love it enough to walk for minutes or hours, however long it takes, to eat some local sate. So on our recent training weekend in the mountain city of Bukittingi, one evening we went out sate hunting. Ironically, we walked all around the city only to discover that the sate guy everyone was talking about was based barely one hundred metres from our hotel.

This guy was the picture of ingenuity. His sate stand was a typical local street food stand: two wheels at one end, a handle for pushing the cart at the other end, constructed out of wood up to waist level, then plexiglass windows from there to the wood or tin roof just above the head. On top of the roof I saw a rolled-up orange tarp, apparently used to cover the stand when he closed up shop. Next to the stand was a wooden bench which looked like it would fit nicely on the roof or under the tarp when the customers did not require it.

My friends ordered their sate and I watched as he re-heated the already-cooked beef skewers on a tiny charcoal barbeque that he had installed on one side of the stand. The area for heating the sate was limited because also sitting on the charcoal, at a slant so as not to occupy too much space, was an enormous pot of the peanut-coconut sauce.

The vendor reached to the back left corner of the stall and took out two pieces of banana leaf and one piece of newspaper paper. He laid them out on the counter space in between that pile and the bbq, then folded them up to make a pouch. He took the heated meat off the coals and put them into the banana leaf pouch. Then he took a ladle that was hanging off to the right and dipped it in the pot to pour sauce over the skewers.

As he did this, we found some crisps laying out at the far right end of the stall, so snacked on one casava chip the size of a large pita bread as he finished.

Then the sate man looked up to a ledge just above eye level and found something else to finish out the sate. Then he looked back down to the counter and pulled out a stapler from the side of the counter. He stapled the banana leafs and paper shut. Then up to the ledge again, he grabbed a rubber band to hold it all together. Then again on the ledge, at the far left corner, he grabbed a small black bag off a pile.

When the sate fanatic friend paid him, he opened up a tiny drawer in the ledge, which I had not yet noticed, and counted out the change.

I just watched the whole thing dumbfounded, and the image of Dick van Dyke as the jack of all trades in Mary Poppins came to mind - one suit that can do absolutely everything for the man who knows how to use it.

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