Sumatran Coffee Is Even More Delicious When Served By a Shaman

My Sumatran neighbor didn't advertise her services as a shaman, but would occasionally become possessed in between our sessions of drinking the amazing local coffee together.

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Jan 17 2015, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user richardaustin

Ete Kenti wore pajamas when she made my coffee. She would wake up before sunrise, do her morning prayers, and open the little roadside clapboard shop in front of her house, on a hill that faced a small piece of jungle that was slowly being hacked away and replaced with banana and coffee trees.

She didn't advertise her services as a shaman; she sold cigarettes, coffee, candy, and single-serving packets of laundry detergent. I'd come over and sit on the little bench in the back of the shop, and she'd boil some water and turn on the little TV in the back. Then she'd bring me a glass of coffee. While I drank it, Ete Kenti would drag out her charcoal stove, light it, put a dented wok over the flame, and start frying shallots and chilies, spending the whole morning making curry as we gossiped and watched soap operas.

She only called on her shaman powers when needed—for healing or to tell the future and give counsel. She prayed, and an ancestor spirit took over her body. She shook. Her eyes rolled in the back of her head. Her voice became gravelly.

When I fell off a motorcycle and dislocated my elbow, she became possessed, and massaged my arm with water.

Sometimes, late at night, an itinerant male ancestor spirit—presumably grizzled—would take over Ete Kenti uninvited and sit in the back of the shop, smoking cigarettes with enough tar to feather her poor, virgin lungs.

Women don't smoke in West Sumatra, but they do drink coffee. In fact, coffee is the thread that binds the islands across the Indonesian archipelago, with its myriad languages, faiths, and cuisines.

And the coffee is fantastic. Unlike Kenya, where decent coffee is sent overseas and people are left with packets of dry Nescafé, Indonesia is awash in nutty, smooth, thick, nuanced coffee.

Farmers harvest, ferment, and roast beans, and sell coffee that is ground to a powder as fine as flour. Ete Kenti made my morning coffee the way millions of other Indonesians do: the coffee powder spooned into a short glass with a spoonful of sugar on top, poured over with hot water, and served in a shallow bowl.

It's stirred, and the drinker waits until the grounds settle to the bottom of the glass and then pours some brew into the bowl to sip while the glass cools. After the liquid is gone, the glass is left with a muddy sludge on the bottom.

If a traveler took a bus from Aceh—in the northern tip of Sumatra—across Indonesia, he'd start his journey in an autonomous region ruled by Sharia law, where he can enjoy a cuppa Joe roasted with marijuana leaves (perhaps after a dinner of goat stewed with ganja, a traditional dish).

Coffee by Becca Gluckstein

Photo by Becca Gluckstein.

Then he can hop on an ancient, jolting bus down to the biggest lake body in Southeast Asia—Lake Toba, a Christian outpost where he can enjoy a Sunday morning coffee listening to hymns strummed on guitars and sung in four-part harmony.

A further jaunt down to West Sumatra, where I enjoyed my morning coffees with Ete Kenti, brings him to a matriarchal Muslim society where he can sip coffee late at night in a community meeting house, thick with clove cigarette smoke, where spectators pass poems scribbled on scraps of paper to musicians deep in a trance, casting spells by singing haunting verses.

A traveler can drink coffee on the beach after eating fish roasted on coconut hulls, while gazing at Mt. Krakatoa. She can then take a ferry and have some Starbucks in Jakarta, if she wants. Better yet, she can drink coffee made with ginger and condensed milk. And late at night, instead of coffee, a warm, custard-like glass of STMJ: condensed milk with honey, ginger, and beaten egg.

Further along in Java, the traveler will need some patience. Javanese people are very polite. A Javanese host will bring coffee, or sweet tea, and cookies—but don't reach for the goods yet! Tradition dictates that the host tells the visitor a full three times to drink his coffee, but the visitor doesn't drink until the host starts to drink.

And the drinking is slow. In Java, hospitality is a long affair. A traveler may even be served coffee when she's haggling over prices at a store. It can take hours.

Coffee in Bali and eastward, through changing landscapes and across the straits that separate the islands, to Catholic Flores and beyond, is served in the ubiquitous little glasses.

Even on an overnight bus going from one place to another, a driver pulls over every few hours for a piss, a smoke, a meal, and a coffee.

Even though it's powdered, Indonesian coffee is rich and delicious. There are Starbucks in malls in Java and Bali, but I never felt any need for espresso drinks or novelty beverages.

For the adventurous and deep-pocketed, however, Indonesia is also home to kopi luak, which is coffee brewed from the beans picked out of civet shit. In other words, java made from beans that have fermented in a tree-cat's intestinal tract. Civets, apparently, are the best coffee bean connoisseurs in the world, and coffee made out of their poop-beans can fetch $180per pound. The high prices have resulted in farms where civets are trapped in cages and force-fed coffee, alarming animal rights activists and luwak enthusiasts who say civets should choose their own coffee.

I always preferred Ete Kenti's brew. Thousands of miles from friends and family, with a complete stranger in West Sumatra, Ete Kenti and her ancestor spirits made me feel at home, starting with a hot glass of coffee.