Gorontalo: Indonesia’s Unique Coffee Culture by Peripatete

How far would you be willing to travel for a cup of coffee, aromatic to the hilt, loved by royalty and as yet available solely in such a remote part of Asia that it could very well take you hours to arrive  – by foot? If you’re a diehard coffee hound, ready to explore the furthest reaches of this planet for a cup of bean-bliss, pin this: Gorontalo, Indonesia. You’ll not only be treated to a wide range of rich and fragrant brews, but you’ll get a prized peek into a unique coffee culture.

Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, straddles the equator from Malaysia in the west to Papua New Guinea in the east. The large island of Sulawesi – where Gorontalo is located – lies along the Wallacea transition zone between Asia and Australia; also known as a Borderline Island.

Gorontalo’s provincial territory includes coastal islands, hills, rivers, a lake and an abundance of aquatic life and flora. (The capital city is also named Gorontalo.) The remnants of three forts, built in the 15th century by Portuguese sailors to protect the island from pirates, are among the limited attractions on land. Tropical fruits – papaya, banana and mango – are abundant in Gorontalo, while its field crops comprise the basis of its flourishing economy: Corn, rice, coconuts, cocoa, candlenuts, cloves, sugarcane and coffee.

With a population of slightly more than one million, Gorontalo is a mere speck on the world map – and considerably less trumpeted than Bali, the more renowned tourism magnet to its west. Divers may occasionally fly in for an underwater coral reef odyssey, but travelers to this part of the archipelago – such as Indonesians keen to visit the ancestral land of the country’s third president – are a rarity.

However, thanks to the efforts of Amanda Katili Niode, an outspoken food blogger and the World Food Travel Association’s Ambassador in Indonesia, whose parents and husband are from Gorontalo, this destination is beginning to make waves on the coffee buff’s map. No wonder… with a village named Kopi (coffee in Indonesian), it shouldn’t take long to lure intrepid coffee hounds.

“Gorontalo is not yet famous as a coffee destination,” says Niode, “but one day we hope it will be.”

Coffee cultivation in Gorontalo originates with cultuurstelsel (enforced planting) during the Dutch colonial era. The 19th century colonial government invited the King of Gorontalo, Mohamad Iskandar Pui Monoarfa to the island of Ternate to sign an agreement, whereby compulsory coffee planting was introduced throughout his jurisdictions. One of the earliest blends of coffee grown in Gorontalo – an organic mix of robusta and Liberika called Kopi Pinogu (from a remote village of the same name, locally known as “coffee country”) – goes back to 1875; it later became a favourite of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Even those not descended from royalty are known to swoon at the first whiff of Kopi Pinogu Tubruk, an unfiltered coffee that leaves a thick brown sludge at the bottom of each cup.

“Although Kopi Pinogu is available exclusively in Gorontalo,” says Niode, “the government has always tried to promote it more widely. Some thought that, as a coffee deemed a ‘rarity’, it would be easy to market across Indonesia. But the coffee production – from planting beans to cultivation – has to be standardized first.”

Meanwhile, Gorontalo’s coffee farmers continue to harvest a wide assortment of coffee beans, with flavors that hint of jackfruit or citrus – when different tree species are commingled. Occasionally, ingredients such as cinnamon and dried rice infuse the coffee with a unique aroma and taste – one such popular example being Kopi Goraka, made with ginger.

But don’t enter a Gorontalo coffee house expecting to find a Starbucks facsimile or to be struck by its dazzling décor; these are modest eating and drinking stalls, with simple chairs and tables, that happen to serve, in cheap cups, some of the best brews around. Still, says Niode, “the reputation of awarung kopi rests on who blends the coffee.”

Most coffee house owners are also related. One example is Waroeng Kopi Balukia owned by 70-year old Yusuf Otta. Three out of Otta’s five children own different coffee houses in the area.

Kedai Kopi Maksoed is another popular coffee house. A family-run hangout, it’s the brainchild of Handi Maksoed, who became a coffee devotee while studying at the University of Diponegoro in Semarang, Central Java. “That’s where I started to hang out at coffee houses.” The first one to make an impact on him was Rumah Kopi Tarik Ungaran. In conversation with the owner, Pak Agus, Handi learned about the origins and varieties of coffee. He also started to practice mixing up brews. “It was precisely in 2010,” recalls Handi, “that I fell in love with coffee.”

As much as Handi was smitten with coffee and was determined to turn his passion into a thriving coffee house of his own, other reasons fuelled his entrepreneurial venture as well: He wanted to start a business that would help finance his younger brother’s education.

His passion and integrity have paid off well: Handi – and his coffee – has been making appearances and brewing his beloved drinks at a wide range of events; from wedding ceremonies to student activities, and from car dealerships to government agency functions.

Gorontalo’s coffee stalls are much more than a mere drop-in joint for imbibing some of the region’s best coffees. They are an integral part of daily life, central meeting places where people from all walks of life meet to discuss challenges of daily life, and to channel their views and aspirations about politics and current affairs. It is the Indonesian version of a penny university.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, English coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as “penny universities,” public social places where people would meet for conversation and commerce while drinking coffee. For the price of a penny, customers purchased a cup of coffee and admission.

Gorontalo’s local coffee houses are similarly considered a platform for government officials to discuss policies and for activists to introduce initiatives to street vendors, activists, pensioners, business people and civil servants. For the symbolic price of 1,000 rupiahs (or just a penny), people arrive from as early as 6 a.m., eating breakfast, catching up on gossip and tuning into the day’s news. Important topics are broadcast over regional radio stations, in an interactive format, inviting questions and answers from listeners all over Gorontalo. When healthcare workers wanted to disseminate information about AIDS, coffeehouses were a sure-fire way of reaching the widest audience.

Rituals surrounding coffee in the public sphere – where everyone is welcome to drink and discuss issues for as long as they like – differ than those in the private domain. And this too contrasts with attitudes in the West. Usually, when your host offers you a cup of coffee, it’s a sign that you’re invited to stay longer. But in this part of the world, there is a saying: Mamotowuli ju, wanu woluo huduhudu mai kopi lo polondulo. It means: I will leave when coffee is served. Kopi lo Polondulo is coffee offered with the subtle message that a visit or event is about to wrap up.

So when you travel to Gorontalo and find yourself enjoying a meal at a local’s house, bear in mind that when they serve you coffee, that’s your sign to leave.


A checklist of popular warung kopi in Gorontalo:

� Waroeng Kopi Balukia

� Maksoed Kopi Handi

� Garasi Café

� Warung Kopi Sehati

� Warung Kopi La Pala

� Warung Kopi Sahara

Learn more about this little known destination, its kopi pinogu and food culture in the newly released book titled “Trailing the Taste of Gorontalo,” published by Indonesia’s Omar Niode Foundation, www.omarniode.org and available for download on Amazon Kindle.


Credit for all photos: Syam Terrajana.

 Copyright  2016 Bali Advertiser

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