Lesson to savour at Sibu Cafè

To some people, process is a grind. To a small business called Sibu Cafè, it is about liberation and continuity

I AM on Hawaii’s Big Island, and a round of snorkelling in the azure blue sea leaves me famished. I am lured by the promise of some great Indonesian food at a place called Sibu Café. Located opposite a harbour where cruise ships bob on the Pacific waves, this place serves lunch and dinner, although the name suggests it is just a café.

As my wife, Susmita, and I approach the restaurant, we see the typical Indonesian décor. Once inside, the waiter – a Caucasian gentleman in his fifties who looks more like an English professor – greets us. I become suspicious. After longing for some tasty Indonesian curry, I don’t want any disappointments. My eyes search for the cook, who had better be pure Balinese! This time, I am in for a greater surprise – the big, tattooed man with the kind demeanour behind the kitchen counter looks anything but Indonesian. His name is John Harding III, born of parents who have been here for six generations, before which his ancestors lived in Boston. I grow terribly suspicious. I do not want any fusion food because of some marketing trickery! The owners had better be Indonesian.

While I am seriously researching heritage, Susmita decides from the menu with the waiter, Dee Moser, a man of German stock whose family has been here for two generations. She orders shrimp satay, grilled Ahi, some stir-fried vegetables and rice. Unlike the duo’s non-Indonesianness, the menu looks authentic.

After delivering some other order, Moser returns to chat with us. I demand to know how long he and the cook have lived in Indonesia. Moser tells me that neither had been to Indonesia before. In fact, John has been with the restaurant only for the last one year, before which he cooked steak at another establishment. Moser has worked the longest here because the ownership of the restaurant has changed thrice in 24 years. Susmita continues to look content, but I gulp down a cube of ice as I feel my American Express card cringe in my wallet.

The food arrives, looking every bit Indonesian. Hang on. If marketing these days is trying to make everything sensory and experiential, this, no doubt, is a coronary con job. Suspending my disbelief – largely because of the gastric juices inside and my incapacity to cancel the order – I put the shrimp in my mouth. This cannot be true! I take some sprouts, dip them in the sauce and taste them. This really cannot be true! Now I take a piece of the Ahi… this has to be one of the best Indonesian meals I have had.

Dee Moser returns to check how everything is going. I ask him to tell me about the owners, who must have handed down the recipe carefully for generations following ancestors who undoubtedly arrived from Polynesia, by canoe, some 600 years ago. No such luck here. The current owner is an Italian lawyer from Chicago. He has owned Sibu Café for only the last one year. Prior to that, a New Yorker owned it for a longer period. He had purchased the restaurant some 23 years back from an American couple who had started it, but sold it after two years. This couple had grown up in Indonesia and picked some authentic recipes from there. For 24 years, owners have changed and cooks have changed, but they have made sure that every time a meal is cooked, they follow the original recipe to the last chop, sizzle and stir.

John soon appears with a complimentary dish of shrimps fried in coconut paste to a delectable golden-brown. I am amazed at how this small restaurant, featured in the world-famous Frommer’s Guide, serves outstanding, exotic cuisine despite all its producers being far removed from the land whose food they serve. My mind goes back to the power of process. How little some people empathise with it! To them, process is dogma, it is a grind, and it is about restrictions. To this small business that has survived 24 years, it is about liberation and continuity. It has made many people from all over the world so happy that they carry it as a wonderful memory that completes their Hawaiian experience. Because Sibu Café follows the recipe, everything else around it can change.

Monday October 5th 2015

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