The first thing we noticed when we ducked into Koali on a late summer afternoon was the sudden change in ambiance, a veritable culture shock from the sloping, hookah bar-lined street we had just walked down. Keroncong and pop sunda classics, the kind of music you might expect to hear in a beach hut in Bali, drifted softly from the speakers. Each table bore the name of a major Indonesian city, and the walls, otherwise sparsely decorated, were covered with scrawled sayings in Bahasa Indonesian. The sound of liquid hitting a flaming hot wok and the enticing smell of coconut and lemongrass confirmed our suspicions – we had stepped into another world.
We sat down at a table named Jogjakarta, a city on Java famous for its traditional gamelan music, and browsed a menu full of dishes almost entirely unfamiliar to us. To start the meal, we sipped icy glasses of es timun, a refreshing cucumber drink spiked with brown sugar and lime leaves. Next came steaming skewers of chicken sate, served with a piquant peanut-based sauce, and nasi koali, the restaurant’s own take on the quintessential Indonesian fried rice. The tastes, refreshingly different from the Turkish palate, hit notes that referenced Thai, Indian and Chinese cuisines while remaining entirely distinct. To accompany everything we ordered a bowl of deliciously crunchy batagor bandung (fried dumplings), served with freshly made sambal, a sour and slightly spicy pepper sauce made throughout Indonesia in hundreds of different varieties.
As we finished up our meal, Koali’s owner, Fadhil nur Saptady, joined us. Cleanly dressed, a mischievous smile never fully leaving his face, his unique personality was immediately apparent. Fadhil came to Istanbul in 2012 to study International Business at Marmaray University and ended up settling in the city for good. After graduating, he started a tourist company selling packages that bring groups of Indonesian tourists to Istanbul. Initially, Koali was intended to serve as part of this package, a stop for comfort food along the way. But once it began to gain attention from the non-Indonesian population of the city, it became his main focus.
This is not Fadhil’s first foray into the food and beverage business. He opened a halal restaurant in Bali and co-runs a coffee shop in his West Java hometown of Bandung with his father. But it was not until he moved to Turkey full time that his passion for the industry – and, more specifically, for Indonesian food – ignited.
“Food is easy enough to reproduce, if you bring the ingredients. But the culture, the vibe is a lot harder to capture.”
“Indonesian cuisine is complex, with a thousand flavors. It could be a global food, but it isn’t, and I think that is a problem of marketing,” he said. “I want Turks to eat sate or nasi goreng like they eat kebab or pilav.”
However, he has no illusions about authenticity: “No one is making things authentically anyway. We still bring about 30 percent of our ingredients from Indonesia, but if we can find it here, we prefer to localize where we can, and the quality does not have to suffer.” The result is food that, while still distinctly Indonesian, fits Turkish tastes as well. His wife and her father, who come from Çorum in Turkey’s Black Sea region, serve as his taste testers. If they don’t like it, he admitted, it doesn’t go on the menu.
Beyond offering the uninitiated tastes of Indonesian cuisine, Koali also serves as a gathering space for the small Indonesian community in the city – according to most estimates, there’s only around a thousand Indonesians living in Istanbul. Most work or study (Indonesians need a visa to enter Turkey, unless they have an official passport), and some, like Fadhil, are married to Turks.
Diners can buy sweets or handicrafts made by different members of the community, from students to housewives, who are looking to bring bits of their traditions with them. In the future, Fadhil envisions hosting talks and cultural nights at the restaurant, part of his efforts to make Indonesian food more accessible to the city’s residents.
Taufik Amsori, the head chef, worked in restaurants in Indonesia and Japan for 25 years before starting at Koali, and he sees to it that the menu keeps expanding. When we visited he had started to grow his own beansprouts and was experimenting with making tempeh, an essential Indonesian delicacy made of fermented soybeans.
While Taufik’s charge is making sure the food remains excellent, Fadhil’s focus is elsewhere. When we asked about the Indonesian sentences scrawled on the wall in a thick black font, Fadhil chuckled. “Those are jokes – something tongue-in-cheek you might say to a friend to tease them, a couple pick-up lines. Humor is very important to us. Food is easy enough to reproduce, if you bring the ingredients. But the culture, the vibe is a lot harder to capture. The music, the decoration, even the pick-up lines are part of this. I just want to be myself as an Indonesian.”