A Peek Into Indonesia’s Dark Culinary Customs
I love nasi goreng as much as the next traveller in a remote region of Southeast Asia, but after six weeks of eating nothing but fried rice, my taste buds were craving different Indonesian cuisine.
Sumatra is Indonesia’s jewel. The sixth largest island in the world is literally – and figuratively speaking – a world away from uber-famous Bali, that pocket of tropical island gorgeousness that’s besieged by over 2 million visitors every year. Visitors go in search of stunning stretches of beach, crystalline waters, idyllic temperatures and an easy and inexpensive vacation. Bali’s abundance of water sports, and an array of delectable food holds the visitors hostage for weeks on end. A great majority of visitors make their pilgrimage to Bali a yearly ritual, yet only a few intrepid explorers stretch their horizons all the way north to Sumatra.
In my travels lost in the highlands of northern Sumatra, as I faced yet another serving of nasi goreng, I somewhat understood why I hadn’t run into a single Western tourist in weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. Sumatra is stunning. Beyond stunning, in fact. One of the most fascinating and interesting destinations I’ve had the good fortune of visiting in this past year. Its remoteness, ruggedness, and lack of major tourist infrastructure is key to the fascination.
And possibly due to the lack of (almost) anything other than fried rice and fried eggs. There are few places left in Southeast Asia, where one can feel as far remote from Western civilization as one would ever wish to be.
I could always feast on fried fish, sold by the bucket-loads by every other street-food stand in every village. Yet the oppressive tropical heat and mountains of complimentary flies have a remarkably unappetizing effect.
Lake Toba: Sumatra’s most ‘touristy’ destination
After weeks of exploring the northern reaches of the island, I head to Lake Toba, the reputed highlight. I’m in sore need of a rest in beautiful and fresh surroundings, up high on the shores of the largest volcanic crater on earth.
I’m lured here by the promise not only of cooler temps, but also a most interesting cuisine culture.
Lake Toba is inhabited by the Batak people, the last known cannibal tribe in the world to have given up their taste for human flesh. In pre-colonial times, the Bataks indulged in ritual cannibalism, which is one not induced by a simple lack of food, but rather a belief that eating an enemy warrior’s organs – as well as the palms of the feet and hands – and drinking his blood, strengthens one’s tendi, or ‘soul energy’. Apparently, roasted over an open fire and seasoned with salt, lime, and chilies, human is quite the delectable treat.
Before the Bataks were converted to Christianity, it is alleged they consumed anything that moved: from rather unfortunate captured enemies to monkeys, rats, bats and common household pets like dogs and cats. All of this is not particularly disturbing to me, as the history of macabre feastings is certainly not an uncommon thing in history, just about anywhere on earth.
Yet what I hadn’t expected, was to discover much of it is still practiced throughout Indonesia, and not only in remote and lesser visited places like West Timor, which sees even fewer tourists than Sumatra.
When old habits die hard…
I’d barely been in the Batak region for five minutes when I noticed the local’s uncanny penchant for cute, fluffy, fat puppies. Every second home boasts at least half a dozen of the furry creatures in its front yard, all happily playing. The overabundance of dogs in this North Sumatra province was made all the more obvious by the fact that I’d just spent almost a whole month in the Aceh Province, on the very northern tip of the island. Aceh is the most Islamic corner of Indonesia and one of the few places in the world where spotting even a single stray dog is simply impossible. In Islamic canonical hadeeths (sayings of Muhammed), dogs are considered unclean and even demonic, and their presence in the community is simply not tolerated.
Spend enough time in developing countries and you begin to understand a whole new set of life priorities. In places where subsistent living is de rigeur, no-one’s going to have half a dozen “pet dogs” to feed. On Samosir Island, in the heart of Lake Toba, it is plainly obvious that people breed and grow puppies the way one would chickens or pigs. For food.
They say old habits die hard and that is most certainly true of Batak cuisine. Over the last century and a half, they may have been gently forced to give up on eating fellow humans, yet this proud, indigenous and fierce culture is not modernizing without a fight. Alongside some truly mouthwatering dishes, you’ll also find roasted dog served, albeit mainly on Sundays and special occasions like weddings. Curiously enough, many people here do keep some dogs as pets, and although we may find the incongruity of this concept unfathomable (eating the same animal you’d happily keep as a pet), the Bataks have a solution to this quagmire: they only eat dog from neighboring villages.
Biang is the word for dog meat in Sumatra and B1 (or RW) the “undercover” term to look out for on menus. Either to avoid it or to try it, if you’re an adventurous and open-minded traveler. It turns out I am neither, so chose to steer clear of any meat dishes on Sundays, lest I feed on Fido by mistake. Because as much as I am fascinated by unusual culinary customs, most especially in the tropics, I reserve the right to let my eyes do the research instead of my taste buds.
Roasted dog is not the only dish reserved for festive occasions here. Monkey and snake also make rare appearances at fancy village-wide culinary gatherings. And Sumatra is certainly not the only place where you can find slightly unusual, and even gory, ingredients.
In North Sulawesi, you’ll find a whole market dedicated to the macabre delights of the native Minahasa people, including python steaks drowned in rica-rica sauce (with lemongrass and chili), bush-rat kebabs, and deep-fried bats. The Minahasa are world-renowned for their bizarre culinary habits, and have single-handedly almost depleted their region of endangered species such as tarsier (a type of small monkey) and kuskus (an endemic marsupial). The local government has endeavored to stop such ancient culinary practices – lest there be no more creatures left on Sulawesi – so the above-mentioned treats are nowadays very difficult (and exorbitantly expensive) to find. But Sulawesi is one of those places where food taboos don’t exist. Being remote and way off the Southeast Asian tourist trail means ancient traditions still survive with unabashed abandon.Head to Tomohon Market on any given Saturday, and you’ll rub shoulders with local islanders who’ve spent the week catching just about anything with a heartbeat. If you’re blessed with a strong stomach, you can read more about the reputed ‘world’s most macabre market’. But beware, the photos are not for the faint of heart.
The more palatable side of Batak cuisine
Luckily, Indonesian cuisine boasts so many truly special and scrumptious dishes that delving into its darker side can easily be avoided. Even modern Batak cuisine is an utterly delightful affair, influenced by Indian and Arabic spices — with heavy doses of wild chives and andaliman, a local Batak pepper. Finally feasting on freshly caught carp, lake lobsters, and suckling pig, does wonders for the nomadic taste-bud in Sumatra. — Batak cuisine is varied, tasty and incredibly unique.
Spending the last night in Lake Toba, I indulged my taste buds on a vegetable and chicken taco, topped with grated cheese, and complemented with a side of tangy guacamole. Because although full cultural immersion is something to behold when one travels, it does not mean one is not allowed a few rare exceptions.