For my final night in Bandung I had a little farewell at my friends Aisah and Vincent Wolfard’s home in Dago Atas. I brought a hefty plastic bag of my favourite Indonesian cuisine, Manadonese, or more appropriately Minahasan – the ethnic group of North Sulawesi, which I bought at a restaurant around the corner from my boarding house. Ikan cakalang, ayam woku, ayam rica rica and rica rodo. Manadonese is most often extremely fiery. As we ate ‘chilli noises’ – short sharp inhalations through both sides of the mouth to cool the back of the tongue and the palate – and ‘aduh pedas banget!’ (oh dear really spicy!) echoed around the table. It wasn’t only the bule suffering, but the two orang Bandung and the orang Yogya too. Dom, an Aussie and recent arrival in Indonesia turned to me and gasped, “I don’t think my mouth has ever felt like this before.” Tennille, another Aussie who was living at Rumah Wolfard at the time, grasped the knee of radiantly pregnant Aisah and exclaimed, “I hope your baby’s going to be ok!” That certainly made me feel like a spicy sadist! Though all agreed despite the extreme heat it was delicious.
Chriswan and I arrived in Manado, on the tip of the top arm of the K-shaped island of Sulawesi, late on Thursday night. Our favourite Indonesian breakfast, nasi kuning, is most scrumptious in Manado quoth he, so it was naturally the first order of the following day. Served with salty smoked skipjack tuna and splinters of crispy fried potato, it was definitely the best nasi kuning I’ve had. (Apologies to the rotund old Sundanese man on Jalan Cibadak in Bandung – you’ve been bettered.)
My second favourite Indonesian breakfast dish is bubur ayam, and Manado is renowned for its soupy bright yellow bubur which, known locally as tinutuan, is an official city icon. Stirred through the rice porridge is pumpkin, sweet corn, sweet potato and spinach. It’s always served with a sprinkling of fried shallots and dosed with spoonfuls of sambal; there were three types on the table at Dego Dego on Jalan Wakeke. “Is this normal?” I enquired. “I once saw five types,” Chriswan replied.
I also tried a perkedel nike, a freshwater anchovy and red onion fritter. Red onions, bawang merah, are a mutual obsession so we munched and crunched in raptures, its rich, earthy flavour as deep as its colour. It’ll be a struggle to resist a couple of those bad boys daily.
As the daily monsoonal downpour began we retreated into a charming old rumah makan, Bintang Wayang, for kopi and bakpau – though in Manado it’s called biapong. I’m a no-sugar-in-my-coffee girl so at these kind of basic restos it’s kopi hitam for me, but this time I went for kopi susu, coffee with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. Chriswan scribbled out ‘hitam’ on our order sheet and made his kopi susu too. Sweetened condensed milk always reminds me of drinking coffee in Vietnam, where the drizzle is even more generous and the last gulp of sinfully sweet viscous brown made me feel like a naughty child. I guess it still does! There were two types of biapong at Bintang Wayang – istimewa (special – pork) and ayam (chicken). Unlike in Java Christianity is the dominant religion of Northern Sulawesi, so pork is the norm. In the front of Bintang Wayang is a tall, narrow wooden display cabinet containing neatly stacked bags of round pastries. I asked Chriswan whether they were the same as bakpia in Yogya. The answer was a definite no – these thick and flaky disks known simply as pia contain sweet, sticky pork. More pork is eaten in Manado than beef. After a year in hermetically halal Java (barring the babi consumed by Chinese Indonesians of course), its abundance is astounding.
It was decided early our first dinner was to be makanan laut, for Sulawesi is renowned for its sensational seafood. Chriswan’s a fiend for crab so that was a given. I had to have bunga pepaya, my favourite Manadonese vegetable dish – papaya flower buds sautéed lightly with tamarind and red onion. It’s simple but powerfully piquant and very pretty. After devouring many a plate of bunga pepaya in Bandung I was delighted my first taste in Manado was supreme. Finally, after I read aloud from the menu slightly bewildered, “sup bibir ikan?” Chriswan completed our order with fish lips soup. The thin slivers of grouper kissers had almost the exact texture and flavour of shiitake mushroom, and the slightly gelatinous soup was the perfect soother for the spicy crab. The restaurant was over the water and we were seated outside on the deck while inside a function of 60 or so was serenaded by a songstress with a penchant for ABBA, until the compulsory karaoke kicked off. The only soother for that was Bintang.
On my second day in Manado I ate spiced dog and curried fruit bat. After lunch I tread somewhat timourously through the meat section of a massive traditional market in Timohon, a small town south of Manado. Pasar Beriman translates to ‘market of the faithful’ and the area titled Pasar Ekstrim, Extreme Market, would be perceived by many as precisely that. Chriswan tells me the sign wasn’t there when he visited five years ago so it’s been installed as a bit of a tourist gimmick. I’ve been to many markets across India and Southeast Asia and popped the odd fried cricket and boiled silkworm, but although I was expecting rats, bats, cats and dogs, fire-blackened monkeys and a giant ball of snake I was not.
In Pasar Ekstrim market workers are so desensitised to the wingless bats’ uniform death screeches and hunks of wild boar carcasses they’re able to snooze on the same benches metres away (though it’s been observed Indonesians can sleep almost anywhere).
As a dog lover I won’t be eating RW again (the abbreviation of rintek wu’uk, Minahasan for ‘fine hair’, their name for dog meat), but I’d definitely go another bowl of sweet and surprisingly substantial paniki woku again (fruit bat in yellow curry). Before the Minahasan took up the good book they were animists who lived in some of Indonesia’s lushest rainforest which swarmed and squawked and crawled with jungle creatures. It made sense to eat fruit bat, and it would have made sense to eat monkeys then too. Some traditions die hard.
On the way back to Manado we jumped off the battered old bus in Kawangkoan for kopi and biapong at Rumah Kopi Gembira which, with its rectangular dimension, high ceiling and wood paneling felt strangely like a church (not that I’ve been in many). A church decked out like a Blue Light Disco – neon bars and flashing coloured balls abounded. The place was packed mostly with women and thronging with garrulous chatter – Minahasan mamas are famed for their feistiness. Just like the day before it seemed the best way to while away the daily monsoonal downpour was by eating pillowy soft steamed buns and sweet coffee in an only-in-Indonesia-would-you-find-this kind of place. I eyed the giant flat screen in the corner, waiting for it to burst alive with karaoke.