Before he jetted off overseas for a few months Chriswan and I embarked on a final food adventure. Our delicious destination: the small city of Singkawang, 150ks north of Pontianak, capital of West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. The majority of its population is of Chinese descent; Hakka comprise about 40%, another major group is Chaozhou, while the rest are Malay, Dayak (indigenous to Borneo) and Javanese. Chinese have lived in Kalimantan since the Ming Dynasty’s vast exploratory voyages led by Zheng He in the early 1400s, but in the 18th century gold enticed thousands more. They built Singkawang, which is derived from the Hakka San khew jong, to support their industry and today their living legacy is vivid and pervasive. It’s known as the City of a Thousand Temples, but we reckon City of a Thousand Edibles is equally apt.
Singkawang charmed me instantly. It has the widest, tidiest streets of any Indonesian city I’ve seen. Miraculously after heavy rains no storm water surges from drains but disappears, like magic! No festering snarls of plastic beneath these near-spotless streets. Many of the old double-storey buildings (business on the bottom floor, home on top) are painted in cheerful hues and festooned with cascading fuchsia bougainvillea, paper lanterns and giant pineapples. The language on the street is Hakka, and it’s used by almost everyone. It was strange to traipse an Indonesian city catching smatterings of a language entirely unlike Bahasa, and I’m pretty sure the jokes I cracked to food vendors didn’t fly (Bule Bahasa – perhaps a different lingo altogether).
We breakfasted at the same bubur babi joint, Aloi, three morns in a row. When I suggested we go to Singkawang in a message to Chriswan he promptly replied: “Bubur babi. Deal.” He’d devoured his way through Singkawang a few times and was raring to return, especially for this dish. Aloi is one of three almost identical eateries, each with the same Djarum kretek cigarette sponsored sign, at the muddy main intersection of Singkawang market, which at night dons the name Pasar Hong Kong. I’ve been to many markets during my time in Indonesia and my South East Asian meanderings, but this was the most diverse.
The sullen eyes of a shovelnose shark, sectioned and sweating on a blue tarp glared at me. One of my earliest memories is of Dad catching one in Lake Weyba in Noosaville, Queensland, when we lived there briefly when I was three. When I emailed him to confirm the location he replied, “The shovelnose caught itself while I was rebaiting your hook!” Three-year-old Julia loved going fishing with her father.
There were tangled bundles of unfamiliar vegetables spindly and fern-like, and pungent piles of pickled, shriveled greens steeped in pallid liquid. Myriad unidentifiable dried things, like the dusty shelves of a witch doctor’s den. Giant tubs of manisan (crystallised fruit) gleaming like glass beads, and little stalls heaving with a hodgepodge of household items all made of bamboo. As I peered, perplexed, at mounds of glistening, slithery somethings (molluscs? mushrooms?) and snapped photos of too small squid and spotted rays, I attracted an amount of astonishment that verged on the uncomfortable, as I did almost everywhere in Singkawang. My discomfort did not stem from the attention itself, however, but the fact a foreigner is so foreign in the first place.
On the flight to Pontianak the smiling young man seated next to me apologised for his torrent of questions. He explained he rarely saw orang asing (foreigners) in his hometown, let alone one with whom he could speak Bahasa. I admitted I was heading straight to Singkawang and would only be overnighting before my return to Bali. But while the top half of Australia loomed large on the screen on the back of the seat in front of me in the plane’s flight path from Jakarta to Pontianak, in Singkawang I did feel asing (alien). On our final day I declared to Chriswan, “It just doesn’t feel right that here I am alien when Australia is so damn close.” Granted, Singkawang throngs with tourists during Imlek and Cap Goe Meh, Chinese New Year and the 15th day after and end of the festive season respectively, but with all its charm, cuisine and culture, it saddened me a little we didn’t cross paths with another tourist during our entire three days.
But back to the bubur babi. The silky, salty, crunchy, spicy, piquant bubur babi. Rice porridge with pork mince and usus (intestines – don’t you dare yuk! ew! or ergh! ’til you’ve tried it), topped with a runny poached egg, coriander and half a handful of kerupuk kulit babi, devilishly tasty pork crackers (hands up for orders – we have them in Bali too). Splash in a little soy sauce and a little vinegar to your liking. The moment you pierce the egg yolk and it swirls into the soupy porridge, and you spoon it up with a mince marble, a cracker curl and all the other accoutrements, is pure pork magic. Get me not wrong, I know this kind of artery-clogging brekkie ain’t for everyone, and when I’m at home it’s muesli, fruit and yoghurt, but when traveling trying a bowl of whatever locals are having is, for me, essential. And how the locals flock.
These basic eateries, with their standard issue little plastic stools, slightly grimy tables, stain splotched condiments, tin cutlery and coarse (yet always carefully folded) serviettes, are my preferred places to eat in Indonesia. No fuss, just good food. Aloi could well be my favourite, and not just for its steaming bowls of bliss but for the full view of the show. Three middle-aged men run it and they’re ever on the move. Tables are rarely empty and strangers sit alongside each other so stools are rarely empty too. The porridge is brewed and the mince and usus are stewed in cavernous vats by a man constantly engulfed in billowing steam who stirs with mesmeric countenance. Another deftly delivers coffee and tea while the third mans the till. I’m not sure who poaches the eggs, perfect each time. This all plays out almost every morning of the year in front of a fire station funded by the market community. Markets in Indonesia are frequently destroyed by fire.
I don’t know how we had room but somehow we did (though we generally always do). Kembang tahu is another Singkawang speciality, and a stand is stationed out front of Aloi – virtually impossible to resist. The finest, softest silken tofu, smooth as panna cotta, is served in small porcelain bowls and ladled with light sugar syrup spotted with barley. A scattering of cakwe chunks soak up the sweetness. On our final morn we chuckled at a man who pulled right up to the stand on his scooter and slurped down a bowl while still on his bike.
We are walkers, and Singkawang’s streets are perfect for pedestrians. With its slightly arid environment, ochre earth and boab-like trees I revelled in reminders of family holidays in Broome. Bougainvillea always triggers a smile (we had a sprawling purple one tumbling over the back fence at home), but Singkawang’s is the most radiant I’ve seen and it’s everywhere in magnificent magenta, tangelo and cream. One golden sun shower sprinkled afternoon, big rainbow at our backs, we strode towards the sea. We knew we wouldn’t find a beach as they’re further north and south, but what else we were not sure. After 40 minutes of walking in fading light and incessant drizzle past small wooden shacks and their amused owners, we met a wall of mangroves and a dirt track. Just beyond was the most perfect concrete path I’ve ever seen in Indonesia, narrow yet solid and straight, penetrating the murky mangroves like a beam of silver light. It was almost dark now but a path like that is begging to be trod and besides, I’d packed my torch, so on through the mangroves we marched single file.
And then it stopped, the sea just out of sight. But we’d come all this way! It wasn’t long before I was on my bum then plunging to the mud below. It was at this moment I really should have remembered that while mosquitoes blessedly don’t bother me, they swarm around Chriswan in a ravenous, savage cloud. The mud was firm at first, braced by a jumbled lattice of gnarled roots, plastic bags and leaves, like steel rods in concrete. I could just make out the final rays of sun on inky water as I tentatively picked a path through the branches. And then my left foot started sinking. I swivelled to grab on to a trunk and the sudden movement sunk it further. Chriswan found steadier ground before grabbing my right arm. “Slowly,” he said. I put my weight on my right foot as although it was sinking too it wasn’t as rapid as my left. With all my strength I pushed down my right and with a thrilling struggle and a vulgar sludgy squelch, my left foot was free. “Thank god I’m wearing Tevas!” I bellowed. I bought my super sturdy red waterproof sandals especially for monsoonal Indonesia (Mum liked them so much she bought a pair), but turns out they’re perfect for mangrove mayhem too as they were never going to surrender. If I’d been wearing anything else they would’ve been swallowed up for sure. With heavy mud boots I plodded gingerly back to the concrete path, but not before Chriswan passed me the torch to shine on my feet so he could snap a photo. This is what happens when Julz goes in search of the sea and says, “Just a little bit further!”
With under half a bottle of water left we had to remove the mud strategically but quickly as Chriswan was under attack. I peeled great wads of velvety grey off first then – while slapping his shins and calves – he trickled the water on slowly as I frantically rubbed with my fingers. Not bad. Good enough to make it to a warung where we could buy a bottle of water and do a better job (in my sodden, splattered, orang asing state I didn’t feel brave enough to ask someone for a hose). As we approached Singkawang proper a few ruddy rain water puddles appeared, just what I needed to splash my feet in, and as we neared our hotel our stride was propelled by the thought of a hot shower and… hekeng!
Hekeng, oh how I miss hekeng! Pork and prawn (and occasionally crab) mince are mixed with chili, coriander and garlic, then egg and flower to bind. It’s formed into a slightly flattened log which is wrapped in a thin tofu skin, steamed, then sliced and fried. Beloved of Singkawang and Pontianak it’s a compulsory addition to kwetiau which, in these parts, is much more prevalent than mie goreng. I loved the rich, caramelly sweetness of hekeng, and while I haven’t consumed a lot of noodles in my life these were undoubtedly the most delicious. Naturally we went back the next night. Singkawang is that kind of place. You discover something so good it seems natural to return the following day, almost as though you’d be betraying it not to. That particular corner-side kwetiau joint, always lively with loyal customers, offers a similar spectacle to Aloi. Guileless men who’ve made noodles for years and execute every slice of the cleaver and stir of the wok with aplomb.
We ended each eve in the city’s centre sipping coffee at a popular tempat nongkrong (hangout spot) beneath the red lantern light of Bumi Raya, an almost 200-year-old Chinese temple. Though it hardly seems older than 20, with its meticulous maintenance and renovations. It is the Vihara Tri Dharma, the temple of three religions, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. During the Suharto era the first two were forbidden so followers were forced to practice clandestinely among Buddhists. Unlike in the Soviet Union temples were not destroyed, but ideologies and lives were sabotaged with state-sanction. After the horrors of the past, the warm joy I feel whenever I witness or ponder Chinese culture celebrated with such fervour across Indonesia will never fade.
Bumi Raya’s neighbour is Masjid Raya Singkawang, the city’s main mosque. Its minarets loom regally in white and green, and strangely complement the temple’s colour scheme. All these harmonious hues and the confluence of religions as a metaphor for tolerance in Indonesia today stick out like a big fat cheesy cliché. One can’t help but smile at this unlikely pair, for here they are together in all their gaudy glory, the top spot in town for taking selfies.
After our second morning market pilgrimage we chose a different route back to the hotel and soon spied a phoenix, wings outstretched, peeking through a gap between buildings. Another temple, naturally, but this one must be very grand to have such an elevated adornment! We dashed around a bend and back up the parallel street. There it was, sandwiched between two shop/residential buildings, the most colourful structure I’ve seen, the Vihara Budi Dharma. Here the primary deity from the ‘three faiths’ pantheon who is worshiped is Guan Yin, the bodhisattva (goddess) of compassion. Gazing up at the mind-bogglingly ornate, kaleidoscopic carvings was like staring into a giant 3D Magic Eye. The brazen ostentation! The fantastic flamboyance! To be completely consumed by colour is a wondrous thing.
My dear friend Paul, who’s in my volunteer intake and has spent a lot of time in West Kalimantan working in rainforest and orangutan conservation, urged me to check out Kura Kura Beach, about 20ks south (kura kura – freshwater turtle). Later that day, after our ritual post-breakfast feast siesta (totally necessary) we hired a scooter and whizzed off in the relentless afternoon drizzle. Not far from town we encountered a raucous parade of students who’d just finished their final day of high school, beeping their bike horns, uniforms spray painted and torn. Hilarious. We beeped and waved and whooped in return. Along the way to Kura Kura we stopped off at Pasir Panjang (long sand) Beach as some of the students were heading that way so we followed their revelry. The amount of rubbish was heart-wrenching. We didn’t stay long.
Kura Kura was somehow the opposite, almost spotless, its long stretch of slightly course, golden sand only scattered with the occasional piece of driftwood, coral, or bulbous, buoyant flower bud. We were alone on the shore except for a small group of splashing girls, much further down the beach. Grey sky above and rain still drifting down, it wasn’t really swimming weather. So we walked, without meeting another soul; a rare and splendid pleasure for me to experience on an Indonesian beach, though I haven’t been to Tanjung Bira in South Sulawesi where Chriswan tells me there are kilometres of fine white sand, the so-fine-it-squeaks kind, which rarely receive footprints, and countless more like it across the archipelago.
On our way back we pulled over on the side of the busy highway so I could take photos of a particular klenteng (temple) that had caught my eye on the way up. It wasn’t the same bold red, yellow and blue as all the others, but lipstick pink, baby blue and jade. Perhaps this was the new style, what’s in vogue. We jibed about the ‘fresh new palette’ appearing on the glossy cover of Klenteng Living Magazine.
Needless to say when we made it back around 6, a little cold and quite damp, we were famished. But Chriswan knew just the thing. He’d heard of a Singkawang dish called bubur pedas (pedas – spicy) but was yet to try it, so after a quick Google our course was set. Delightfully the open-air eatery had hung an enlarged photo of where we’d just been, Kura Kura Beach. The bubur pedas steamed with the tangy aroma of crispy ikan bilis (anchovies) and its soft pumpkin pieces were buttery and sweet. We gulped it down, relishing the warmth and unique flavours with glee.
Kenyang means full stomach in Bahasa Indonesia. So, Sinkenyang.
Here’s Chriswan’s Jakarta Post piece about Singkawang published in 2011.
And this one’s for you, Rach, the most outrageous bule Pontianak has ever known: