The Minahasans of North Sulawesi are a feisty, fiery people, and their remarkably diverse cuisine, influenced by the Portuguese and Chinese, is renowned throughout the archipelago as some of the spiciest. It’s also notorious for its ‘unusual’ meat choices – fruit bat and dog are often on the menu, while pork is the pièce de résistance of any meal. North Sulawesi is predominantly Christian, but before the Minahasans took up the good book they were animists residing in some of Indonesia’s lushest rainforest which swarmed and scurried with nutritious jungle creatures. De-winged fruit bats are now available in the pork section of supermarkets in Manado, capital of North Sulawesi. Yet while this fervour for flesh may seem like a vegetarian’s nightmare, Minahasan fare also offers a bountiful, colourful array of vegetable dishes, without which a Minahasan feast would be incomplete.
The most essential component of any Minahasan meal, and indeed, any Indonesian meal, is sambal. Dabu dabu is the North Sulawesi King of Condiments, and naturally it’s exceptionally spicy. Somewhat similar to the sambal matah of Bali, it’s a sharp, sour, citrusy mix of roughly diced red and green bird’s eye chilli, red and green tomatoes, red capsicum, shallots and lemongrass (the cornerstones of Minahasan cuisine). Lime juice is replaced with a good squeeze of calamansi, a small citrus native to Asia, and at some rumah makan such as Dego Dego on Jalan Wakeke, a culinary area of Manado, calamansi juice (lemon cui) is on the drinks list.
Dego Dego is a superb choice for breakfasting on an official city icon. Bubur Manado (known locally as tinutuan) is soupy, silky, bright yellow rice porridge through which pumpkin, sweet corn, sweet potato, cassava and spinach is stirred. It’s always served with a sprinkling of fried shallots and dosed up with dabu dabu. Delicious, hearty and healthy, tinutuan is an essential taste of North Sulawesi. I can’t relish a bowl of bubur Manado, however, without the salty, crunchy accompaniment of a perkedel nike, a freshwater anchovy and red onion fritter. Its rich, earthy flavour is as deep as its colour. The nike are sourced from Tondano Lake, about 30 km southeast of Manado, and are endemic to the area.
Like bubur, nasi kuning (yellow rice) is a breakfast favourite across the archipelago, and North Sulawesi has the most tantalising I’ve ever tasted. At Saroja on Jalan Diponegoro in Manado, which has long been celebrated as the city’s finest nasi kuning vendor, it’s served with a scrumptious concoction of salty smoked skipjack tuna (cakalang – a ubiquitous feature of multiple Manadonese dishes) and small chunks of curried beef, then scattered with splinters of crispy fried potato and topped off with a hardboiled egg. Dolloped with a hefty spoonful of sambal it’s enak sekali! (Delicious!) Or, in Basa Manado, sadap betul! Another North Sulawesi breakfast staple is mie cakalang. Noodles in clear broth are generously garnished with dry, salty tuna flakes. The fish is cured in salt and spices, then split and fastened to a bamboo frame and smoked for about four hours. The result is visually arresting; the arched tuna halves turn rusty red during the process.
For the guileless gourmand, paniki (fruit bat) is a surprisingly substantial and succulent, sweet meat. It’s usually served as paniki woku, a mild yellow curry laced with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, or paniki rica-rica, a scorching sauce of the usual suspects pounded in a mortar and pestle then lightly fried with coconut oil, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and lime juice. Rica-rica has infiltrated restaurants and kitchens across Indonesia, appealing to the nation’s penchant for zesty, spicy, stimulating flavours. No authentic Indonesian dish could ever be accused of being bland.
Perhaps the most popular Minahasan vegetable is bunga pepaya, papaya flower buds sautéed lightly with tamarind and shallots. It’s simple but powerfully piquant and very pretty, and the slightly bitter, sour notes slice through the richness of the meat imbued with bumbu-bumbu (spices). Pangi is another pungent vegetable accompaniment. The leaves of the keluak tree, whose seeds are the star ingredient of the East Javanese black beef soup rawon, are thinly sliced and seasoned with nutmeg, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, green chilli and shallots, stuffed in bamboo then grilled. The texture is curiously al dente, the flavour robust and intense. Finally, rica rodo is a seriously tasty salad of diced eggplant, green beans and sweet corn kernels bathed in the quintessentially Minahasan mix of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, calamansi juice and copious quantities of chilli. The Minahasans most certainly like it hot.