SULAWESI – a cook’s tour

I wrote this originally for The Sunday Mail column A Cook’s Tour

We had already had a long journey via Jakarta and Ujang Padang when we flew into Manado at the most northern point of Sulawesi’s Minahasen region and then we discovered our final destination was at least three hours from the airport. But this was a different type of holiday, a glimpse into the expatriate life at an American gold mine managed by our friends from Brisbane.
The winding route was all four-wheel drive hill country with good soil and plenty of water, which supports a well populated, yet not overcrowded area.
The weather in this region is so mild that our hosts Jenny and John Eltham had built a house with open sides on the hilltop facing a scenic and calm bay; we joined them in their giant tree house.
As the Manager’s wife, Jenny was frequently called upon to host dinner parties, a job she did with relish. Of course household staff did most of the cooking but unlike most expats who usually train their cooks to make western meals, the Eltham’s’ table served food of the region.
This is how I became a great fan of Dabu Dabu, a fresh spicy relish that never failed to arrive with every meal. Another local recipe I favoured was the cold snack Lonton, a banana leaf wrapped package of sticky rice and spice roasted over a charcoal burner. And it was at Jenny’s table that I had the best version I have ever had of Onde Onde (small glutinous rice flour cakes coated with coconut).
In Jenny’s kitchen I observed her cook’s preference for grinding spices whilst sitting on the floor. Indonesians like the Thais always use a heroic survivor of the Stone Age, a mortar and pestle, known in Indonesia as cobek and ulek ulek respectively. Since my return I have put it to the test, this position allows you to use more of your body weight and is less stress on your arm.
In this land my friend is addressed as ‘Ibu Jenny’. Ibu is Indonesian for married woman. Ibu Jenny is an intrepid food fossicker, whilst most women were content to buy foodstuffs from the mine’s general store, Jenny thought nothing of taking a long drive into the country for the freshest ingredients. Her command of the Indonesian language meant that she was warmly welcomed wherever she ventured.
The nearest market to the mine was in Langowan, only one and a half hours drive away!  I wondered if I would see evidence of the Minahasan’s known preference for eating dogs, cats and rats.  Indonesian markets are the focal point of life in the area, and it did not fail to entertain and excite us. Langowan had everything from ridiculous puffy and fluffy western wedding dresses to coffins with glass viewing windows. Transport to and from market for the locals is in four legged taxis – gaily decorated carts pulled by small sturdy horses.
I was quite taken by an ingenious rice grinder that had served a former life as a lawnmower engine. The grinder created a fine powder from rice, probably the secret to our delicious Onde Onde.
We saw Langowan market’s version of fast food a Dibulu. Here you have a stuffing made of spices and chicken that is pushed down the hollow of bamboo, the open end is sealed with a cabbage leaf tied on with a piece of vine, why didn’t I think of that! All you have to do is cart it home over your shoulder and steam it.
I did discover evidence of dog consumption in the ‘fresh’ animal section. Right beneath a platform of trussed pigs were a couple of cages crowded with small dogs of indeterminate breed. As I took a photo the seller retaliated with a defiant kick at the cage. I can only think that he has seen foreigners in the past express distaste for this custom. I am pleased to say it was the only aggressive reaction I have ever witnessed in a market.
When it was time to leave, the Elthams drove us back to Manado’s Dr Sam Ratalungi Airport but we allowed ourselves an overnight stop in Tomohon (south of Manado) to stay at ‘Gardenia’ a home-stay owned by a doctor relative of Dr Sam Ratalungi (he was the first governor of the province and a charismatic leader of the nationalist movement).
Dr Ratalungi and his wife Bernadette play host to people all over the world at their elegant estate. We didn’t need to go out to find our evening meal as Ibu Bernadette is an accomplished cook and we witnessed for ourselves why she has been included in Sri Owen’s book Indonesian Regional Food and Cookery.
Food aside the home-stay’s gardens alone are worth the stay. All throughout the estate are water lily ponds designed to appear as though they were just simply dug out of the lawn.
Things to do – Nearby are cloves, coconut, nutmeg and vanilla plantations
Ancient graves of 15th century Warugas, hot springs, and Woloan Traditional Houses
Gardenia (20 ks south of Manado)
Kakaskasen II Tomohon, Sulut Indonesia
Tel 62 0436-51282 Fax 62 0436-51363
Roz MacAllan

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