By: Alia Swastika
More than perhaps any other human activity, eating is determined by culture. Where one eats, how one eats, who one eats with and, of course, what one eats vary from place to place and era to era.Indonesia offers visitors a fascinating diversity of foods to sample. Yet most tourists-even the diehard ‘cultural tourists’-never get past the gado-gado to try something truly different. And so Latitudes has put together a guide to some of the archipelago’s most unusual culinary offerings-a guide to Indonesia’s ‘extreme foods.’
You won’t find these on a restaurant menu or even at a streetside warung food stall. But if you’re traveling through Java’s villages, you’ll discover that newborn mice called cindil, no bigger than one’s little finger, are rather popular snacks. Cindil are usually swallowed whole, without chewing. They are said not only to be tasty but to increase one’s stamina, make one’s body feel fresh and ward off sleepiness.
These insects, known as laron, are a rainy season delicacy across Indonesia. At certain times of the year they swarm by the thousands, drawn at dusk to the light of lamps. As they touch the lamps they drop their wings, leaving behind plump white bodies that can be scooped up and fried in oil. The taste is crunchy and savory, especially if you add a pinch of salt. After you develop an appreciation for fried flying ants, you can try grasshoppers, fried in a similar fashion or skewered on sticks and baked over hot coals.
Small warungs selling bat meat can be found lining the main road between Madiun and Kediri in East Java. Most of the clientele are truck drivers who stop in for a quick bite, but there are a few curious customers who have been drawn by media reports of an unusual treat.
The bat most favored for culinary purposes is not the large black Dracula beast but a white bat that is found in the thick teak forests that cover this region. The bat meat can be baked, threaded onto skewers for sate, or finely minced and fried with garlic and flour until it resembles a kind of keripik or crispy bat chip. It can also be shredded and fried with salt, palm sugar and tamarind water to make abon, a savory meat side dish.
Monkey brains, spiced and steamed in the banana leaf packets called pepes, are a specialty of the province of Lampung in South Sumatra. Locals claim this food increases sexual stamina. Monkey sate is also popular in the border area between Central and East Java.
Lizard (one could call it ‘the other white meat’) is usually eaten for its medicinal value. Even house geckos like cicak and tokek are said to be useful for curing skin diseases and asthma. The meat can be eaten raw, or it can be spiced and fried in much the same fashion as chicken.
In Bali, Flores and certain parts of Java and Sumatra, dog is a perennial favorite feast. Indeed in Denpasar, where there is a large population of students from Flores, it is said that at university graduation time one should lock up one’s dog if one doesn’t want it to become a graduation party centerpiece. Dog is thought to heat up the body, and it is often considered an ideal accompaniment to alcoholic beverages, much the same way that Americans like to pair pizza and beer. Dog is also believed to have healing properties, including the ability to relieve skin ailments, although some people report that eating dog in fact makes their skin feel itchy.
Dog is usually made into sate or into the stew known as tongseng, in which the meat is blended with onion, ginger, salt, pepper, coriander and sweet soy sauce. Many people get their dog fix by picking up a pooch off the street (or from an unsuspecting owner’s yard). Others, however, prefer to avoid the risk of bites (or beatings by irate dog owners) by buying their dog in the market by the kilo.
Horsemeat is known in Indonesia as the food of champions, eaten by athletes seeking to improve their performance. Bu Eko, who sells horsemeat sate in the city of Yogyakarta, proudly recounts the sports stars who have visited her establishment. She claims that besides being low in fat, horsemeat can increase one’s stamina and cure shortness of breath.
Fans of horsemeat say that it tastes much like beef. They warn that because the meat quickly grows rancid, it must be cooked and eaten while it’s still fresh. Bu Eko serves her sate broiled with sweet soy sauce, pepper and shallot.
Cobra meat and cobra blood, served fresh or cooked, is a hot culinary trend in Indonesia. One restaurant in Yogyakarta claims to serve up over 1,000 cobras a week. Most cobra consumers are drawn to the snake’s reputation as a cure for various ailments and as a recipe for increasing sexual prowess.
Cobra soup, made from minced snake meat mixed with shrimp, corn or asparagus, is one of the most popular dishes. Cobra is also served up in curries, or simply fried with lashings of chili soy sauce. Fresh cobra blood is trendy among the macho set, and cobra bile mixed with honey and Chinese herbs is advertised as curing everything from itchy skin to cancer.
The Indonesian civet tree cat, known as the musang or luwak, is famous for producing the most expensive coffee in the world, kopi luwak or ‘civet coffee.’ Kopi luwak, which sells for upwards of US$600 a pound in Western gourmet coffee shops, is harvested by collecting the beans excreted by the coffee-eating civet.
In addition to drinking coffee from beans eaten by civets, Indonesians also eat the civets themselves (and drink coffee afterwards). In Yogyakarta, Kusmini sells baceman musang, a civet dish that requires the meat to be marinated first in palm sugar, coriander, salt and onion before being fried. She claims that despite its somewhat bitter taste, civet is a healthy food that can cure even the most acute cases of asthma.
First published in Latitudes Magazine