There’s Something Disturbing About Food That Looks Back At YouNovember 3, 2011
One thing I’ve learned about living in Indonesia is never to make assumptions about the nature of the food available here. It may, or may not be what you expect. I have been known to be both adventurous and cautious about what I eat, and this has naturally resulted in some novel gustatory discoveries. Some of these have been sublime, while others have been less than salubrious. In Indonesia, one’s culinary horizons are sure to be expanded, sometimes way too far.
I have a set of emotional preconceptions which mean that some foods will always be off my menu. When I strolled into one warung in Batu Belig, I happened to have a friend’s small dog in tow. “Dog OK?” I enquired before entering, ever-sensitive to the potential aversion shown by some Indonesians towards canines. “Ooh ya, but not on menu today”, said the helpful proprietor. When she started appraising the little Jack Russell at my feet with the discerning eye of a master chef, I decided not to linger. Dog sate is off my personal menu simply because dogs evoke feelings of attachment and affection in me. I don’t care much for rats or cats, but they too are in the realm of forbidden victuals. Mind you, I have no issue with sampling various reptiles, as long as they don’t resemble their original living form too much when on the plate.
As regards the eating of plants, before coming to Bali I believed that anything that looked like a vegetable – in fact any stuff that grew in soil – already had two strikes against it. I would tolerate tomatoes, onions and a limited range of green salady things – and that was about it. Potatoes, of course, were an exception , because any man will tell you that they are only called ‘vegetables’ by some accident of terminology. In fact, they constitute one of the most important, and delicious, food groups on the planet. But I firmly believed that truly inedible stuff like artichokes, Brussels sprouts or eggplant would never pass my lips, to say nothing of some of the more esoteric plants that people insist on serving as human food.
Well, since coming here, I must have inadvertently ingested dozens of different types of vegetable – most of which I can’t even name – and found almost all of them not only edible, but delicious. Consumption of rice was an annual event; now it’s daily fare. Eating chillies, once utterly inconceivable, is now mandatory with everything except coffee and chocolate. My preferred sambal sauce now must be blended with napalm before I am satisfied with its tongue-flaying properties. I have even eaten raw kemiri nuts (admittedly a mistake) and lived. Some soggy-looking green sludge from a warung was delectable – even after I found out later that it was actually made from fern leaf shoots.
I’m not convinced about kopi luwak though. Incredibly expensive, this is coffee made from beans that have first been eaten by a type of civet cat in Sumatra, Java or Sulawesi, and then, er, eliminated. The partially-digested beans are recovered, washed (please tell me they wash them properly) and sold to the coffee-sipping cognoscenti. I obviously don’t fall into that category as I really can’t tell the difference between café ordinaire and café merde.
Durian is another delicacy that is not yet on the menu for me. A fruit whose yellow pulp resembles brains in both shape and consistency, it is said to have a sublime flavour. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to even try it because of its aroma, described by many as a combination of rotting corpses, old unwashed gym socks and raw sewage. Not surprisingly, it is banned from many public places. The locals seem to love it.
As for meat-based dishes, there are plenty to choose from throughout the archipelago. Goat is common everywhere, but for something really exotic, you can try smoked bats from Jogjakarta. These little creatures are only about 8cm long and look like mummified brown mice. I’m told they taste like beef jerky. Doesn’t appeal? How about deep-fried monkey toes? Apparently aficionados just gnaw the flesh straight off the bone. I must confess, neither of these are treats are ones whose flavours I am ever likely to be able to confirm.
And so to my latest culinary discovery. I’m sitting chatting to an Indonesian friend who has dropped in to the villa to borrow something, and of course I do the hospitable thing and offer the customary drink of water. Then I remember that I have a bag of nibblies somewhere – oleh-oleh brought back from Java recently by a friend. The snacks look like krupuk, those ubiquitous deep fried crackers available everywhere, except that these are quite long. They also seem to have a dark thing inside that looks a bit like a string bean. The taste is a little unexpected, partly meaty, partly fishy, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.
So we’re munching and chatting, and I happen to look down at the morsel in my hand. The deep-fried batter crumbles away from the very end, and I’m looking at a little black head. It’s like a tiny snake, with two eyes looking reproachfully back at me. I freeze. My companion sees me staring and says, “Belut. Nice!” Totally unable to think of any intelligent rejoiner, I make do with “Umm …” Sensing my consternation, she says, “Belut. Like snake.” Oh Jesus. Well, after desperately diving into Google, it turns out that it’s not a snake. It’s a baby eel that lives in rice paddies, and is commonly sold in most of the local markets. This one just happened to be cocooned in batter and sold as snack food instead of wriggling in a bowl.
The next day I ring to thank the ‘friend’ who had so kindly presented me with the bag of eels. I tell him that I am now considering buying a defibrillator as a direct result of eating his gift without checking what it was. Naturally, he laughs like a drain and tells me that he has been waiting for my call for a week, gleefully anticipating my reaction. Indonesian humorists – scratch another one off my Christmas card list.
But really, the joke’s on him. Startling as it was to see my food looking back at me, those crunchy eels were actually quite delicious. I must be acclimatising. Maybe one day I’ll even try a smoked bat. Anything has to be better than an artichoke.