Feature | Destination Starfish

After months of researching, promoting and getting ASLI FOOD PROJECT off the ground, I’m delighted to announce the first destination for my field research.

When looking at a map of Indonesia, I have always thought this island resembles a starfish. Four, long peninsulas stretch out like arms lazily floating in the water, swaying with the currents of the ocean.

Welcome to Sulawesi.

In comparison to Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua, Sulawesi looks deceivingly small. But as I devise a loose itinerary for the trip, I need to smother the instinct to equate Sulawesi with “small.”

To this day, a road does not exist that connects Makassar, the largest city at the bottom of Sulawesi Selatan, to Manado, the second-largest city at the top of Sulawesi Utara. The mountainous terrain of Central Sulawesi makes road construction difficult and travel time consuming; however, the Indonesian government is currently building the Trans-Sulawesi Highway to remedy this, although it will take several more years.

Why Sulawesi?

Naturally, cuisine was a significant factor. Before starting this project, the Indonesian cooks I worked with described their favorite Sulawesi dishes with great enthusiasm. I heard about the spiciness of its food beyond any other in Indonesia, the unique and alternative meats consumed, and the strong European influence, especially in pastry.

I also viewed Sulawesi as an ideal location to discover plants and food from both land and sea. This island is more known for its marine biodiversity, but I know its flora is equally as rich. Sulawesi’s active volcanoes mean fertile soil abounds and temperate climates are inclined to support vast plant life. Alternatively, this island is home to nomadic cultures in the sea. What does that mean for their food? What kind of plants do they consume and how do they access them? The potential discoveries are boundless.

I will fly to Sulawesi on a one-way ticket this Friday and spend time exploring this island with an open itinerary starting in Manado.

Sulawesi Utara is a significant region to explore because of its proximity to the Philippines. Based on my research, Philippines is home to several endemic plant species, and because of the Wallace line, some of these species have made their way to the northern regions of Sulawesi. I hope to find unique fruits here that cannot be found in other parts of Indonesia. There is also an area called “Dapur Indonesia Timur,” or Kitchen of East Indonesia, because 70% of Sulawesi Utara and other Indonesian islands source their produce from this location. It is also my goal to visit villages next to natural reserves, because the locals here most likely forage and utilize the plants around them in this botanically-rich area.

Following that, I will fly to Makassar and explore the southern peninsula.

Makassar is the capital of the province and the most populated city on the island. It may be similar to Jakarta in terms of congestion and traffic, but I also expect it to showcase a wide variety of cuisine from the region, like coto Makassar and sarabba. From here, I will also take a nine-hour bus ride to the biggest attraction in Sulawesi—the village of Tana Toraja. Its funeral rituals have become a boost to the tourism industry in recent years, but while everyone speaks of their customs, I have never heard anything about their cuisine and food. Is it different from elsewhere on the island?

Then I will make my way to the southeastern peninsula of Sulawesi.

Production of sago in southeast Sulawesi is second only to Papua, and I have heard much about this plant and food source. This alternative starch to rice, cassava and corn has been lauded for its nutritional content, but needs more attention at a domestic and international level to reach true economic success for local farmers. The first sago integrated processing facility was recently established in December 2017 in this region, a collaboration between the United Nations Food Agriculture Organization and local government. While here, I will find a farm to visit and see how sago is grown, extracted and processed, and of course, try the local specialty dish, sinonggi!

Finally after the land travel, I want to explore life on water as well. I have been researching islands in Southeast Sulawesi, particularly Wakatobi, a chain of four islands that is home to a diminishing culture of “sea gypsies.” I have read that most of their diet consists of starches like cassava and taro in dishes, like kasuami and kambalu, but am curious about how they access their ingredients and what other vegetables they consume. How have these people who live on the sea sustain theirselves and how is their food evolving with the times?

With this itinerary, I hope to get a good picture of the cuisine and produce throughout Sulawesi. At the same time, I will be documenting the entire journey to share with you, so make sure you follow ASLI FOOD PROJECT here and on our other social media platforms to get a full picture of my experience in Sulawesi.

Wish me luck and selamat jalan!

– C

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