How do I get invited into kitchens as a stranger?
This is a familiar challenge in the food industry, especially for cooks in search of broadening their experience with stages.
There are cooks who use every connection to close in on degrees of separation. There are cooks who send emails to the world’s Michelin-starred or Pellegrino-listed restaurants and hope for a response. There are cooks who camp outside doors of restaurants they wish to work in, even though they have already been rejected.
I went through this ritual three years ago when I left my job in New York City to travel across the Asia-Pacific and stage at restaurants in the region — all without having contacts, but trusting in the journey to open doors along the way.
Could I apply the same strategy as I traveled throughout rural Sulawesi?
Though this time, there were no connections, no emails, no chefs accustomed to strangers knocking at the door. This was a far more personal mission.
How do I get invited into peoples’ homes?
Modoinding, North Sulawesi – Tante Nancy
Tante Nancy and her daughter rescued me my first night in their village.
I arrived in Modoinding as dusk approached with my ojek driver after a winding and misty 2-hour drive through the highlands of North Sulawesi.
I directed him towards the location of my homestay, Modoinding Lodge. The pin on my Google Maps app seemed very sure of itself.
But where was it?
There we were — two strangers to the village — circling hopelessly, making u-turns every five meters. I could see a row of houses, though none with discernible signs. Not that it mattered. Now that the sun had set, nothing was visible.
Realizing that an eight-hour travel day was not yet finished as I hoped, I flagged down two women on the road, a mother and her daughter.
“Excuse me, can you help me?”
When I inquired about the location of Modoinding Lodge, they nodded knowingly.
“Oh yes, it’s right there!” Tante Nancy pointed to a house behind me. I whipped my head around, but still saw nothing.
“Where?” I asked, panic edging into my voice. To my relief, they offered to walk me to my final destination.
I followed them up a pebbled path to a house behind shrubs that I never would have found in broad daylight, much less night time. Tante Nancy knocked on the door.
“Oma, you have a guest!”
A day later, while eating breakfast on the patio of my guesthouse, I heard someone calling my name. I looked up and Tante Nancy waved at me while picking herbs in her garden. It turned out she lived across the street.
Perfect timing. The day before, I quizzed the neighbors about who’s kitchen would be the best to learn Minahasan cooking. It was unanimous — Tante Nancy.
Before I missed my chance, I dashed over to say hello and asked what she was up to.
“Well, I’m cooking for a church event…”
“Oh really? Let me help you!”
“Are you sure?” Tante Nancy hesitated, embarrassed at the condition of her modest home, but I insisted. She relented and led me into her kitchen, apologizing for its small size and clutter, but I looked right past it.
“What are you cooking today?”
Toraut, North Sulawesi – The Village Kitchen
During my hike in Taman Nasional Bogani, my village guide Om Sale asked,
“Have you ever eaten nasi buluh?”
“Would you like to see it made? You can stay at my house.”
“Yes and yes.”
At this point, I was proud of my improved Indonesian skills, believing I knew enough to understand conversations. This naive belief, however, led to comic situations.
After the hike, I quickly re-packed my backpack, excited to be invited into another local kitchen to learn how to make nasi buluh — ketan soaked in santan, then stuffed into bamboo tubes and roasted in fire — from Om Sale’s wife. We hopped on his bike and arrived at his home in the village.
Om Sale introduced me to his wife and kids, and I unloaded my backpack in a bare bedroom with a mattress on the floor. Not more than a minute after we sat down in his living room, he asked,
“Do you want to see the nasi buluh?”
“Yes, let’s go!”
But instead of leading me to the kitchen, we walked out the front door and he readied his motorbike.
Maybe we’re getting supplies?
Om Sale drove for five minutes and parked in front of another house with tarp strung overheard next to it to create a covered, makeshift workspace. A workspace currently filled with people and music. I got off the bike and looked at Om Sale.
He looked back and said, “Silakan.”
I entered and it took me ten seconds to scan my surroundings. Bags were filled with bamboo tubes pre-lined with banana leaves. Tantes wearing hijabs were squatting on top of tables making santan. Other tantes had immersed their arms into buckets of soaking rice, checking their status.
The Toraut village had gathered to make nasi buluh. And now the entire village was staring at me.
“Err…Hello! I’m just here to look.” I waved and smiled in hopes of breaking the ice.
Within seconds, I got swept into the commotion that paused upon my arrival. The music resumed and an exuberant tante gave me a couple hard whacks on my butt. Whoa! I decided to interpret it as her way of saying:
Welcome to the village.
Toraja, South Sulawesi – Tante Lina and Warung Pong Buri
After seeing the typical Torajan sights — typical being coffin-hunting in caves and admiring the horns of slaughtered water buffaloes — my friend, Ermi, and I wanted to eat Torajan cuisine.
We asked our driver where to go, because I was in search of pa’piong, a traditional Torajan dish cooked inside bamboo. He drove us to a warung bustling with locals at midday, where I spotted tubes of bamboo outside, already roasted and darkened with soot — evidence of pa’piong.
Ermi and I ordered two servings and while waiting, I spied what other diners were eating. I saw nothing that resembled typical Indonesian fare, like nasi or mie goreng. I immediately had the distinct impression that Torajan cuisine, like its culture, was unlike the rest of the country. A few bites into the pa’piong — a rich and hearty combination of roasted pork, liver and blood, flavored with seasoning I did not recognize — confirmed this. I needed to spend time in the kitchen of Warung Pong Buri.
Ermi, who also works in the food industry, agreed, and we started eyeing which of the staff to approach. We chose the tante at the cash register.
“Halo, Tante. What time do you start cooking?”
“Can we join you tomorrow to learn how to cook Torajan cuisine? We are chefs and very interested.”
“Not a problem.”
“Okay. Do you want to go to the market too?”
“Okay, meet here at 5:30 am.”
That seemed easy enough.
The next morning, we woke up at 4 am and headed to the warung. It was shuttered and dark, like the rest of the street.
After 20 minutes of listlessly standing on the curb with no sign of life, we became concerned.
“Do you think they ditched us?”
“I sure hope not.”
At that moment, a tante drove by on a motorbike.
“Who are you waiting for?”
“We’re waiting to go to the market with Tante.”
“Oh, you need to go over there,” she replied, pointing to a small alley across the street.
We followed and met the owner, Tante Lina, in her house where the cooking took place every morning.
And as if it were a common occurrence for strangers to appear at her doorstep, she whisked us along on her daily morning market run. We discovered that Warung Pong Buri was famous in Toraja, and in fact, we were not the first people to spend time in her kitchen. Because of their prominence, they sold out of food every day, usually within three to four hours.
When we returned to her house, Ermi and I expected to head straight into the kitchen.
“Do you want to see a dead body?” Tante Lina asked.
If we were anywhere else in the world, this would be unusual. But in Toraja, where it is customary to embalm deceased loved ones and keep them in the house until the family is ready for their pesta, or burial, this was not odd at all.
We climbed two flights of stairs and Tante Lina showed us into a room. Her husband, who passed away the previous year, laid in an ornately decorated coffin. His skin had already darkened with time and from chemicals, but otherwise, he was very present in the room.
I looked at Ermi, while taking photos with as much decorum as possible.
“Ready for the kitchen?”
Whether I expected it or not, each action, each mishap, each stumble I made ultimately landed me in a kitchen.
In actuality, the spontaneity of each encounter created a fuller experience, one that allowed me to learn more about the culture and people, which made every recipe I collected all the more precious.
Photo: A tante preparing kluwak for pamarassan and pa’piong in Toraja, South Sulawesi.