I had my list ready.
Manu pata’u ni, Nga’a watary patau kabbe, Ka’pu pantunnu, Manggulu, Kadapet watara, Bokosawu nyale, Bokosawu karagge.
These were just a few regional dishes I had researched before flying to Sumba and was eager to find.
But then I found myself in a situation where this was not possible. It was, however, how I discovered the real Sumba.
No one knows about Sumba.
Its biggest claim to fame is perhaps that it is home to the “best resort in the world” that predictably comes with a staggering price tag.
The island is also starting to gain traction because of the Sumba Hospitality Foundation, an organization that established a school to train locals in all aspects of tourism — food and beverage, service and management. That was how I developed my first contact with Sumba. When the school had its first year of graduates and was looking for establishments for them to continue training, I accepted two of their students to the restaurant I worked in.
Emy and Boby were hard workers, eager to learn, and after their 6-month training period, the restaurant ultimately hired them as full-time employees. So when I was planning the Sumba portion of the project’s NTT research trip, I asked Emy if I could visit her village and stay with her family.
Her hesitancy was understandable. Emy’s first response was,
“Okay, I will ask my parents, but my parents cannot speak English and we are also people who cannot afford.”
I reassured her. After all, I had been staying in many villages throughout my travels and was accustomed to basic accommodations. At this point, I felt quite impervious to every level of economic status I had encountered in Indonesia, and was positive I would not be fazed in Sumba.
I received the good news a few days later when Emy let me know her parents would be happy to receive me.
When I arrived in Waingapu, the largest town in Sumba, it was not a surprise to hear that the traditional food and produce I was looking for could not be found in the city and I needed to find older generations of Sumbanese who knew more.
“Well then, it’s a good thing I’m going to a village,” I thought.
After a 6-hour drive from East to West Sumba into Desa We’elonda, where Emy’s family lived, I was dropped off on a gritty driveway not knowing whose house I was looking at. As with any village, my arrival prompted a mass gathering of locals who were already expecting me.
“Emy, Emy, Emy!” The crowd was gesturing to my left with their hands. Ah, this must mean her house was close by.
Indeed it was. A thin, middle-aged woman with kind eyes was standing in front of a simple, cement house with a corrugated metal roof a few paces away, arms outstretched.
“Apakah anda Ibu Emy?” I asked. Mama Henny smiled and said yes.
After she invited me into the house, Mama Henny sat me down on a plastic chair and fetched the customary tea and biscuits for guests. As I sat facing an audience of children and adults sitting on the dusty floor staring at me, I battled the awkwardness with smiles and initiated small conversation. This was when I began to observe my surroundings more closely.
This was certainly an impoverished home. A cement floor with no furniture. The only decor on the exposed brick walls were picture frames of family members and a diploma. There were no doors, only thin sheets of fabric that divided the four interior rooms.
The kitchen was behind the house, a basic shack using a wood-fire stove, which is the norm in rural villages. The restroom was an outhouse behind the kitchen, next to the animal pen that held the goats and pigs. Neither had electricity.
But none of that surprised me. What did startle me was the food.
The first meal I ate consisted of a generous amount of rice, sizable portion of vegetables and very little meat. By seeing that ratio of food, the family’s situation was clear to me.
After chatting with Emy’s father, Om Petrus, I discovered that they were farmers. Their main crops were cashews, corn, rice, cassava and beans, but because it was the dry season, there was little to harvest and sell. When I followed them to their farm one morning, I saw how difficult it was to grow anything during this season. Rice could not survive, the cashew trees were cycling through a fresh bloom of flowers, and the corn crop was withering because there was not enough rain.
The dry season here lasts at least six months, if not more.
While in the kitchen with Mama Henny, I found out she did not go to the market every day. A trip was made only when there was enough money to buy ingredients. She also shyly admitted that they could not afford much meat, so most of their protein was in the form of fish and tofu.
I immediately felt the onus of my presence. Why had they agreed to host me if I would be another mouth to feed? How could I, in good consciousness, ask them to make the dishes I had on my list? It did not feel right to simply give them money to buy ingredients. My intuition told me that would be disrespectful.
I quickly made a decision. If this was my situation, then I would work with it. I would continue to observe what Mama Henny cooked. If this was the real life of most Sumbanese, then this would be what I saw. I was betting on the fact that I would still see dishes I had not seen before.
And I was right.
I ate Ng’awatara, a rice dish mixed with dried, ground corn. Because cashew trees were ubiquitous in the area, Sambal jambu mete, a spicy condiment made from young cashew fruit, was common. My favorite dish was Ro’oluwah pahkubukah, a pounded cassava leaf and rice porridge cooked in santan.
Even the village contributed once they found out I was there to learn about Sumbanese cuisine. One neighbor offered Ro’oluwah palogoh, or boiled cassava, and bananas. Another neighbor shared Kolak, a sweet soup made from cassava, mung beans and santan. And yet another neighbor made Rujak, a sweet and sour fruit salad, for me.
Rujak is a popular dish all over Indonesia, and the manner in which Mama Silva made it, or the ingredients, was not different from what I had seen elsewhere in the country. But the fact that kids ran off to collect fresh tamarind pods from a nearby tree, the ripe papayas were picked because I was tall enough, and Mama Silva used what was likely a valuable stash of palm sugar, made this rujak very special.
So no, I did not get to cross off all the dishes I intended to find on my list while in Sumba. But there was something else I found — the overwhelming generosity of the Sumbanese. Because of that, I was always full — in belly and spirit.
Note: In addition to papaya, other common ingredients to use in rujak are pineapple, mango, cucumber and jicama. Give it a try!