I have a plea.
Taste new things when you travel.
I am not asking you to channel television host Andrew Zimmern in his shock-factor hungry show, “Bizarre Foods,” and chow down on bull testicles or fermented whale meat.
But is there anything off-putting about corn, beans and pumpkin stewed in coconut milk with ginger and lemongrass, and eating a bowl of it to warm you up while in the chilly highlands of Pulau Flores?
If that sounds unappealing to you, then you are missing out.
I have been traveling throughout Indonesia long enough to notice an unfortunate trend.
At every destination, I asked strangers,
“Is there a warung here that serves traditional, local food?”
Except for very few exceptions, this was the answer I heard almost every day from one village to another. Was I naive to assume that traveling to the most rural regions of Indonesia would make it easier to find local cuisine?
In time, I realized geography was not the problem. It had to do, in part, with economics.
Take, for example, my experience with Tante Verny.
I met her by chance through my web of contacts I cast in Nusa Tenggara Timur. She lived in Bajawa, Flores Barat, a stop along my route from Ende to Labuan Bajo. It turned out Tante Verny was the unofficial culinary expert in this small, village town and fluent in all things food-related in the region. So when I arrived, she became my go-to source.
Bajawa is fast becoming a popular destination for tourists to pass through on the way to Mount Kelimutu in Flores. Naturally, the residents of this town are capitalizing on this new source of income from tourism. After I checked into my homestay on Jalan Ahmad Yani, I observed how the street was transitioning into pariwisata-central—newly-constructed hotels, family homes turned into homestays, and restaurants serving generic Indonesian cuisine.
What classifies as generic? The dishes you most likely identify as Indonesian cuisine—nasi goreng, mie goreng, satay, gado gado and others. All delicious, but a bland representation of this culturally-vibrant country. To me, seeing a menu like that underlies the reason why I cannot find traditional food anywhere I go in Indonesia.
When I met Tante Verny, we got straight to business. She showed me video clips of her appearances on local Indonesian television demonstrating how to make local Bajawa cuisine. Nothing looked familiar.
I had a proposition. If I paid for the ingredients, could she re-create these dishes for me?
Hearing “yes” never sounded better.
The next day, Tante Verny, her son, daughter and I prepped and cooked together. The menu featured Uta tabha, Koro ika, Ra’a rete manu, Ika zomo, Maki wete, Uta bhale. The pronunciation of these syllables were new for my mouth, but the ingredients of the dishes were not:
Corn, beans, peanuts, pumpkin, cassava, ginger, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, kemangi, chilies, black pepper, white pepper, coconut, turmeric, mint, lemon juice, seafood and poultry.
Watching Tante Verny cook and hearing her explain the process made it clear she felt great pride in this region’s food and was happy to share it.
After every dish was made and laid out on the dining table, I implored Tante Verny to open a restaurant serving this food. It made sense. Bajawa was currently experiencing an economic resurgence through tourism and everyone was investing money into the hospitality sector. It was the perfect time and a smart financial decision to open a rumah makan serving food like she had just cooked. I could not think of anyone who would not appreciate this kind of Indonesian cuisine.
“But foreigners don’t like this food. They wouldn’t eat it.”
Where did this idea come from?
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Locals do not believe foreigners would be able to stomach traditional food, and if it is not what they want to eat, then why should they make it? It is much easier to fry up rice and noodles, since that is what foreigners are expecting. Tourists, on the other hand, constantly see nasi goreng and mie goreng on menus throughout Indonesia, so that is what they expect local food to be and never learn to ask for anything more.
Do you know what you could be eating instead?
Uta tabha (featured recipe)—a corn, pumpkin, cassava and coconut milk stew. Koro ika—a salted fish, tomato and kemangi sambal. Ra’a rete manu—chicken stir-fried with lemongrass, kaffir lime and shredded coconut. Ika zomo—fresh fish marinated in turmeric, ginger and mint and wrapped in banana stem and roasted in the embers of a fire. Maki wete—amaranth grains steamed in coconut milk. Uta bhale—pumpkin leaves, banana heart and papaya flowers sautéed with ginger and chili.
Does any of that sound appetizing to you? Are you scared of eating any of that?
I did not think so.
So, let me revise my initial plea.
Demand to taste new things when you travel.
We, as travelers, need to right a wrong we have been spreading the world over, particularly in developing countries, because this is not only happening in Indonesia.
Encourage the making of local food. Support the cause by making a fuss that it is not available. If you can create the demand, then the value added can help prolong its survival in countries that believe traditional foods belong in the past.
Maybe one day on one of my research trips, I will not have to look so hard anymore. I would not mind that at all.