When I first moved to Indonesia, I was hosted by a wonderful family, the father a pediatrician, the mother a housewife and excellent cook. Their eldest son was a fellow University of Washington graduate and friend from church in Seattle.
Growing up, I had liked to cook and bake on occasion, but I took special interest in it while studying at the UW when faced with the high prices of mediocre dorm food. So, when my host mother asked if I knew how to make apple pie, I answered, “Of course.” I then proceeded to make my mom’s special apple pie recipe. I wasn’t as gifted at the pie crust as Mom, but the filling was unbeatable.
When the pie came out of the oven, my host mom took a step backward.
“Oh, Gerrit, it’s very ugly.”
I nearly had a heart attack. My face turned red. Indonesians can sometimes be painfully blunt.
“But you must try it,” I urged, swallowing my pride. “I promise it is very delicious.”
She tried a piece, and admitted that she had never tasted such a delicious apple pie, but she re-asserted that the appearance was unappealing.
After a couple of years of living in Indonesia and having visited various bakeries, I began to understand that appearance of baked goods was everything. I thought their pies and cakes were woefully lacking in taste, despite being amazingly decorated.
Chocolate chips cookies were uncommon when I arrived in the country in the 1980s. Moreover, the chocolate morsels were hard to find. While they usually ran around $1-2 in the US, a package sold for $5.00 in Indonesia. And, $5.00 was pricey for a small package of chocolate, especially when my monthly salary was only $300. But I made the purchase and wanted to share this American treat with my host family and co-workers. The former seemed pleased with the results, so I packed a box to share at work.
I lived in Pluit, a newer section of town in the far northern reaches of Jakarta (at the time). To get to my workplace, I usually took a Bajaj, a three-wheeled vehicle imported from India that had open sides rather than windows. These small orange vehicles spat out thick black exhaust from their tailpipes. The drivers were usually poor, uneducated men from outlying provinces and were always sweaty and dirty from the tropical heat and city pollution. Heck, I wiped away black grime from my face after each ride!
Feeling especially pleased with myself for having made the cookies, a generous vibe swept through my being, and I offered one to the Bajaj driver. He grinned, took one bite, and threw the rest out the window, the smile replaced by a scowl of rejection.
Again, I nearly had a heart attack. My face turned red, and my jaw quivered as I searched for a response. I couldn’t find one. I would have eaten the other half of that precious American delicacy, but no, he had to throw it onto the street only to be trampled by other Bajaj’s, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and minibuses. Never again did I offer a chocolate chip cookie to anyone I thought might so rudely toss it away.
In the first few months of marriage, Julie and I hired a young Sundanese woman to help out with housework. Her name was Dila. Having quickly grown close to her and her family, we were invited to the wedding of one of her relatives. This wedding was a traditional affair, held in the bride’s home which happened to be halfway up the winding mountain road to Lembang, a resort and farming town a few miles north of Bandung. In 1990, the area was still relaxed with relatively few cars on the highway.
Dila seated us on an outdoor patio along with several other guests, disappeared into the house momentarily, and returned with a Sundanese delicacy called “tapé” (pronounced “tah′-pay”). About half the size of my palm, it was wrapped in banana leaves. Never an adventurous eater, I was skeptical and deferred to my wife to take the first taste. She took a bite, smiled at Dila, who responded with a broad smile of approval. Seeing Julie’s positive response, I quickly unwrapped mine and shoved it into my mouth just as Dila re-entered the house. I nearly gagged. Furious at Julie for tricking me into tasting it, I could barely keep my cool.
“I wasn’t trying to trick you, Gerrit,” she said softly, apologetically, slipping her hand into mine to calm me down. “We couldn’t offend Dila, so I smiled. What else was I supposed to do?” Reluctantly, I backed down, knowing she was right.
Tapé is fermented glutinous rice. And boy, was that rice ever fermented! Being a non-drinker, I don’t have anything nastier to compare it to other than communion wine, but let me tell you, this rice “delicacy” seemed much, much, much stronger than the wine of the eucharist. For some readers, this story may be all the motivation needed to go out and purchase air tickets to Indonesia—just to get a taste of fermented glutinous rice, but not for me. In all 26+ years of living in Indonesia plus all seven trips since returning to the US in 2012, I have never ventured another taste.
Doesn’t that subtitle make the mouth salivate? I was sitting on the floor of a home in Papua (Indonesia’s half of the island of New Guinea), owned by an ex-con. Seated in a circle of his fellow ex-cons, I was asked if I wanted to try papeda, a traditional meal in eastern Indonesia made from sago flour (extracted from a sago palm). I looked around at what the other men were eating, and it looked completely unappetizing, if not horrifying. I figured I could get by for asking for half a plate, so that is what I did.
Sago flour is like tapioca flower on steroids. It is used for glue in Indonesian post offices. When prepared, it is a clear glutinous mass, topped with a fish sauce that tasted (to me) like a garlicy red spaghetti sauce. Here’s a video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzKIEkeBGvo (see minute 6:00-8:00 to see the consistency, and what it looks like to eat it). But when you try to spoon the papeda, it behaves a little like flubber—unwilling to give—though fortunately, it doesn’t send anyone bouncing like in the Robin Williams film. As I was slurping it down, it felt like thick mucous slipping down my throat.
Indonesians who grow up with this treat swear by it. Like so many things in life, our attitude toward food is influenced by our upbringing. I was not brought up in eastern Indonesia. But, with a bunch of ex-cons surrounding me, I wasn’t going to wimp out and not finish the plate. So, I struggled…through…every…last…horrible…disgusting…bite. The only thing that kept me going was constantly reminding myself that it wasn’t snot but was an edible, popular dish among the Papuans. My other consolation was that I didn’t have to try the live sago larva—the favorite delicacy of all in many parts of Papua. These larvae will bite the human tongue if their heads aren’t crushed with the first bite. Here’s a video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7hpF9Zzanw.