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Floating Gastronomy

A floating gastronomical feast.

INDONESIA | Monday, 23 April 2012 | Views [524]

As we travelled up the Murung river for the third day straight, the speedboat bumping through the chocolate churned water, I knew we were close. 

Sure enough, around the corner, hidden by overhanging vines, was our stop. A platform of logs tied together with wire float, supported by empty petrol drums, is the base for our riverside restaurant, a shack.

The highlight of our 10 day journey into the steamy depths of the jungle, this warung often appears in my dreams.

We climb out of the boat, and I hasten to the Ibu, knowing she will have what I want. We sit with everyone on the boat, chatting about the birds we have seen and the gibbons throwing themselves off impossibly high branches on the riverbanks. The sickly smell of frying oil mingles with the fresh stench of rotting leaves coming from the bank; I breathe it all in deeply. The sight of the plaited sweet bread and glass cabinet containing her wares makes my mouth water, and the noise of flies buzzing overhead fades into the background. She turns. “Ah, the little ghost girl!”

We sit at the counter, our backs to the river, looking in as the Ibu wanders to the polystyrene box. The splinters on the rough cut bench dig into my thighs, the red checked plastic tablecloth sticks to my sweaty legs. At last, it seems, she brings our drinks, tankards filled with bitter tea the colour of caramelised sugar, sweetened with enough sugar to floor a dentist. I drink deeply, the tang hitting the back of my throat at the same time as the sweetness sinks into my teeth.

We munch on perkedel jagung as we wait for the Ibu to bring the food we have ordered - corn fritters the colour of double cream on the inside, fried to a golden crisp on the outside, full of flavour and incredibly more-ish. I watch avidly as she steps over to the glass cabinet.

Out come the plates, each with a cockerel printed on them. She opens the plastic cooler lid and uses a child’s bowl to scoop out the exact amount of rice, upturning it onto a plate to create a perfect rice mountain. Swatting away flies, she slides open the glass doors and takes out plates, carefully selecting items from each and placing them almost reverently around the mound of rice in the centre of the plate. Over it comes at last, what seems like an eternity of waiting is over as my stomach clenches. We have been travelling since six this morning on only a packet of Indomie, and it is well past two now.

There it is; a true work of art.

‘Selamat Makan’.

Rendang, a beef curry so slowly cooked that the liquid has been completely absorbed, sits next to the green singkong leaves, steamed using boiled water from the river and wild garlic. The other side of my plate is taken up with a catfish, once gleaming and purple, now staring up at me with its white eyes and cracked flesh. Decorating the top of the rice are thin shavings of omelette, so oily that you can smell the fishy flavour of the catfish fried in the same wok just moments before.

I wash my fingers in the bowl of river water supplied and copy those around me, forming a spoon with the four fingers of my right hand to scoop up food from my plate, using my thumb to push it into my mouth. No cutlery here. 

The sambal sears my throat and brings tears to my eyes as the flavours of green chilli, garlic and salt combine, a burning and fiery feeling as I desperately swig my iced tea, the boatmen laughing at me for my over eagerness. I start again at a slower pace, taking less of the sambal and more of the rice. MSG enhances every mouthful, the singkong is bursting with flavour and as I eat more, stringy pieces of beef get caught between my teeth. The Ibu is pleased with my appetite and laughs as I use the last strands of singkong leaf to gather up flecks of glutinous rendang sauce.

We have all the time in the world; the river will not be going anywhere. It is time for pudding. Es campur, a favourite of mine as well as all the locals, their sweet tooth unbeaten to this day.

We pass our dirty plates to the Ibu’s son, who goes to the side of the platform and dunks them in the river, wiping them down for the next guests who might stop for lunch.

Meanwhile, the Ibu goes back to the polystyrene box, taking out a rounded piece of ice and smashing pieces of it into a bowl. Then comes the colour – pieces of jelly are thrown in, black cubes made from cincau grass, bright pink balls of tapioca and fluorescent green blobs, of what I do not know. Then come the canned litchis and slices of jackfruit, and poured onto this is fresh coconut milk, and as much condensed milk as you want. An absolute feast, both to the palate and to the eye; I slurp away with the others.

As my father pays, the Ibu comes around from the counter and pinches my cheek, muttering ‘cantik’ – pretty. She pinches hard, trying to see if it is true, if I really am white and not just covering myself in flour as her daughters do. My parents and I are still the first white people that have ever been this far up the river.

As we leave the floating warung, we buy supplies for the long trip ahead of us – chunks of fried singkong root, its starchy flavour enhanced by the salt sprinkled over it, a branch of rambutans, the red hairy skins covering the succulent translucent flesh inside, loaves of sweet bread, plastic to the touch but tearing open to reveal the bright daffodil coloured centre. And this time, a treat – bright pink pieces of freshwater lobster to stuff into the sweet bread instead of our accustomed satay padang. Newly caught by the Ibu’s son this morning, we buy the lot and greedily watch it being wrapped away in the thick greased paper which will keep it out of the splash back of the wave’s way until we want it.

We climb back into the boat and as we speed away, churning the water into frothy white foam, we hear the Ibu shouting after us ‘selamat jalan’, wishing us a safe journey.

Tags: borneo, food, indonesia, travel

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