June 20, 2013

The most spicy food in Indonesia

If you want real spicy, it's not in Jakarta you should stay


Various chillis in the market, Manado, Indonesia
They told me that the most spicy food in Indonesia come from Manado, Sulawesi.

They also told me that in Manado they eat more or less everything that moves.

So naturally I had to go and explore...

I was visiting Indonesia 2010, with no specific agenda - it was an impulse and a spontaneous idea. While I go to Asia every year Indonesia wasn't really on my radar screen. Sure, I had met great people from Indonesia, and I knew I'd go eventually, but it wasn't on the top list. And still I went there before going to other countries, like Japan, that I had wanted to visit for much longer.

It all started email from HR saying "you have to take your holiday". So I looked online, found a special deal for Jakarta, and booked. Just like that I was going to Indonesia...

I arrived in Jakarta a dark night, very late and came to an airport that felt more like a small provincial airport than an international one, and had I not already been given advice on which taxi company to use and had a first night in a hotel booked I could have been lost and fooled then and there. Jakarta is not an easy city to get your head around.


A Palmtree against a worn down white building that was once beautiful
Kota (Old Jakarta), Jakarta, Indonesia
Jakarta, clearly once upon a time an interesting city with beautiful architecture, now more a run down place with an awful traffic situation not giving you much chance to explore - at least not the way I am used to exploring. Still I am happy that I went, and I DID get to see and do a lot, but Indonesia (outside of Bali which is full of tourists) is just not for beginner travellers - but luckily I am not a beginner traveller. Still I could easily have gotten confused if I hadn't paid attention.

It also didn't take me very long to feel that I had seen enough of Jakarta itself, so I moved on. Via Yogjakarta and an erupting volcano - I really don't appreciate volcanoes erupting on me - I ended up in Bali for a few days, and from there I continued towards to Manado, via plane - Indonesia is big and you need to fly between the islands unless you have unlimited time... (Word of advice though: The low cost airlines are not that comfortable if you are of average European size, I had to fold myself double to fit in - and I am not that tall...)

Manado was a different experience to many others I have had, an experience that I wouldn't have wanted to be without, and not just for the food that indeed was spicy (and very tasty I might add), but especially the meetings with people. Being one of very few westerners I was greeted with a lot of curiosity. I quickly lost count of how many people wanted to shake my hand, asking curious questions, asking me to sit down and play chess with them, telling me about the place, about their stories, and about their lives, taking photos - of me, of me with their children, of me and them, and so forth. So many interesting characters in Manado, and. And never ever did I feel worried or concerned, but rather well cared for - when I act respectfully I get respect back. I can't say that I recommend Manado, most people who travel look for comfort and fancy experiences, and Manado has little, if any, of that, but if you are an explorer, there might be something for you here. I enjoyed it - but then again the meeting with people is very much why I travel, that, and food, of course. 

Two chess tables, surrounded by local Indonesian men playing chess
Chess players in Manado, Sulawe
It was, I admit, slightly frustrating when I could understand enough to understand that there was an interesting story to be told - as a story collector and traveller this is what I live for - but there were limitations due to (lack of) language skills that made it difficult for me to understand all and every story. 

Still, the Indonesians in general and the people in Manado in general really made an effort and we could communicate relatively well with sign language, some English, some Indonesian, and then me throwing in various bits and pieces from other languages. And when everything else failed there were always names of athletes. Yes, athletes. I was quite impressed with the Indonesian people; People on the street, people that hadn't been outside the country or even away from their island, but still they knew where Sweden was and brought up a lot of names of famous and semi-famous athletes from Sweden. Some even I had to look up via Google when I got to an Internet connection! I meet people in Europe that doesn't know where Sweden is or anything about Sweden, and here I was on the other side of the world and they knew perfectly well!

The silhouette of a mountain on an island, in the open sea
I imagine many of the people I met must have wondered what on earth a European woman, from Scandinavia, was doing, on her own, in their corner of the world, when it was also so clearly off season and in a city which lacks obvious attractions when it comes to sightseeing, at least attractions worth travelling across the world for.

Sure, Bunaken, a well known nature park and diving resort is just outside Manado, but this strange European wasn't going to Bunaken - it caused a lot of amazement, everybody assumed that the famous nature park and dive resort must be the reason I was there, probably the only reason. It wasn't. Not at all. I hadn't even heard about Bunaken before I went to Indonesia, it was people I got to know in Yogjakarta who first told me about it - so Bunaken had nothing to do with my decision to visit Manado. Instead I went because I wanted to understand what really spicy food was. 

Three young girls, making faces for the camera, while the mothers watch from the back of the store
Indonesian girls posing for the photograp
The people in Manado laughed and smiled when I said I had come for the food, but they were happy to let me try.  And trying the food I did. When words failed the people in the market as well as the people in the food places - I call them food places as most of them were barely even restaurants, but just little food stalls on the street - explained to me with gestures and mimics what I was eating or whether the dish I had just ordered would be very spicy or just "normal" - which by the way also is pretty spicy, at least for most westerners. 

The part of the market where they sold the very strange meats I avoided though. I would try (almost) everything food wise but I don't necessarily want to see it prepared... Or rather, BEFORE it is prepared... Nor did I always ask what it was I was eating. At least not before I tried it... Not in a part of the country famous for eating anything that moves... 

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Side note, updated 2015:

I might come back to Bunaken some day, if I travel with company, because what would I do alone in a dive resort? Never dive alone! And the waters outside Bunaken are in some areas as deep as 1000 meters. The sea between Sweden and Denmark is never deeper than 40 meters. You need to be a really good diver if you dive in areas where the waters are as deep as outside Indonesia, because if you lose your bouyancy when you are above such an area, you will be lost forever. 18 meter is the maximum depth for an Open Water diver, 30 for an advanced (at least it was when I did my course), after that, you have to be a specialist diver, and recreational divers don't go deeper than 40. Even those who dive as a profession, with special equipment can't go as deep as the Bunaken waters, the pressure is simply too high, and the decompression time would be very long.  

Bunaken really looks stunning though, here are a few links: 

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