Durian in Ambon, Maluku

Was That Dog I Just Ate? Uncovering The Food Of Maluku

Oh, the food of Maluku. Or really, I should say the lack thereof. I thought Cuba was bad. But, there was always peso pizza or ice cream to be had. Here, it is impossible to find a restaurant, and once you do, they are out of everything on the menu except for rice and maybe some fish that’s been fried and sitting out for about a week, judging by the smell of it.

I am now in Ambon, Maluku and I pretty much spent the entire first day trying to get lunch, and, yes, once I found it, the chances are that I was eating dog are actually pretty good. My first food of the day was the breakfast in the hotel. My choices were toast, rice, and tempeh with peanuts. I looked questioningly at the food, and a man from Java came up, and said, “Try it. It’s good.” He put a spoonful of each on my plate, and let’s just say that I longed for the yogurt and fruit that I had enjoyed so much in Bali.

Breakfast in Maluku

The next part of my day was spent trying to write stories in the lobby for you to read. This was difficult as I was having to stop every two seconds, so that the locals could take pictures of me. They weren’t used to seeing Americans in Maluku, and I was a real novelty. I looked at it as karma for all the people who I’ve taken pictures of, and I did love that we all seemed so exotic to one another.

Guys with cameras in Maluku, Indonesia

By then, it was time for lunch and, little did I know, it was an excursion that wouldn’t have me getting back to the hotel until well after 5pm. My friend Eddie and I set out to walk past the maddening, chaotic market. We entered the crushing thrall of people, ojeks (motorcycles), and bemos. We were surrounded by the sound of Muslim prayers, the sight of everything you could want to buy (except for a waterproof camera), and calls from people of “Hey Mister!” using the only English phrase that they knew. It was only the strong smell of dried fish and the durian that reminded me that I was in Asia and not Morocco.

Oh yes, the durian. I tried this disgusting fruit for the first time. It is durian season here, and they are everywhere. You can buy a whole one for fifty cents, where they are usually five dollars. I can barely walk down the street without wanting to gag, but everyone says they taste different from they smell, so I decided to be adventurous.

Oh, God. The smell is like if you put rotting fish, all the peas that you couldn’t stand to eat as a child, some sweaty gyms socks, and something that’s been dead for a very long time. The only thing that tastes different from the smell is if you decided to maybe pour a palm sugar syrup over it to pretend you weren’t eating what you were eating. Yes, there was a certain fruitiness in some bites, but, why not eat something really good instead of mouthfuls of this putrid slime. Not for me!

Becak driver in Maluku, Indonesia

We then took a becak, a three-wheeled bicycle cart that was driven by a very old man for only $1 to the area where the restaurant was. We got very lost and spent about an hour trying to find the place. It was called RM Paradise and was recommended for it’s local specialties. I, of course, liked the sound of it because it had Paradise in the name.

Well, a word of advice. Before you set out to try the local food, you might want to read the rest of the article and figure out what the local food is. Here it is dog. Dog and boiled cassava (which is like eating glue). If those things don’t appeal to you, you can eat sago which is a colorless glue that you ladle onto fish soup. There is also pigeon or frog to choose from. We looked at the food, and the fried fish that looked like it was fried last Tuesday, had us leaving in search of other food.

I had seen a restaurant with pictures of food as we had been searching for Paradise, so we decided to go to that one. I like to point at pictures, and always look for whole foods ,such as a whole chicken or a whole fish. I figured this way, I would be less likely to be served dog. If the meat is still attached to the bone, it’s a bit easier to tell what it is. We went up the steep six-inch steps to the top-level that was a little more airy. However, I looked at it as a bad sign that they still had the Christmas tree up. If someone can’t bother to take the tree down, what else will they not bother doing?

Christmas tree in Maluku, Indonesia

I would soon find out, the answer to that would be to buy food. The owner began to tell us what they had in Indonesian since they didn’t speak English, nor did there happen to be any menu. Since neither of us could understand what she was saying, I took the owner back down the steep stairs, outside the restaurant to where the pictures of the food were.

I pointed at a piece of chicken that was fried and covered in a chili sauce. “Finished”, she said. I pointed to another piece of whole chicken. Again, “finished.” Feeling a little dubious at this point, I decided to opt for the sate’ (grilled meat on a stick.) It’s harder to know what you are actually eating since it’s off the bone, but at this point, I was really hungry. No, again, “Finished.”

Finally, she said, “Only nasi goreng.” Which is fried rice. Let me tell you, after being here for a month, I could care less if I ever saw a grain of rice again, but I was beyond starving at almost three in the afternoon. “OK, I said, nasi goreng.” “Do you want the special nasi goreng?”, she asked. Sure, I said, and then went to sit upstairs. And then thought, “Oh, my God. What have I done?”. What kind of meat is special meat? I had no idea and had no energy to do anything, but to eat what was put in front of me. So, did I eat dog? I’m really not sure. Whatever it was, it tasted like chicken.

Cassava crepes with nutmeg syrup in Maluku, Indonesia

We then went to get my tickets to Raja Ampat and to try the nutmeg wine at the café next door. I was so excited, as I’ve been longing for some nutmeg and some kind of spice ever since I’ve been here. Let me tell you something about the Spice Islands. There are no spices. Even at the market where you can buy anything from Hello Kitty underwear, to a fish knife, to mangosteen, or shallots, there are no spices.

Not one. No nutmeg, no cloves, no cinnamon, no vanilla, not even salt or pepper. I came here having visions of nutmeg laced coffee, clove scented cookies, and allspice infused cake. So, I was very excited to go to the café which was rumored to have nutmeg wine. I placed my order, full of anticipation, and the words, “Finished.” hit me like a ton of bricks. “What?”. There was no nutmeg wine, but there were some lovely cassava crepes that they poured a syrup over that was made from the fruit that surrounds the kernel of nutmeg. It tasted nothing like nutmeg, but they were one of the better things that I’ve eaten here and went lovely with the ginger coffee that they poured.

Fish at the market in Maluku, Indonesia
Fish at the market in Maluku, Indonesia

Today, my food adventures grew even worse as I decided to seek out yet another restaurant rumored to have pork in the Lonely Planet. First, I had to take the bicycle man back to the travel agency, as I realized that I had made an error and booked the wrong airport in Sumatra for my return flight from Raja Ampat. I arrived to find it closed, dark, no one there. They had said they would be open. I got someone to call on their phone, but didn’t understand exactly what I was told, but it sounded like they would come eventually.

I then set out in the blaring hot sun to try to find some pork. I walked and walked and every place I saw seemed closed as it is Sunday. I finally went to some locals and pantomimed eating food. They pointed me across the street to a place. I was so excited. I arrived to a bunch of seated people and a buffet of food. It was like seeing a mirage in the desert, as this was real food. Chinese food. Sweet and sour chicken, chow mein noodles, mountains of food, all recognizable, lay before my eyes. I started pointing at different dishes to the lady who was dishing it out.

All of a sudden, the entire restaurant grew silent. And then everyone starting laughing. It seemed like I had interrupted some private party and this was no restaurant at all. I tried to use my best puppy dog expression to hope that I would be offered some food anyway. (Note: Never use a puppy dog expression in a place where they eat puppy dogs). The lady shook her head at me and yelled, “Closed.” I was so embarrassed and hot tears of defeat streamed down my face as I left, faint with hunger, and having lost all hope.

As I headed back to the travel agency, I did find a place. A place with dishes of food stacked in the window. They had chicken covered in a coconut chile sauce and I excitedly pointed at it. The man serving the food, tried giving me some of the other unusual dishes which I shook my head at. He then took me to the side and opened a big pot and with a smile and a whisper in my ear, he said, “Doggie!” “No, no.” , I stammered. He then served me up some green leaves which are everywhere here. They are horrible, but I eat them because they are probably good for you. I think they are cassava leaves, but they look like leaves you would pick off a tree. They taste like maybe spinach without all the dirt rinsed off.

Ayam and cassava leaves in Maluku, Indonesia IMG_3328

No longer shaking with hunger, I went back to the travel agency, to find it still dark. A man saw me who spoke English! He was down the street, so I walked over and he used his phone to call them. He said, they are there. Just go back. I went back to the darkened windows to find the door open in my hands. They had been there working in the dark!! They changed my tickets for me, and tomorrow I leave for the far reaches of Raja Ampat where there will be no restaurants. I do go, however, armed with three bags of chile peanuts and a box of granola bars that I was able to find. I am dreaming of the delicious duck wrapped in banana leaves that I had in Bali, the crispy skin of the suckling pig, the fresh salads from Alchemy, the seared cocoa dusted tuna with mangosteen sauce from the Clear Café. One day, I will eat again. And when I do, I will be savoring every last bite.

Val in a becak in Maluku, Indonesia