I have always been a “city boy” having lived my entire life in cities and urban centers in Malaysia and abroad. In my 30 years of travelling around Indonesia, a really huge country of 17,000 islands, it is both thrilling and sometimes frightening to simply hop from one island to another, sailing in small fishing boats, canoes and sometimes having to sleep on rickety “Ka-ting-ting” fishing boats, (got its name from the loud erratic combusting sound of the motor).

My travels have brought me to very remote mountain hamlets, forest communities and island fishing villages, many of which are considered to be some of the poorest areas in Indonesia, well at least according to government statistics, and conventional standards.

Solol village on Salawati Island in Raja Ampat, coral cover still intact (drone foto credit, Grisson)
Flores traditional war dance to welcome guest

These areas obviously lack infrastructure and amenities that city folks are used to, and feel they cannot do without, such as flush toilets, 24 hour cable TV, and of course internet and cellular phone signal. But from first hand experiences, I believe these rural folks might lack cash in their pockets but they never fail to bring food to the table as there is literally “plenty of fish in the sea”.

I often envy them for having the world’s largest seafood cold room in their backyard – the oceans and seas. Farmers also do not usually go hungry, as long as they have land, and are willing to plant food crops like rice, vegetables, fruits and other food stuff.

I was travelling around Adonara Island, east Flores in the eastern part of Indonesia to document and photograph local community women’s economic activities, for a book publication. The journey itself was indeed quite an adventure.

Fresh sashimi of yellow fin tuna prepared island style

Just imagine, from the time I left my apartment in Kuala Lumpur until my arrival in the remote village of ‘Hinga’ in Adonara Island, I had already watched the sun rise and set twice! It was 2 long and sometimes agonizing days of hopping on 3 flights, countless rides on taxis, cars and pick-up trucks, and sailing across the Flores Sea in a wooden ferry.

But what greeted us upon entering the simple village house which would be our home for the following two weeks melted away all our weariness. Our host had prepared a really sumptuous meal of grilled fresh fish with chili sambal, (spicy chili paste) boiled sweet potatoes and stir fried greens from their vegetable garden. From then on, we were dutifully served fish for breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes even for supper. No wonder after each trip to these areas, my blood test results always seem to miraculously return to healthy levels.

While cruising around the south east Moluccan islands, we never fail to muster up tasty meals of fresh fish, usually paired with stir fried papaya leaves, crispy fried tempe, boiled cassava, steamed rice and of course the local favourite, embal bread, a traditional food of Kei Islands in south east Moluccas. It is made by pressing out the poisonous juices (yes, poison!) from a type of wild cassava root, and then sun drying and pan frying the residue to bake this “deadly” local staple.

Baby tuna for sale in Flores market

Moluccans and Papuans almost always cook their fish by grilling over wood fire. But on special occasions, they do a traditional “ikan bakar batu” (stone baked fish) cooking process. I once joined the kitchen team in the preparations from catching the fish, then cleaning, cutting, seasoning, and finally wrapping with banana leaves, and burying it underground with sizzling hot rocks for at least 3 hours. I still remember the incredible sweet aromatic smell of freshly baked fish mixed with whiffs of garlic, onion, ginger, and fresh herbs which filled the entire village when we opened the parcels of baked fish.

Moluccas Papuan fishermen often smoke their surplus catch and sell in the market

Moluccan fishermen usually do night fishing. It is also always an adventure when we set up camp on the beach of some small islets near the fishing spots, start a big fire and then wait for the fishing vessels to return with their catch. While waiting, it is always pure joy to just lie on the warm sand under a blanket of stars in complete darkness, except for the blazing wood fire ready to grill freshly caught fish, in a small uninhabited remote island.

Once the boats arrive with their catch, everyone is excited to view the colorful fish and other sea creatures, and inevitably listen to the often exaggerated fishing stories told by the fishermen, and sometimes by me too.

Ikan bakar batu, or rock grilled fish

My favorite part is when each person gets to pick one or two fishes which would be cut, cleaned and immediately grilled over the campfire. I usually select a medium size (800g) parrot fish for its firm, sweet and juicy white flesh, and a huge 3kg snapper, just for the heck of it! Although it is obviously humanly impossible for me to consume all of it, but how often does a “city lad” like me get to pick and choose big fresh sea fish, grill it, and then finally to eat it, all for free?

The enticing aroma of fresh “cakalang” (Skip Jack tuna), grouper, kakap (snapper), parrot fish, and different varieties of coral fishes grilling over an open fire with the smokiness and the smell of the sea is amazing and mouth watering.

Fishermen usually keep some fish for their family and sell the rest in the village or town market. But if it is really a big catch, they would smoke the surplus fish to prevent it from spoiling and also turn them into “ikan asap” (smoke fish), another local delicacy in these parts.

Although the Moluccas is known as the spice center of Indonesia due to the abundance of cloves, nutmeg, they hardly use them in their cooking. However I also realized that the freshness of the fish makes it naturally juicy and delicious even if there is no added seasoning. But it is always good to bring along packets of salt, “chili padi” (bird’s eye chili), embal bread and of course local “kapal api” coffee (local Indonesian coffee).

Boiled sweet potatoes, regular staple food of islanders in eastern Indonesia

But sometimes the kitchen “mama” (a common affectionate term for most elderly women in Moluccas or Papua) would quickly muster up a simple “ikan kua kuning” or turmeric fish soup, a popular dish with chunks of snapper fish, tuna or grouper boiled in a turmeric-chili base soup with garlic, shallots, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and its juice, and palm sugar, all ingredients readily available in their backyard vegetable garden.

This spicy sour-sweet fish soup pairs nicely with a local favourite, “papede”, a guey starchy gum like paste made from fermented, dried and ground sago. Yes, it does sound horrible when described, but believe me Moluccans and Papuans swear by their Papeda! It took me 10 years to finally appreciate this strange local dish and now I even have a couple of home recipes given to me by a kitchen “mama” to take home to Malaysia.

Networking with locals with special skills is also very crucial if you are like me with a mission to gorge as much fresh seafood as possible in these parts. I managed to cultivate this with “Pak Lobster” (Mr Lobster) for obvious reasons – he is the master lobster catcher! We quickly became “blood brothers” after I brought him a portable battery operated headlamp used by scuba divers, which he immediately put to good use when he dove into the sea and emerged an hour later with 2 huge lobsters.

Papeda partner, Tumeric snapper fish soup, a common recipe of Papua and Moluccas

My travels also brought me to the Raja Ampat Island archipelago located right at the tip of the “Bird Head” peninsular (shape resembling the head of a bird) in West Papua province. Raja Ampat is actually a popular tourist destination known for its pristine dive sites and coral enclaves but my destination was Solol village, a remote fishing community in the northern part of Salawati Island in Raja Ampat.

When travelling to remote islands, having reliable local companions is really crucial. But for me equally important is remembering to carry two useful “tools of the trade” – a bottle of Japanese soy sauce and my trusty fish bone tweezers in anticipation of the numerous fresh fish sashimi feasts that I am almost certain would find its way to my dinner plate.

When travelling to remote islands, having reliable local companions is really crucial. But for me equally important is remembering to carry two useful “tools of the trade” – a bottle of Japanese soy sauce and my trusty fish bone tweezers in anticipation of the numerous fresh fish sashimi feasts that I am almost certain would find its way to my dinner plate.

Papeda sago paste, goes well with tumeric fish soup
Ferry services of islanders in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara

I once dared one of the locals to proof his mastery in line fishing by bagging a couple of yellow fin tuna for the night’s meal. It was actually my devious plan to have a fresh sashimi fish meal that day. He readily accepted the challenge and venture out into the open sea in search of fresh tuna. Less than 2 hours later, he returned to shore and showed off his enormous catch – 17 yellow fin tuna, each weighing about 2-3 kg, truly amazing!

That night, many villagers had their first taste of eating fresh tuna sashimi prepared by a Malaysia chef, and the entire saga was even recorded on hand phone cameras by excited village youths who had gathered to partake in, and witness the strange culinary event!

I later found out that the island actually lies on the path of what they call the tuna trail which runs all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Thus it was not uncommon for schools of migrating fishes to cross paths with fishing vessels. Good to know, when one is desperately seeking to satisfy a craving for fresh tuna sashimi.

Map of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s largest island country spread over 34 provinces, and I have been to more than half of these places. More importantly, I had the rare privilege to see its beauty and richness, and especially indulge in the fresh fish and other marine creatures, an important food source that would hopefully continue to feed the communities and their islands for a very long time.

Getting there:

Flores Island (NTT)

Fly to Bali or Makassar, and then take any regular domestic flights to Maumere city in Flores. From there, charter private SUV with driver to Larantuka Port towards the east. Take the ferry ride to cross the sea to Adonara Island. You will need another SUV ride from the jetty to the villages.

South east Moluccas: Kei Islands

Fly direct from Kuala Lumpur to Makassar, and then take a domestic flight to Ambon City, Central Moluccas. There are regular domestic flights to Langgur, in Kei Kecil Island. A more adventurous option is to sail from Ambon to Langgur by overnight passenger ships operated by the Pelni shipping company. In Langgur charter SUV with driver and arrange for boat rentals to move around and sail to the nearby islands.

West Papua: Raja Ampat Islands

Fly from KL to Jakarta, and then catch an overnight direct flight (4hr 5 min) to Sorong city in Papua. In Sorong, charter a long speed boat to Solol Island, or take the regular ferry service to the regular tourist points in Raja Ampat.

Tan Jo Hann

Tan Jo Hann is a community organiser and travels extensively all over Indonesia

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