Tootling around the Aceh Province from Lhok Nga to Banda Aceh and then over the mountains to Sigli, you begin to experience the wide diversity of landscapes and day to day bustle of the people. Our mission in Sigli was to film the restoration of mangroves and aquaculture so we met up with an old colleague from the Environmental Research Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the remarkable local people he has been working with for the past 6 years. The short documentary is in the editing stage and we’ll be posting it shortly. But – you can’t travel around without talking about the food……
Masakan Padang, or Padang cuisine originates from the western Sumatran Minangkabau culture and here in Aceh the muslim, halal dietary laws dictate food preparation. Now this is all behind the scenes and doesn’t affect the delicious smells that waft from the small “warungs” and restaurants that line the streets. There are a couple of unique kinds of restaurants here – the Padang restaurant is easy to spot as it usually has a window-front displaying a great variety of dishes. A thin white curtain protects the food from flies and other critters and you either serve yourself (buffet style), or you point to what you want on your plate. In Lhok Nga, we ate at Dian’s Warung almost every night and here, Dian didn’t stand over you and write down what you were taking, it was more like the honor system where you told her what you had when you paid the bill. Such trust! Most of the time our bill, including drinks was 17000Rp-25000Rp- about $2 per person.
The other dining style is called “hidang” and this is where up to 25 different plates of food are placed in the center of the table and if there isn’t enough room, well the new plates are just balanced and stacked on top of each other. Here you choose what you want to eat from the vast array in front of you and are only charged for the dishes you taste or eat. They somehow know if you just dipped a spoon in for a taste! The choices can be overwhelming – different curries (vegetable, fish heads and of course beef and chicken) but there is also Sop-Buntut (oxtail soup), Cumi (squid) and a personal favorite, Ayam Goreng (fried chicken). Prawns, fried fish and cow brains are available and yellow and white rice always accompany the meal. A bowl of water is usually set on the table for washing your hands as it is customary to eat without utensils, however, forks and spoons are given to us. Pure fruit juices of papaya, melon, lime, pineapple and alpokat – avocado juice flavored with a generous drizzle of chocolate (this is absolutely delicious but without the chocolate) are much better than water and I’m afraid we’ll be craving them when we come back to Arizona.
Returning from Sigli to Banda Aceh we were on the hunt for fresh durian fruit. But first there seems to be a ritual. We all stopped at a noodle warung where we had steaming bowls of Mie Aceh Kuah, (spicy soupy noodles with chicken and vegetables) which I believe was suppose to prepare your stomach for the durian. So, outside the mosque in one of the larger towns were heaping baskets of freshly picked durian fruit, men sat and squatted around the pile in earnest discussions. They were tapping the fruit with their machetes to determine the ripeness, I presume, and when the pile of selected fruit grew in size the negotiations began. Picking the perfect durian is like picking the perfect Christmas tree. With 6 medium fruit in hand we went to a small nearby cafe and this is where we had the first taste of this intriguing and much maligned fruit. Imagining we were going to have to hold our noses to cut out the notorious smell, we were all surprised that there was only a faintly, musky fruit smell. Unfortunately, after all this, the fruit itself wasn’t fully ripe, the texture a little crunchy and the flavor – I just can’t liken it to anything else – for some of us it was good, others I think will pass on trying it again. So the search continues for a really good, ripe durian. We’ll be letting you know if it lives up to its reputation.
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