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Traders carry fruit bats at Tomohon traditional market in North Sulawesi. Antara/Ismar Patrizki
Manado, the provincial capital of North Sulawesi, is a coastal city that spreads inland over several undulating hills.
Today, Manado is a base for visits to the diving Mecca of Bunaken, the hill towns and volcanoes around Tomohon, the highlands of Lake Tondano and the Tangkoko-Batuangas Dua Saudara Nature Reserve, with its tiny nocturnal primates called tarsiers.
The place is also famous across the country for its food, the focus of my visit.
Our serving of dog meat or RW, short for rintek wuuk. JP/Peter MilneDespite its attractions, it’s a little hard to believe that when Alfred Russel Wallace first passed through these parts back in 1859 he would write: “The little town of Menado [sic.] is one of the prettiest in the East”. But then again that was 150 years ago, and things have changed a bit since.
Today local residents will tell you that Manado is famous for its “three Bs” — namely bubur, babi and bibir, or if translated into English, porridge, pork and lips. I was here to investigate the first two, while I will have to leave the third to your imagination.
Our serving of paniki fruit bat in the foreground, with the pork (babi) towards the left at the back. JP/Peter Milne Apparently, local Manadonese aren’t too big on diving, or they would surely have arrived at four Bs, with the last B standing for Bunaken.
Today, there’s a new buzz about the place and the face of the city is slowly being transformed and modernized.
Years ago, the coastal strip was a beach used by local fisherman to keep their small outrigger fishing boats.
But over the past decade, Manado has been extended into the bay by a new 200-meter strip of reclaimed land, and boasts a four-lane highway, now running along what used to be the beach.
I suppose it must be testament to the Manadonese love of shopping (or belanja; perhaps that should be the fifth “B”) that they have swapped their sunset beach for a sprawling commercial complex of shops and shopping malls.
Bubur tinutuan, as served in the Dego-dego restaurant, Jl. Wakeke. Notice the fried “cakes” of tasty ikan nike fish in the background. JP/Peter MilneBack to the subject of food: Manado is sometimes referred to as Kota Tinutuan, in reference to the very popular local rice porridge made with corn, spinach and chili, known as bubur tinutuan.
Usually a morning dish, the porridge is served with salted dried fish or cakes made from the tiny fish called nike found in Lake Tondano, mixed with flour and deep fried.
I found this porridge delicious and an excellent way to start the day.
Although this dish is ubiquitous throughout the city, the most famous road in Manado for bubur tinutuan is Jl. Wakeke, with the Dego-dego restaurant being one of the local favorites.
Minahasa is famous across Indonesia for the spiciness of its food and Tomohon, located up in the hills outside Manado, is one of the better places to try some of the region’s more bizarre dishes, if you are feeling adventurous.
The Minahasans have a reputation for eating anything on four legs, so you’ll need to have few scruples about the owners of the legs….or in some cases the wings.
Typical delicacies are fruit bat [paniki], forest rat [tikus hutan], and dog, which is known locally as RW — short for rintek wuuk, meaning “fine hair”. And of course, pork [babi] is a great favorite — whether wild boar or more conventional pig.
Of course, one man’s delicacy is another man’s poison.
Nonetheless, in the name of research, I decided that it was important to give as many of these dishes as possible a try.
I was surprised that my local Manadonese friends felt that the true cuisine of Manado was best tested outside Manado City itself.
So, with Manadonese food in mind, we headed up the road from Manado towards Tomohon, and a small restaurant along the route, called Pemandangan (Panorama), overlooking the city.
At the Pemandangan, we took the bull by the horns and ordered dishes of RW, paniki and babi. Sadly [or perhaps it was just as well], they didn’t have tikus hutan on the menu that day.
The meat was served with white rice and delicious perkedel milu, or deep-fried corn fritters, which are a wonderful [and possibly life-saving accompaniment] with very spicy food.
Attacking the paniki first, I have to admit I am rather partial to fruit bat now and again, maybe just because the idea of savoring its black rubbery wings is so outlandish. And after all, fruit bats do live on a very healthy diet of jackfruit, tree fruit and durian so shouldn’t be at all bad for you.
Certainly spicy, a lot of the favor has to do with the sauce in which the fruit bats are slowly cooked, after being sautéed with onion, garlic, vinegar, pepper and soy sauce. Thankfully, the Pemandangan’s paniki was less spicy than that I have tasted at Beautika restaurant in Jakarta, where it is so powerful that I’m left gasping for water and wondering if I’ll survive.
That said, it can hardly be described as tender; you have to launch in with fingers and teeth to tear the flesh away from the bones, and then chew some more. The wings are a little far out on the rubbery scale, but the very dark meat of the fruit bat has an intriguing almost woody flavor to it.
Next came the babi, which I have to say went down a treat; fried and served with a copious amount of chopped chili, it was well cooked and flavorful. Also, there wasn’t a bone in sight, making it not only tasty but also easy to eat. For me, babi is still the best Manadonese dish on the menu.
Finally came the RW. Not with a little trepidation, I spooned a decent helping onto the rice already on my plate, and pushed myself to dig in — reminding myself that after all it was just meat like any other.
There didn’t seem to be any traces of “fine hair” left either, which seemed a good sign. Well, after several helping just to be sure, I do have to say that I thought RW was just a little too much on the tough side, with too many small bones, and lacking in any particularly distinctive favor.
Maybe they just haven’t used to right recipe, which I’m told should also include marinating for several days in the local (and of course very strong) alcohol to make the meat tender.
Not content with tasting the cuisine, on the following day we went one step further, and paid a morning visit to Tomohon’s traditional market.
A hive of activity and open every day of the week, Tomohon’s market is even less for the faint-hearted than the cuisine.
There you can see where these wild and weird dishes come from, with displays of dead and alive dogs, together with pigs, rats and bats and even the odd snake at the weekend if you’re “lucky”.
When we visited, there was also a huge four-meter-long python on display, fetching I was told Rp 30,000 [US$3.30] a kilogram — quite a fair price it seemed to me.
I felt a little disappointed that I hadn’t had a chance to try python, as the meat looked interesting and not at all fatty, and with few bones. But that experience will have to wait for my next visit.