Trying to Avoid Ingesting Parasites
11.12.2014 - 31.12.2014
“Here try this”, a lady suggests as she hands me what looks like a rice cake/large cracker while at a food market in Jakarta.
I bite into it slowly, nearly breaking my teeth which amuses the group of onlookers greatly. They watch on as I chew the hard biscuit slowly and cautiously, as they deliberate on the correct translation.
“…calamari," they chirp.
My throat closes up and the saliva dries as I swallow a chunk of dried out, mushed up calamari, pounded into cake form. I smile awkwardly and give them a nod, like “tis’ as good a calamari cake i’ve ever had”. I then hold it awkwardly between my thumb and finger, extended out from my body like an offensive smelling rag. I let it dangle in my hand while I look at some meatball-esque objects, like i’m far too intrigued and far too busy right now to take another bite. I’m going to save that puppy until later.
I have arrived in Indonesia with the hope, nay the expectation, of sampling some of the culinary delights of the Dutch East Indies with the acceptance that, unlike say, an Italian snackcursion, this one could have dire consequences.
As I round the corner and toss the calamari cake into the bin I reevaluate my tactics. Without a doubt a good snackcursion, a food focussed holiday, requires a little curiosity and adventure but also a peppering of pure logic, it’s a delicate balance. It is the acknowledgement that the brain needs to be party to all culinary decisions. To eat or not to eat? Will this make me violently ill? Is it worth it?
Over the course of my travels I have only had food poisoning twice. It is the ultimate act of treachery. The first culprit was a Bosnian cevapi, a local ‘kebab’ type dish with meat and sour cream, in retrospect it sounds a little iffy, but it was delicious. Cut to, me in an Islamic graveyard (1000s of white stick markers swirling around me) stumbling to find a way out to avoid spewing on the grave of a Bosnian war hero.
The second time was in Morocco. My guess is I ingested something horrendous over the course of 3 days in the desert with no toilets, showers and partaking in the local custom of communal eating from one plate. Just a guess. I have vivid recollections of resting my face on the cool bathroom tiles of an Agadir hotel, looking closely at the grime and pubic hairs I was sharing the floor with.
As a result I am a little cautious, wary of what may bring me undone. So naturally I arrived in Jakarta prepared to wash my hands, take tablets, drink water, use hydration salts and be an all round responsible traveller and sanitise, sanitise, sanitise.
Upon arrival, within minutes, I went in search of food. As expected of any Asian city I traipsed down broken footpaths, stepped over giant holes, jumped over mystery piles of goo and danced around the sidewalk edges, entering oncoming traffic to go around street sellers in order to find food. This urban hike was in search of a meal, which was to be undertaken at the first decent looking restaurant — clean, open, lit, other customers, electricity, walls etc.
Eureka, a building. We went in blind to every other aspect and sat down ready to start this exciting, but ever so careful, food adventure.
It turned out to be a Padang Restaurant, the very popular cuisine of the Sumatran city. As we sat at a dirty old plastic table, 12 dishes were immediately placed on the table in front of us, distributed from a pile like frisbees. The spread consisted of an assortment of rice, beef rendang or old shoe leather unsure at this point, chicken pieces in sauce, eggs floating in sauce, prawns and baby eggs floating in sauce, just plain ole bowls of sauce.
* meeep! meeep! meeep! *
The alarm bells start a dull ring in my ears. I would have preferred to have ordered al a carte and maybe avoided anything too rich on the first night. Also there was not one dish that I would have ordered. I really don’t care for things floating in sauce.
We didn’t want to be rude as we look around and every table is digging in to their bowls of food. A quick glance around tells me that these people clearly are pleased with this offering so maybe we too should embrace it. They seem to love sauce bowls.
I inspect the meal and the surrounds with trepidation. I watch another group of diners sit down and the waiter pile up dishes and dump them on their table…then I realised all the dishes are preprepared and piled up in the corner of the restaurant.
the alarm bells are tolling just a little louder than before.
Cold food. Pre-cooked. Sitting out in the non air-conditioned room.
We were too far in, we had taken that leap, there was no going back as we sip from our dirty cup of hot tea and tentatively poke the food with a spoon.
Why are these chickens so skinny? What the hells are those balls? Are they bird eggs? Questions float around my mind as I look at the spread in front of me, wondering what I could eat. The people around us are delighted with their plate of skinny chicken bones and suckle at the sinew.
We tentatively dive in, nibble, poke, lick, prod. I tried to swallow the deep feeling of regret and drown out the alarm bells with the cleanest pieces of beef rendang. I cut at the hard piece of meat with my spoon, as they don't believe in the need for knives in these parts. Every swallow felt like another step along the plank. The food was cold and indistinguishable. We poked at things and cut off bits to experiment and analyse.
hmm whats that? A few bones floating in sauce. A boiled egg - why not. Is this chrysanthemum tea? or is it just the taste of hot, reused plastic?
We felt as though we were being unappreciative so we chipped away at the food mustering the courage, or enough curiosity to try something else. As I dished myself up some more plain white rice with a little sauce from around the meat, I watched the waiting staff clear the table next to us. As they cleared the mess into one giant bowl of ebola I realised that the untouched, or rather, still aesthetically acceptable plates were returned to the serving bench in a pile with the rest. The plates with one piece of chicken left were placed onto another plate to create a new one ready to be served again.
*aoooooga! aoooooga!* Evacuate! Evacuate!
A few new servings of scraps were placed over the side where our dishes were served from. Yep, they reuse food.
We called it quits, the alarm bells were drowning out the sounds of the streets of Jakarta.
This was not a great start. This was against everything I had planned to do. Within an hour of landing i’d broken all the golden rules of the snackcursion.
It was a hot day, with a bit of luck I might sweat out the toxins… I thought as I pushed the rest of the food into the middle and stood up.
We went to pay and the whole meal of junk cost us $20 — quite a lot by Indonesian standards. As it turns out you pay by what you eat/touch which for us was practically everything as we were trying to be polite and look as though we gave it all a nudge and it was wonderful. We had left no item unprodded. There was no way were going to eat the prawns having seen the rivers, but there was also no way we weren't going to poke the balls floating in the same sauce and cut them open to see what was inside (pigeon eggs is my guess)... boom, $3.80.
I think they made their months profit it one evening.
I wandered back to the hotel with a heavy feeling of regret in the pit of my stomach or did I already have typhoid?
I returned to my room, took a probiotic and sat and waited for the apocalypse, the inevitable wave of bubonic cholera dysentery that I was sure would come and ruin my trip/kill me at any moment.
… either way Padang food. Check.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger right?
>>>Adventures in Indonesia 2014