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Arnold Arboretum

Food

May 11, 2011 by Cam Webb

A starch-based diet!

From the profound (or at least academic) to the mundane (but oh so important): food. They say an army marches on its stomach—well, so does a research team. We’ve been trying to keep the food plentiful and tasty, and so far there have been few complaints. But there are serious limitations on what you can eat when you are five hours away from the nearest village, which is itself a small outpost in a lesser-developed part of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Of course, the menu includes rice three times a day, but perhaps only I see this as an occasional shortcoming. Indonesians are devoted to rice almost in a spiritual way, and any meal without rice is simply a snack, soon to be complimented by a real meal centered on rice. Rice itself is a complex culinary entity in Indonesia, with up to a ten-fold difference in price between broken, old rice and fresh, aromatic, long grain rice with a pedigree. I bought a cheap 17 kg bag of rice (for $14) on one supply run and faced, if not outright mutiny, then serious disdain: “industrial mess-hall rice,” they called it. After that, I left the purchasing up to Acun, who is our logistics expert.

Our daily coffee-break in the plot. Is that coffee, or used engine oil?

Any meal has two parts: the rice (nasi) and ‘what goes with the rice’ (lauk, or sometimes, confusingly, sayur, which means ‘vegetable’ even if the topping includes meat). In most Indonesian meals, except at fancy urban restaurants, the ratio of nasi to lauk is between five-to-one and ten-to-one. This is of course much more healthy and balanced (think food pyramid) than an average US meal where there is usually more lauk than nasi, or its equivalent.

Our lauk in the forest consists primarily of dried, salted fish (including mackerel, barracuda, and shark) and instant noodles—when a supply load has just arrived, though, there may also be some boiled cassava leaves or potatoes. It’s not uncommon to have a ‘triple starch’ meal: rice, noodles, and potatoes! On their own, this could be pretty tedious, but we always have a spicy sambal, or chili paste, to go with the meal. There are hundreds of varieties of sambal in Indonesia, some based on fiendishly hot, fresh, tiny green chilies (cabe rawit), some based on dried red chillies. Endro has been making a sweet sambal from central Java that he calls sambal brengsek, or ‘<insert favorite profane word> sambal!’ One of my own favorites is a milder, fried, red sambal. The recipe goes something like this:

“Soak dried red chilies in water until soft. Grind to a pulp in pestle and mortar. Add chopped garlic and shallots and continue grinding. Scoop into lots of hot oil in a wok, and fry until soft. Add salt (and MSG). Add twice the paste’s volume of water, some sugar, and some tamarind fruit, then simmer until thick.”

I do love good food, wherever I can find it. But I am also fortunate in being able to enjoy our rather basic dishes of rice plus something salty and fried and spicy, three times a day. Perhaps it’s just that everything tastes better when eaten out-of-doors. And of course, there’s always plenty of great local coffee.


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