There is an old biblical saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life,” which is a wise and heartfelt philosophy. That is, until you become the subject of such efforts! On my recent holiday to Belitung, our tour guide made us learn how to fish and farm for our supper with disastrous results.
“I will take you to a small village for a cooking lesson. You will learn to make the tastiest Indonesian dishes, better than the restaurants.”
We were excited! But when our car stopped by a barren slope and we were ordered to get out, we became hesitant. Why were we stopping here? There was nothing; no buildings; no kitchen; no restaurant… Nothing, except a skinny, tanned guy in t-shirt and shorts with bare feet, waiting for us.
Teach a girl to fish
The skinny guy revealed that we would be fishing for tonight’s supper. I was none-too-pleased by the surprise. Although it was mid-afternoon, the sun was still mercilessly bright. We followed our guide for ten-minutes walking through dirt and grass, past shoddy houses, uphill then downhill, and around a bend until we arrived at a quiet riverside.
Primitive sticks with plastic twine and a clumsily tied hook at the end were handed around. The guide showed us how to thread a small fish to the end of the hook, and then we dunked our lines into the river. The activity kept our attention for all of ten minutes, whilst we posed for photographs, but it was terribly hot and no one in the group cared for fishing.
I quickly abandoned my rod and looked around. The place was really the epitome of being rundown. We were sat on a rickety pier, barely held together by a couple of strategically placed nails. Two old and faded-blue chug boats floated like turds in the water. Piles of rubbish – remnants of past parties or perhaps washed-up river dregs – dotted the landscape. It was not the kind of place anyone would wish to hang out.
A small local boy, as dark as ebony, motioned me to come over. He stood by one of the rubbish heaps, close to where the water dipped. As I approached, he pulled out one of the largest shells I’ve ever seen. The shell had a peach-glazed centre and was about the size of a human skull! I soon observed that there were dozens of these beautiful shells along the bank and I carefully selected the nicest one to take home with me. That was my catch for the day.
After 90 minutes of dawdling by the river and successfully catching nothing (except a shell), we headed back to the car.
“Guess we’ll be going hungry tonight” was the group mantra, as we tried to laugh down our disappointment. We toppled back into the car, desperate for air-conditioning, and headed to the next stop.
Fresh from the farm
After a few blissful minutes in our cool car, we pulled up at a farm. Our host invited us to wander freely and pick any of the fresh vegetables we liked from the paddock. Farm is probably too-kind of an expression for where we were. The place was decrepit! Faded, ripped tarpaulin meekly waved from wooden posts in the humid air. Row after row of green and brown lines met our gaze across the horizon. The vegetables looked more like dry, half-eaten weeds at first sight.
We carefully made our way amidst the crops and inspected the various vines. We discovered a patch of shiny, purple eggplants – our oasis! Our guide took a large blade and helped us to cut eight or so eggplants off from the vine. We also discovered spring onions and lettuce, handfuls of which we pulled out from the dry earth.
“Alright everyone, now it’s time to cook” our tour guide exclaimed, and we again bundled into the car.
We drove to a primitive house in the village where we were warmly welcomed by a large family. Freshly printed posters advertising Indonesia’s BEST cooking classes were pinned to the wall. Things were looking on the up! We drank the cool water offered to us and then an older woman escorted us to the kitchen out the back.
A recipe for wacky
Picture the scene – three cement walls roughly painted off-white with two flimsy benches as furniture and a natural dirt floor. At one end of the space was a campfire for cooking, where a greasy wok and metal spoon lurked. The only other kitchen utensils were a single cutting board and one, small knife. To top it off, our so-called cooking teacher couldn’t speak a word of English!
Fortunately, my friend and I were chefs in our own right. With our tour guide acting as translator, we immediately started shouting out orders for water, chilli, garlic and spices. We had the family members running at our every whim. Carefully sharing the knife and cutting board between us, we diced all our vegetables and mixed a spicy sambal using a mortar and pestle we found outside.
At one point, we were even called to improvise and used a leaf to help crush cloves of garlic before dicing. The old woman helped us wash the vegetables in a basin as well as light the fire so we could cook.
Two elderly man wandered into the cramped kitchen during our cooking-fiesta. They began playing music on their lutes whilst the rest of our group danced and sang along. It was chaotic merriment!
We had fun preparing two different eggplant dishes and stir-fried lettuce with spring onions; the fruits of our earlier labours.
Dinner is served
After an hour of cooking, we sat down at the communal table feeling hungry, hot and sweat; ready to dig into the meagre portion of food we had prepared.
Fortunately, our host surprised us with some previously prepared fish curry, to accompany the vegetables.
I am happy to report, no one got food poisoning. It was one of the wackiest yet most memorable “cooking lessons” I have ever experienced. In actual fact, our Belitung guide was right about one thing. Our cooking lesson was better than the restaurants. It was the best meal we ate in Belitung, although I put that down to my cooking skill, rather than the supposed fresh farm produce or cooking instruction.
My advice to Belitung: you’re not ready to start offering cooking lessons just yet. Work on improving your restaurant offering first.