A Nation of Boutique Farmers
Travelling with my close friends, Chef Palm Amatawet and Renato Domini of Asia World Travel, we planned to spend a few days in Lombok immersing ourselves in the everyday eating habits of the locals. The “kick” in our trip was a discovery we made about cooking in Lombok. Although similar local ingredients are used – such as shrimp paste, chilli, candlenut and galangal – each dish has its own twist, which creates a unique flavour.
When we headed towards Autore Pearl Farm comparisons to Sideman in East Bali were inevitable. The volcanic soil renders the landscape dry, making life tough for farmers. As a chef, I was looking forward to my visit to the pearl farm, as I am often offerd pearl meat have never been quite sure of its culinary value.
Arriving to the clear waters of Teluk Nara, we had a look at where the pearls of Autore are grown. While traditionally the choice for mature women, these pearls are reaching new markets due to innovative modern designs. And with an industry focusing on sustainable aquaculture, not one part of the process is wasted. They also provide a secure income for the employees, as the demand for pearls in on the up.
It seemed only natural after our visit that food should be back on the agenda so we accepted an invitation to visit Ibu Atik at her home in Desa Bayan. I really appreciated how Indonesians are able to welcome strangers into their houses. It was an honour to be able to undertake a quick cooking course with Ibu Atik.
And so with a notebook full of ideas, I was ready for some downtime at Santosa Villas and Resort, Senggigi. The family style compound, with its large pools and comfortable rooms, was the perfect stopover before we embarked on another culinary the next day – taking a closer look at production. Just as the expert preparation of food creates the magic of a dish, the same also applies to how it is you basic ingredients are not of the highest quality.
Travelling along the coast from Pringgabaya, our next stop was The Homeless People’s Farm, which began as a university project. Pak Habibi, its director, extended the project to provide families in the region in the regular income by producing crops and aquaculture. This is not an NGO or a government project. With twenty farming families and the addition of itinerant workers during the wet season, including reformed prisoners – who Pak Habibi assured me are quizzed before they are allowed to join the farm – production is in full swing. Income generated from the farm returns to the workers, facilitating the building of a school, the sinking of a bore for water or the religious instruction classes that take place at night.
Because it is not a project run by an organization, it is possible for Pak Habibi to invite outsiders in. Recently an International School came by and taught the local kids how to swim. This form of exchange gets people to the core of understanding what is it to be a subsistence farmer. I have a great deal of respect for people committed to their ideas, and Pak Habibi is a man inspiring others on a daily basis while creating a sustainable industry that is catching on not just in Bali but in other areas as well. The sourcing of high-quality produce from local growers can only expand as people seek to eat produce grown closer to their homes. I’d love to see this trend turn into a booming trade and be embraced by larger cities like Jakarta.
Next was Tanjung Luar, the largest, noisiest fish market in Lombok. Most of the trade here is completed by 6am, and the stock distributed across the island. The bulk of it reaches the tummies of Lombok’s citizens by lunchtime.
As we headed south, we stopped to have a look at some family-run salt farms that use traditional methods to make vast quantities of table salt. Here in the village of Kedome, salt farmers work with wind powered pumps to bring water from the ovean to their farms. During the high tides, the seawater fills the fields naturally. It’s seasonal work, and production can reach approximately haf a ton for 200 square meters of salt pan. With each 50kg dsck fetching about Rp.30.000, they’re definitely making money, especially with the governement snapping them up for iodine to alleviates health problems.
With their simple technology and needs-based products, these industries are creating win-win situations for Lombok’s subsistence farmers and fishermen, allowing the traditional businesses to survive and thrive. I believe that a gentle increase in tourism would be a benefit rather than a blight. As Pak Habibi says, the people of Lombok do not need to be told to change; they need to be supported in order to be more successful.
Our night in Selong Belanak proved to me how the people’s pride in their traditions and culture is all too apparent. Rox Harvey, along with her husband Lau Fathurrahman, owns the Sempiak Villas. They have created a paradise in southern Lombok that does not blemish the breathtaking natural vistas that stretch along a pristine shore dotted with hilly outerpos that seem to tumble into the sea. The area is rich from the soil and the sea.
Swiss chef Tony Foerg from Sempiak’s Laut Biru Restaurant waxed lyrical about his passion for transferring the produce in his garden to the plates served at Laut Biru. Everything from bright leafy vegetables to the distinctive. Thai basil was thriving under the gardener’s care. Also, local fishermen negotiate the sale of their cathces daily, and they have a connection to both the land and the sea, which influences the way these dedicated men approach their work.
Upon our return to Sempiak, a special surprise awaited us. The ladies of the village, led by Ida Mahmudah, were all dressed in full Sasak traditional clothing. They presented us with a five-course five-star meal consisting of local dishes, including bebetok and manuk ragi rajang. Later on, a traditional rice cake dessert, served with coconut and dark Lombok palm sugar, wrapped up an increadible meal. I may be happy to just sit on a wooden stool at a roadside warung, but give me a location like Laut Biru and you’ll get no complaints. The next day, Rox decided to hold a regular cooking class, which showcased traditional Sasak dishes. It makes total sense to promote their cuisine, as they have generations of knowledge at their fingertips, an abundance of ingredients, and the opportunity to redefine the time-honoured cuisine of the area.
Our next destination was a shrimp paste factory. Or so I thought, because it turned out to e a one-woman operation. Ibu Faoziah purchases 50kg of dried shrimps at the market, soaks them for a week and then produces the paste by pounding the mixture with a pestle that is almost equal in size to the lady herself. She then lays them out in rows to dry and turn into chocolate brownie-coloured blocks of salty goodness. Dried prawns cost Rp. 20,000 per kilogram, and the 50 per cent shrinkage rate after the salting and frying processes produces 200 blocks of paste per day, which sell for Rp. 5,000 each. Smart, sustainable, and yes, salty.
Salt and sustainable profit were also on the agenda for a family of duck egg farmers in the village of in Perara, where they produce around 120 eggs each day. The cooked ones are sold in a warung for Rp. 3,000 and are buried in ash and then Indonesian Rupiah are buried in ash and then smoked after fifteen days. Raw ones, meanwhile, are rolled in salt and nestled for fifteen days in burnt rice husks. They have a shelf life of up to six months and are sold for Rp. 2,500. Again, smart, sustainable and salty.
Everything that we saw was interconnected. The salt for the eggs and the pastes comes courtesy of the salt farmers, the smoked and raw eggs are for the homes and the many warung on the island, while the shrimp paste contributes to the flavours of the dishes served across Lombok. These are made from village chickens, locally reared beef, fresh caught fish and home grown vegetables. Apart from the pearls, everything else is produced to meet the simple needs of the people on the island and to feed them. If this was Europe, Lombok may well be known as a boutique island industry.