Manado: Culinary Hallucinogens
There is eating a meal and thinking, “Wow, this is good.” You can logically explain to yourself what it is about the food, be it appearance or taste, that appeals to you.
Then there is eating and knowing, with every bite, that this is one of the best meals of your life, an experience you will most likely never have again. You know the colors of the dishes are vibrant and the flavors pungent, but the pleasure is rooted deeper than that. The food awakens something within you, fills a void. Your mind is always a step behind your taste buds, the culinary equivalent of hallucinogens. So you keep eating, feeling, and seeing, but hardly thinking.
Manado, an island not too far from the Philippines, was local to the point of almost being deserted. The only tourists seemed to be (primarily German) scuba divers, since Manado’s coral reefs are said to rival Australia’s. Even the airplane food had a touch of local flair: a spicy stew of dried fish and tomatoes, coconut rice, vegetables, and a cinnamon coconut pudding. The few days we spent there were truly heaven on earth, so much that any descriptions and photographs are going to seem corny and cliched. We floated among thousands of schools of fish, slept in elevated wooden houses, and ate and ate and ate.
Part of the surreality of the entire experience had something to do with the fact that everything was decided for us. Our host, Budi, had every meal arranged in advance. Whenever we asked what we were eating, Budi responded, “Local food!” and didn’t elaborate further.
“Local food” ranged from simple (rice wrapped in banana leaves, noodles in takeout containers) to banquets the likes of which we’d never seen. Once, we sat on a porch and ate grilled meats and fish with rust brown peanut sauce sweet enough to be dessert. Grilled fish with a multitude of spices. The leanest chicken, in a thick sauce something like Adobo.
Other times we would sit down at a long table covered with a plastic tablecloth and lined with little dishes of spicy relish and boxes of tissues. The first dish would arrive, usually a whole fish, either grilled with spices or served in soupy coconut curry. We would ladle a portion onto our plates, take a bite… and then the fireworks started. At least, that’s what it felt like, all cliches aside. We took a second portion, followed by a third, only to realize that the fireworks were only beginning.
We ate “Napoleon fish,” looking like creatures from the Black Lagoon, breaking any taboos about eating tropical fish. With its soft white flesh and mild taste, the only hint that it was an ocean fish were its uncanny striped cheeks. Steamed simply in a broth of sliced ginger, scallions and shiitake mushrooms, it tasted almost like my favorite Chinese fish dish, qing zheng yu. So why did I find myself going back for fourths and fifths of the dish that was the most familiar? Not due to a lack of adventurousness or to missing Beijing, but because this was the qing zheng yu of the gods.
Unlike the often unrewarding experience of shelling crab, only to discover the lack of meat inside, the hunks of juicy white flesh could have been steak. These psychedelic crustaceans were served in curry, followed by a chili sauce.
A light seafood broth of haddock and green tomatoes.
Alongside, chili paste and a salsa of pickled peppers, onions and ginger.
At every meal there was coconut water, cloudy colored, the slivered meat looking like crumpled up tissues, but somehow still appealing. In the States we see packaged coconut water on shelves, juice boxes that say “Like sticking a straw in a coconut.” The two are completely different animals. Fresh coconut water is high in potassium and electrolytes, yes, but it has a unique sweetness with a hint of unripe acidity and seems to quench your thirst more than even water can.
We had the option of drinking our coconut water with golden brown palm sugar, the kind that comes from massive globes. (We took some home in our suitcase. They weighed as much as hand grenades)
We had to take a boat to get to this place. There were chickens running around, hummingbirds on the trees, even.
I’m done with words. Sometimes they aren’t necessary.