As the week goes on, we feast on lunches made by Madi’s wife on a single diesel fuel burner. These people have their fried tofu technique down pat. I help make sambal, the spicy Indonesian pepper paste, and Madi’s wife and mother laugh at my strange pepper crushing technique. Andrew admires the "Grandpa of Donuts" we share for dessert.
We learn these puffy crisps we've been enjoying so much for the last while are actually not rice crackers but made of fish. Fish! Compressed, rolled up, sliced, and then fried "swimming on top of oil!" Madi declares, happy the crackers retain their swimming capabilities.
Together, we gather and prepare black fruit in coconut milk - a sweet concoction of a chewy fruit stewed with sugar and coconut milk, and if you so desire, topped with condensed milk. We spend hours gathering the fruit, chopping it open, and popping it out of its husk. We work as a team, chatting and enjoying each other's company through the process. After traveling islands for two and a half years, I can confidently say anything stewed in coconut milk and sugar will taste outstanding.
After lunch, we spend the day relaxing, chatting, playing and just enjoying existence with our friends on their shade hut. Madi and his family go through our phone from first until last picture asking questions about all the places we’ve traveled, our families, our friends, and our lives back in the U.S.
We play a game with Madi in which he can predict the number we are thinking of, and Andrew spends the next two days trying to figure out the Algebraic equation to explain the trick. “You have a big brain, don’t you?” Madi confirms for Andrew.
Madi challenges Andrew to an arm wrestling contest, but then instructs Andrew to “let Madi win” for the purposes of photos. Little did Madi know Andrew couldn’t have beat Madi if he tried anyway. Did you see the way Madi scaled that palm tree? He’s a strong little guy. Madi’s brother-in-law was up for a real challenge, and he easily tipped Andrew sideways with little effort. Everyone found this to be rather amusing.
Madi gets tired of carting Andrew around on the back of his own bike, so he teaches Andrew to drive a motorcycle with a clutch. Soon, we are zipping around, following behind Madi on tours further and further afield. We explore acres and acres of palm oil palms.
We view the palm plantations, ride on roads so thick with soft sand that it seems to be knee deep snow. He takes us deep into a real rainforest jungle, not cleared for tourist ease. I am stung by a fire ant, while Andrew is stung by five. Here and there, Madi shows us jungle plants commonly used for medicine. He enlists the help of both Andrew and his brother-in-law to pull one up by its root. “This one will cause mosquitos to stop biting you, your blood will not taste good anymore.” Madi explains. Andrew declares I need that one, Mosquitos love me. Madi nods, “Yes, and it will make you strong in the spring bed.” Madi elbows Andrew in the ribs. I laugh.
This is just par for the course. Earlier this same day, Madi and Andrew took a trip to the local medicine man for a combination of raw duck egg yolk, ginger, and honey to make Andrew “more powerful, if you know what I mean.” *wink-wink, nudge-nudge* Only after they drank the thing up did Madi inform Andrew the medicine man was a little worried to give him the drink, “He said he’s never given the drink to a tourist before. I told him you would be fine.” Madi explains.
“You think raw duck eggs are like raw chicken eggs?” Andrew asks me thereafter, mildly concerned about food poisoning.
Andrew is strong now.
With all the work Madi’s wife is doing to feed us, I decide I want to try my hand at cooking for them. We make a plan for lunch the next day, I offer to make “American Soto Ayam.”
Remember what happened the last time I tried to cook for friends? I thought lasagne would be a crowd pleaser! In a desperate attempt to recover, I served Oreos. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice; this time, I have a winning strategy.
The next morning, I place a whole chicken in the steamer pot and get it going until tender.
I pull out a series of ingredients: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, coriander, red peppers, purple onions, shrimp paste, rice…
At this point, you might be saying “But Leslie! What exactly is American about this Chicken Soup?”
It’s made by an American. I am American.
Once the chicken is properly steamed, I add all my Indonesian spices to the water and let it all simmer into a flavorful broth. I roast the red peppers, toast the shrimp paste, and puree the mix into a sambal that is slightly different than the sambal I made the day before with Madi’s wife. “Why don't you make it the same as their sambal? They didn't roast their peppers!” Andrew says.
“Nope,” I say emphatically, “I'm not going to make that mistake, either.” You see, I have a theory: the American Soto Ayam must be made to their palate of flavors, but it cannot seek to mimic their food. If I aim to copy their food, it will just be a poor substitute; if I aim to let them try something new they will be grossed out by the lasagne, and we haven’t found Oreos in months! I’d be in big trouble.
Before long, I have my “American” Chicken Soup and sambal. We gather up a basket of Strawberry Fanta sodas (an Indonesian favorite) chilled in Sonrisa’s fridge, and I carefully hand the soup over the rail to Andrew standing in Grin. We had invited everyone over to Sonrisa, but they decided there were too many people to comfortably eat lunch. How many people? Approximately the whole neighborhood. We motor our way up the estuary, I place a large towel on my shoulder and hold the the stainless steel steamer pot between my ear and my right arm as Madi picks me up on the motorcycle. I hope the soup doesn’t slop out and into my hair!
Arriving at Madi’s house, everyone smiles with warm welcome and a little trepidation. I open the pot and the smell of steaming broth billows out. Everyone peeks into the pot, curious what they might find there. Dishes, spoons, water glasses are doled out and I spoon some up for everyone.
“How did you learn to make Soto Ayam?” Madi asks, amazed. I think I changed his whole concept of me in one fail swoop. I don’t have babies, and yet, somehow I can still make soup! “And sambal, too!?” I credit my culinary mentors met along the way, John in Kei Islands, Iksan and Ones in Sumbawa. “Wow! Great job.”
Soon, various neighbors are joining us on the shade deck, and with each one, Madi says “You have to try this! American Soto Ayam!” He announces with flourish then laughs as each of them find it’s mostly the same as their Soto Ayam.