Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Wuzzup Dawg!

(Originally published in 2008)

n the far northeast corner of the island of Sulawesi, there is a quiet little place called Menado. Few westerners know of it, and few Indonesians have been there, but it boasts one of the largest marine reserves in the world and better diving than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It also holds some interesting experiences for the brave souls willing to venture into the culinary unknown.

This particular morning, I am awakened bynothing. No sound but faint voices in the distance and the crash of waves. It takes a minute, but I come to realize there is no cantor on a loud-speaker chanting Islamic prayers. Menado is predominantly Christian and the daily sounds of the mosque up the street are conspicuously missing here.

I am told that today is special in that I am to be treated to a couple of Menado delicacies. I am both leery and excited. In my travels, when I have been told these very things, I have been treated to cobra blood, monkey brains, locusts, and fried termites. Not to say that I didn't enjoy them, but there is always the initial revulsion and wave of nausea that I have to overcome. It takes quite a bit of discipline to focus my mind and forget the source of item.

I have a personal policy that if anyone offers me something to eat or drink that they value highly, I am obliged to try it with the sole exception being if I believe it will cause me personal harm. One can not learn a culture and understand a people if one is not willing to partake fully with them.

Today, my adventure will be cap tikus (CHUP-tee-koos, lit. kiss of the mouse) and erway. The term is very old and most Indonesians now know what it is, but I am blissfully ignorant and for all I know, erway is a local fruit.

My host takes me for a short walk to a spot that is more or less like a commons shared by several families. In the center is a large vat covered with a rubber tarp and a maze of bamboo pipes coming from the top. The bamboo is a little over an inch in diameter and there are about 20 lengths joined together to form a rough coil ending in a spout with a good number of empty bottles nearby. My interest is piqued! It's a still! This is going to be fun!

Looking around I see a very large pile of coconuts, over six feet high, with the tops cut off. I inquire of my host who informs me that we are going to enjoy cap tikus, which is distilled from pure coconut milk. As I observe the precious drops coming from the spout, I see that the first bottle is only a third full, and that there are about 20 bottles around. This tells me it's going to be a long process. The vat holds easily 20 gallons and will produce roughly 20 liters.

Several of the women are busy cooking. Some are making steamed rice, others vegetable stir fry, and still others are cooking erway. I sneak a peak. The aroma is exciting and thankfully, it appears to be some form of meat. The cook informs me that it is very spicy as she throws a handful of chilis into the mix. I see bay leaf and anise and other spices I don't immediately recognize sitting on the counter. Perhaps this time, the delicacy is in the sauce and not in the source.

I join the circle of men and begin talking with them. They are talking to each other in the Menado language and to me in a mish-mash of English and Bahasa Indonesia. One offers me a bottle and a glass. It is cap tikus, he says. It is translucent, but cloudy. I pour out a shot and smell it. The aroma is somewhat like absinth, but with pepper overtones. There are very earthy sub-notes and an overall tropical flair. At first taste, it is smooth and slightly bitter. There is no overwhelming alcohol bite, like I expected from moonshine. Again, there is a subtle anise flavor and the earthiness, but also a very strong "wild" taste, like deer or wild boar. I search for something to compare it to, but nothing comes to mind. It is truly unique.

The men are looking at me with apprehension. I describe my experience to the host, who says that this is a special preparation, not like what we will drink later. This version takes over a week to prepare. I inquire what is done to this version that is different. In the back of my head I hear that voice saying I don't want to know the answer, and sure enough, I don't. This version is poured over a fetal deer and allowed to sit for a week or more while the flavors blend (there's that wave of nausea again). I struggle but manage to nod my appreciation. By the third shot, they could have filtered it through elephant dung and I wouldn't have cared.

The day is spent discussing my travels and impressions of Indonesia. Talk ranges through independence from The Netherlands, World War II and the oil/logging/mineral boom here. I am asked a number of times about my thoughts on Indonesian women and my enthusiasm never fails to elicit a laugh. They are very curios why a bule would want to leave America when so many are trying to go there and we discuss the effects of good marketing, even when the product fails to live up to the hype.

By sunset, we are ready to eat. Bowls and platters are laid out with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, and of course, erway. I am handed a plate, fork and spoon and ushered to the table to serve myself first and everyone makes sure that I don't skimp on the erway. I load my plate to overflowing and walk back to my chair. The food is incredible with a range of flavors and smells that are almost overwhelming.

Everyone watches anxiously as I taste the erway. It is a red meat with small bones cooked in oil and spiced until my eyes water and I break out into a sweat. The entire audience is entertained as my face turns beet red. Not that the heat bothers me. I was raised on jalapenos and have enjoyed Thai and curry for many years. This is particularly hot, but not so that I can't eat it.

The erway is greasy, but not annoyingly so. It is cooked nearly to the point of being fried, but not quite. I detect soy sauce, bay, anise, and a spice that is almost minty. There are copious chilis tangled up in the matrix. I muse that it would be perfect with fresh mushrooms, which are impossible to find here, and perhaps some bell pepper and red onion. The crowd is pleased that I enjoy it and react excitedly when I ask if I may have more.

We wash the whole affair down with an ocean of cap tikus. The children wander off to watch TV and the women clear the dishes. I offer to help, but am firmly told to sit. My head is beginning to swim from the liquor, but the buzz is not quite like any other I have had. My eyes have a hard time focusing and I feel distinctly drunk, but not debilitated. Fortunately I am walking a block to the house. I yawn deeply, and a couple of the men laugh and point. One says that the cap tikus is working since I am ready to sleep.

Eventually, I stand and make ready to leave. There is a round of hand-shaking and two or three of the single women give me the double kiss on the cheek. Obviously, they wish to leave an impression, and it works.

As I start to leave, I stop and remind the host that I still don't know what erway is. He asks if I enjoyed it and I say of course! I can hardly walk I am so full! He explains that R.W. (err weh) stands for two words in the Menado language that translate as "small head." He smiles broadly, obviously full of pride at his hosting success.


I look puzzled.


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