Saturday, August 08, 2009

All the Fun of the Fur

It being the holiday season and all, I was last week begrudgingly de-manacled from my office workstation and allowed to stumble blinkingly into the daylight for a week. After a few days of rest and relaxation on the beautiful island retreat of Lembeh, just off the north coast of Sulawesi, I headed back through Manado and up to the cooler temperatures of the hill town of Tomohon. A friend of mine has rented a shack up on the hills there in order to escape from the rat race for a few months. He hasn't quite managed to break free from the nefarious influence of rodents however but more on that later.

Tomohon itself is a rugged and scenic area and the small town centre sports a very high concentration of Catholic churches, reflecting the majority religion in the region. Maybe the men behind those mysterious smoke signals that emanate from the Vatican's chimneys whenever there is a change of pontiff should consider a member of the Tomohon clergy for the top job next time around. Another Obama moment would no doubt to the country the power of good.

Not being a Muslim area, Tomohon is also a pork lover’s dream. Cocking a snook at the H1N1 swine flu virus, I tucked into a veritable hog fest of pork satay during my trip. Bogor's governor, a man who recently banned all pigs from his city, would be at best nonplussed if he ever ventured up here.

Scoffing down mountains of swine is thirsty work however and my companion and I were soon hankering after a few shots of the old falling down water. The local supermarket did indeed stock a few bottles of imported spirits, however at over Rp.600,000 a pop, the hard stuff on offer was about four times the price of the same products in the various Jakarta duty-free shops that I frequent with worrying regularity. Admittedly, the supermarket in question also stocked a full range of the local, semi-distilled industrial solvents known as Mansion House spirits, which were undeniably a lot cheaper but one simply has to draw the line somewhere. The bottle of Mansion House Crème de Menthe on display looked particularly distressing, like some noxious mix of Sunlight washing-up liquid and a half kilogram bag of sugar.

No matter though because my companion, through extensive research and interrogation of dodgy food stall owners, had located an original source of Cap Tikus (Rat Brand), a local spirit brewed up in the jungles of North Sulawesi. We set off with empty bottles at the ready in order to replenish his supplies of this potent brew.
Cap Tikus is in fact the local Minahasan name for palm wine or palm toddy, a drink that is produced in jungles all over the world by tapping the naturally slightly alcoholic sap of the Saguer palm tree and distilling it in order to up its strength to a reassuring 40% or so.

After a brisk walk into the depths of one of Tomohon's native forests, we alighted on the Cap Tikus operation. A network of bamboo pipes ran from trees into a central hut containing various metal pots and a fire pit. It was like some tropical version of a Prohibition era moonshine still. The very friendly man in charge of operations filled our bottles for a recession busting Rp.6000 each and offered us a wee dram for the road. After decanting the brew from an old plastic flagon of Pertamina engine oil into some coconut shells we supped on the milk of paradise. Cap Tikus has a slightly eggy taste to be sure but proved to be eminently quaffable when we topped the stuff up with Sprite back at the house later.

I’m getting a trifle ahead of myself here though because our host also offered us something to eat when his partner in moonshine returned from a hunting mission into the jungle. An air rifle was slung over his shoulder and he held aloft a pack of dead rats with sticks shoved up their posteriors. "I've just caught these," he confided, grinning from ear to ear.
"Fancy a rat Mister?"
Oblivious to our hesitation, he selected one of the whole rodent satay sticks and plunged it into the fire, burning off its fur and barbecuing the wee chap until well blackened. Not wishing to appear rude (although I'm sure that the vast majority of Indonesians would think twice before chowing down on a chargrilled rat) we gingerly nibbled at a couple of the formerly furry critters. What the hell ay? You're either a vegetarian or you're not in my view. All other considerations boil down to either squeamishness or biodiversity and I doubt that rats are on the endangered list. In the event, and in line with the old cliché, the stuff tasted like chicken.

On our way home we were passed by our budding Anthony Bourdain: stripped to the waist, riding a scooter, four-year-old son perched between his knees, air rifle slung over his shoulder, Happy Mondays baseball hat stuck on his head and a bag of rats hanging off his handlebars. Alas I missed the photo opportunity. Further on down the road we came across a man blow torching a dog. When in Rome...