Spicy Sumatran Ritual Food

In 2012, we took our first child, Javier to meet the family in Kerinci, mid-west Sumatra. It is located at the foothills of the Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia’s fourth highest mountain and active volcano. It is also home to the Sumatran tiger and hundreds-year old tea plantations.

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While we there Javier was given a naming ceremony and his first hair-cut. This ceremony is called Aqikah. All children are given this ceremony. It goes a little like this:

Kerinci is a tight-knit community and syncretic mix of tolerant, moderate Islam and animist beliefs. When Jon’s dad, a leader of the community, put the call-out for the Aqikah, the entire community came to call in turn with sacks of watercress (salada air), water spinach (kangkung), chats potatoes (kentang). With an expected audience of a couple of hundred, some serious ‘prepping’ as its known by chefs, is called for.

First, there is the cooking for the (female) cooks to ensure they have the endurance to last the distance of marathon cooking. The room is filled with neighbours and great aunts who pick leaves from the kangkung and chop the kentang. The mood is light and cheerful as they joke and swat each other with kangkung stalks. The food prepared tonight is shared only amongst themselves.

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The next day comes the preparations for the Aqikah proper. Three goats are sacrificed observing proper Islamic law, making it halal. About 40kg (Yes, FORTY) of beef is delivered. The men carry in sacks of supplies on their shoulders, climb trees to fetch jackfruit and coconuts, and prepare the fires and the outside shelters where the food will be cooked.

The curries, goat (gulai kambing) and caramelised beef curry (rendang) that the region is renowned for are prepared first with the grating of about 200 coconuts using a type of drilling machine. Roni is the master coconut-driller, comandeering the coconut machine for about 4 hours non-stop (he later laid down on the floor, exhausted, for a further 4 hours).

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The coconut is then tirelessly pressed through a sieve after soaking in hot water to extract the coconut milk. This is the key to any good Sumatran curry, along with the spices; cumin, coriander, nutmeg, chilli, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, toasted coconut, cinnamon sticks, star anise and kaffir lime leaf (keep calm, recipe to come).

With bamboo spoons bigger than oars, the curries are stirred and let to simmer for about 4-5 hours on a fire made from cinnamon wood. The meat becomes tender, and thankfully, unrecognisable as goat.

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Sometimes two ‘spoons’ are required.

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Guests come bearing gifts of batik cloth envelopes with white/red and brown rice and a coconut. In return, they take home a small plastic bag of curry.

Next comes the preparation of the animist offering referred to by the Islamic term, berkah. This includes banana wrapped rice and meat steamed in long bamboo tubes, bananas and watermelon. The offerings stay in the same place for the entire day.

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An Islamic prayer is said. The hair is cut. More food is eaten. There are endless rounds of guests, handshakes, plates of rice and curry are passed up the line to the newest guests who sit on Arab carpets the size of an entire room.

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Our son spends the whole day playing chasies with the kids and will probably chiefly remember the day as the time when his cheeks were pinched by a couple of hundred people.

Then, lastly, comes a tiny bit of washing up to do.

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