Shocking: Brad tries the chef’s special at the Tomohon market, the most macabre meat market in Indonesia, but even he did not expect to see this on his plate.
Note: This article contains foods of Indonesia that are not common in the Western World. If you are offended by other cultures, are strictly vegetarian, or simply want to remain blissfully unaware of where meat comes from, this article is not for you.
In Search of Bizarre Foods
Tomohon Traditional Meat Market, Sulawesi- My mission to debunk perhaps the most notorious travel myth, live monkey brains, has brought me through 8 Indonesian islands to one of the most remote places on earth. I had been through dirty back-alley markets serving some of the strangest animals and dishes I’ve ever seen to find the epicenter of bizarre foods. I was excited but what I was about to see was shocking beyond belief.
It is here in Tomohon, Sulawesi where the local Minhasan people are said to eat anything with four legs but the tables and chairs. This might be the only place on earth with fewer food taboos than China, and likely the only place in Indonesia where monkey is still a chef’s special. What I found was raw was and grizzly.
Ancient Traditions Survive
Tomohon is perched in the hills outside of Manado, Sulawesi, in a region with the highest density of Christians in Indonesia. Weird traditional beliefs are still thriving in parts of Sulawesi because Christian faith has been the least oppressive of the imperialistic religions, so the culture is a mix of Christianity with ancient beliefs and customs. In many Muslim areas, historical beliefs have been mostly eradicated.
Rats, Rats Everywhere
Rats are welcome, in fact encouraged at this market. This is “bush meat” at its most refined, almost everything here was found running around the forest yesterday, and indigenous people travel here from all over the region to show off whatever odd animals they’ve found in the forest. On this mysterious island, hot dog takes on an entirely new connotation.
This food is completely organic, free-range, antibiotic free, locally-sourced and farm-to-table. That’s good, right?
Vendors come from far and wide to showcase their live animals
The Traditional Market
At first glance, this appears to be no different than a typical traditional market. The parking lot is clogged with shared vans and walking vendors selling everything from ice cream and candy to plastic toys and fresh flowers. The front of the market has colorful displays of colorful fruit and pungent spices. But this facade masks a secret.
Flamboyant displays of fresh chilis illuminate the streets of Sulawesi
Everything on Four Legs
As we turn deeper into the thriving central market, the stark difference smacks us in the face. The pungent smells of death fill our noses, burning hair, decaying meat, blood and human sweat. Hordes of flies enjoy an unimaginable feast. The raucous excitement builds the closer we get to the action.
Animals still convulsing in pools of their own warm blood, burning alive in the fires of flame-throwers singing all of their hair off. Saturday is the day the snake vendors come from the villages with their fresh catch, and there is exhilaration in the air. Vendors are welcoming and love to stir the emotions.
These decapitated pig heads are proudly displayed in their own juices
These are not your garden variety rats. They taste just like Kentucky Fried Rabbit.
The Pet Section
The dog area was the most difficult part to see.
Mangy dogs packed so tightly in the cage, yelping and struggling to find a spot big enough to sit down. The puppy dogs cowering with long, pleading faces that tug at your heart strings. Their expressions briefly glow when the cage flies open from a new order, but the optimism is short-lived. They know this is the end for them, patiently taking their last breaths. This must’ve been what Nazi gas chambers were like. As they yelp hysterically, they are bludgeoned on the back of the head with a heavy wooden club to crush their skulls. The cages go silent. Many die with the first blow, but some are still twitching minutes later after repeated beatings.
Pre-roasted dogs showing off their good side
Saturdays are extra special because the snake vendors come to town
Vampire bats: the tongues are the best part if you can stomach the site of them
The Dangers of Bush Meat
Bush meat has long been villainized in western culture as the scapegoat for mankind’s most notorious diseases. The biggest issue is the questionable sourcing animals. Eating here requires a certain degree of trust in the vendors. These vendors don’t know the first thing about the science of food safety. They just know that if they don’t do what they did last week something will go horribly wrong.
Although there is risk in eating bush meat, a line of locals is a positive sign that they are selling reasonably safe food. Their lifelong reputation as a food vendor is tested every day. The entire family business could come crashing down with one small slip-up. Here, food violations are not enforced by the government, but with reputation and the rumor mill.
The best parts of these dogs have been picked-through, leaving only entrails and the less tasty bits
Fine Dining in Tomohon
If you want to eat the more exotic dishes in Tomohon, you must pick your animals at the market and bring them to the restaurants. Walk around and ask the vendors what makes their rats or vampire bats better — there is a fine art to preparing and selling superior rats. With the hair burned off they are easier to transport and cook– just toss them in the back seat and drive off. It is a funny sight to see families carrying bags of dead animals into a nice restaurant.
Dogs are reserved for special occasions since they are more costly than other animals, so it is less broadly consumed than other animals. My driver loves to eat dogs, explaining that they taste like monkey, but also has several as pets. He sees no contradiction as nobody would dare eat a pet dog. He feels better that these dogs come from Muslim areas where dogs are not kept as pets.
They prefer very spicy meals here, likely to cover up the taste of noxious organs and any unfresh meat.
I did not finish the hot dog platter, so they asked me if I wanted to take it home. I joked that, back in the US, they are called doggie bags because the leftovers are fed to the dogs. Here, it is very different.
Paniki: an exotic food dish made with bat, coconut, curry and spices. So good!