From Toraja we're carrying home new friendships, wonderful memories, thousands of photos, a full notebook ... and rice. Bags of it. Pounds and pounds of grains red, white, and black.
Toraja is rice country, paddies carpeting valleys and marching up slopes. We arrived in the middle of the rice harvest, when some rice fields were still a lush green tipped with gold and others sported a burnt brown stubble of shorn stalks.
In Asia we eat so much rice that we often take it for granted. But to be in a rice-producing area during harvest is to be reminded of the extent to which life in much of this part of the world revolves around these little bits of starch.
On most days we managed to get out into a field or three to watch farmers and their families (or hired labor; Toraja is a relatively prosperous area, rich enough to support some hired help in the fields) cut and thresh and winnow and, finally, burn leftover dried stalks to the ground.
Like many Southeast Asians Torajaan families erect structures specifically devoted to storing rice. Their alang-alang or rice barns are architecturally similar to their tongkanan, the traditional wooden houses with dramatic upwardly bowed roofs that resemble water buffalo horns (I'll write more later about the water buffalo and Torajaan culture). Many families have more than one alang-alang, each devoted to a different type of rice (glutinous and non, white and black, maybe some red, brown) grown on the clan's land.
For much of last week we stayed in a beautiful old tongkonan built on a piece of land nestled in the bend of the Sa'dan River. Across from us, visible through our front wooden shutters, was the rice barn pictured above (one in a row of several). At night we could hear the river sing and rain made a soothing light thrumming sound on the structure's high metal roof.
At first light two roosters played dueling cock-a-doodle-doo beneath our thick floorboards -- better than an alarm clock, even though we slept fifteen or so feet above where they stood. We didn't mind, because when we rose there was strong Toraja coffee to wake us us, pitch black and aromatic, made from beans roasted by the lady of the house and so delicious that this dedicated coffee-with-milk person savored hers with just a bit of sugar.
And there was breakfast, always based on rice. Fresh white rice, harvested just two weeks before and fried into a simple nasi goreng, or glutinous white rice to eat with a rich soupy mixture of grated coconut, sambal, and a bit of water.
Perhaps our favorite breakfast featured black rice -- which is really not black-as-night black but more of a deep black-purple with spotty magenta-ish highlights. It's a fantastic long-grained variety, full-flavored and nutty.
The flavor of Toraja black rice is so fine that it begs to be eaten on its own, or with the simplest of accompaniments. On this morning it had three: fresh golden-yolked hard-boiled eggs; grated coconut; and a tomato sambal sharpend with trassi (Indonesian shrimp paste) and hot-as-Hades Toraja chilies and mellowed with caramelized onions.
Onto our plates went rice. Then a mound of coconut, a splodge of sambal, and an egg. The latter we chopped with spoon and fork before mixing everything together.
As we ate we added a little sambal for heat here, then soothed our throbbing tongues with another spoonful of rice there. Now a bit more coconut for sweetness, which would ultimately need to be balanced with more sambal. A vicious cycle. Every bite different.
By the time our plates were clean the sambal had disappeared, and most of the coconut too.