In August Dave and I did something we do all too rarely -- we boarded a plane without an assignment, traveled not for work but because there was a place that we'd wanted to travel to for long time.
The thing about freelancing -- well, there are many things about freelancing and most of them are good, very good. But one of the less good things about it -- especially in these times -- is that the need to feed the bank account often overshadows other needs that, while not particularly lucrative, are nonetheless important. For us: to travel, engage, and process without a particular goal and with no deadline.
We're highly pragmatic folks at heart, and in all likelihood we would have put Toraja off for another year -- again. But a passing mention to a friend in Jakarta of our long-time desire to see this region in the middle of Sulawesi led to his friend, who opened her home to us. How could we say 'no'? We couldn't.
We went, and I'm so glad we had that extra push to do so.
When we returned to Kuala Lumpur we were immediately sucked back into the swirl of work and deadlines, as well as preparations for an extended visit to the States. I never really had a chance to digest Toraja properly. Now I find it hard to believe it's been only 4 months since we were there. It seems years ago.
This morning I found some of Dave's images on a stick drive. I got out my notebook and paged through it, astonished to realize that there are so many details from that trip that I've already forgotten. Like this dish, this lovely, ambrosial piong ayam that we ate for dinner with new friends, at a long wooden table in a beautiful treehouse of a home perched in the hills of Batutumonga.
Piong ayam is a Torajaan specialty. Piong describes the genre -- meat cooked inside a length of bamboo over an open fire -- and ayam means 'chicken'. It's a special-occasion dish (piong babi, made with pork, is a staple at Torajaan funeral ceremonies). And it's a specialty of Ibu, mother-in-law of the lady of the house in which we stayed.
Ibu is a force to be reckoned with. That's not an eye-witness statement, but more of a deduction based on observation. She's quiet and friendly yet gives off an unmistakeable aura of strength. When I think of her the word 'tall' comes to mind, yet she's at least a head shorter than I. But her presence is big. Ibu is neither loud nor showy, but when she's in a room she is unmistakeably 'there'.
We struggled to communicate, me with my limited Indonesian and Ibu with her limited English. But we share a love of food and cooking, and that always smooths the way.
Piong is like Vietnamese bo kho, Italian ragu, American southwestern chili con carne -- there's no one recipe. Every cook has his or her own way with the dish, his or her own 'secret' to making the best version in the world. I asked Ibu for hers. She declined to be specific -- "Just the right combination of ingredients and eat it hot." But she did let us watch.
First the chicken (three, in this case) is very lightly cooked over an open flame to remove those last pesky pin feathers and lend a bit of flavor. This was done in the kitchen of a small house above the main house. As the chicken browned it gave off a scent that drew certain members of the household to a spot just outside the door.
Ibu adds banana stem to her piong ayam-- a combination that recalls binanihan, a chicken-and-banana stem stew we learned how to make last year on Mindanao, in the southern Philippines (which is not all that far from Sulawesi, in fact).
The freshly harvested stem is sliced
and squeezed to break it down. (Unlike the banana stem on Mindanao this one seemed not to need 'de-fibering' before it could be cooked.)
The other ingredients for Ibu's piong ayam include:
pounded lemongrass stalks, sliced red shallots, sliced ginger, sliced garlic, chopped Chinese celery leaves and stem, whole red chilies, and salt.
After the chicken is chopped (bones in) and mixed thoroughly with the banana stem -- only the hands will do for this amount of food -- the rest of the ingredients are added one by one.
Like most Asian cooks Ibu doesn't consult a recipe or use any sort of measuring device. She looks and she tastes.
Yes, Ibu tasted the mix 5 or 6 times before she was satisfied with the amount of salt and seasonings -- something you certainly wouldn't see done in a Western kitchen when raw chicken is part of the dish.
She grabbed the teeniest bit of the mixture between her thumb and forefinger, placed it on her tongue, rolled it around, and spit it out.
After the flavor of the mixture was to her liking Ibu and our host's helper got down to the business of stuffing the lengths of bamboo in which it would be cooked.
Some Torajaans wrap their piong in banana leaf before stuffing it into the bamboo. I asked about this technique, which it seemed would make it easier to remove the chicken from the bamboo after it was cooked. Ibu wrinkled her nose. I'm not entirely certain, but she may also have uttered the word "lazy".
Stuffing the bamboo by hand is the only way to go here.
The open end of the bamboo is secured with the folded tough outer 'rings' of the banana trunk that encircled the edible inner stem.
While the chicken and other ingredients were prepped and mixed a fire was prepared. Once filled the bamboo tubes were placed over the fire at an angle, and turned often to ensure even cooking.
An advantage of the non-airtight banana stem 'stopper' is that it lets the dish tell you when it's done: meat juices bubbling out the top of the tube signal that the chicken is thoroughly cooked. That takes about an hour over the fire.
Over the fire the bamboo dries out and becomes hard as, well, wood. First it has to be stripped of its charred outer layers. Then it must be hacked open with a cleaver -- or a saw.
The end justifies the effort, a hundredfold.
The chicken was incredibly moist and juicy, infused with the subtle fragrance of lemongrass and the sharp bite of the celery leaves. Shallot and garlic, softened and lightly browned where they'd touched the bamboo, gave a bit of sweetness, and every third or second mouthful held a shot of heat from a softened chili. Amazingly, the banana stem retained some crunch.
All of the ingredients came together in the bamboo's embrace of smoky, vegetal 'woodiness'.
This wasn't the only bit of genius to come from the kitchen of Ibu those days in Batutumonga, but it was the star of our stay there. We ate piong ayam that night, the next morning, and again before we left the following day. Our regret is having to leave more leftovers behind when we departed.