A Papuan Feast: The bakar batu
West Papua, Indonesia’s eastern most territory, is a land full of contrasts. Tropical forests and paradise beaches, from where the Allied Pacific offensives where launched during World War II, or sky high mountains rising 15,000 feet above sea level, snow capped peaks and isolated valleys where an agricultural people developed complex irrigations systems thousands of years before Mesopotamia. With over 250 languages, dozens of tribes, a complex political context, a troubled history and a very uncertain future, West Papua is a difficult place to understand. Here, I want to introduce you to a more simple side of this beautiful place, its cuisine. Lets have a feast, let’s have a bakar batu.
The bakar batu is an ancient way of cooking large amounts of food, and each tribe has its own style. But the principle remains the same. You first need to dig a hole, its size depending on the number of guests you are expecting.
Long grass is carefully set into the hole in order to insulate the future content of the hole from the earth. In fact, the hole is going to become a kind of giant steamer with an in-built source of heat.
Meanwhile, youngsters light a large fire on which large stones are piled up. These stones are going to heat up for a couple of hours, and become extremely hot. Children are pushed away to avoid accidents, as the stones sometimes explode, sending pieces flying in all directions.
Once the stones are red hot, they are set on a nest of grass.
They are then covered with another layer of grass, then a layer of sweet potatoes, sweet corn, ferns, taro and more of nature’s edible gifts. This layering of stones and vegetables is repeated, with the addition of chicken or pork. If you are vegetarian, no worries, the meat can be separated from the rest by a layer of banana leaves which will prevent the juices from flowing all over your veggies!
A juicy mix of water, oil, spices, salt, chillies etc. is sprinkled over the whole thing, which is then closed up tightly. All you have to do now is wait while the stones bring up the heat, slowly steaming all that deliciousness to a perfect consistency and taste. Just sit, relax, smoke some cigarettes, tell some stories and discuss the latest events of the village.
Once the giant parcel opened, the food is shared amongst all the guests. You can now stuff yourself with corn, sweet potatoes, ferns, chicken, pork and taro, with a delicious sauce of the Pandanus fruit, an amazingly oily and nutritious food with potent curative powers, according to the Papuans. Enjoy!