Workshop fish curry in Batak style

During our visit to Toba lake we stayed on Samosir island. The rest of our group was out on a walk but we wanted to do something different, so what else than food right? I had been going through a leaflet in our hotelroom that morning and saw they did culinary workshop. Checked with Tom and we decided this was what we wanted to do. But it was short planning as we wanted to do it the same day. But the owner was at the reception and she phoned around and within half an hour we were on our way.

Annette (the owner) took us to the market to buy the ingredients for the dish we would be making that day. She than went back to the lodges and her driver brought us to where we needed to go; an authentic Batak house. It was in a quite remote area as you can maybe see from the photo above and it was a little weird. Because we – large Europeans – than all of a sudden were standing in a house that was clearly build for people a lot smaller than us! Hahaha… But first we had to go outside again to pick some essentials from the garden for the cooking such as sereh (lemongrass) and tapiocaleave.

And of course you hear a lot about authentic workshops which end up not being so authentic at all and set up for tourists but I did not have the feeling with this at all. First of all it was just Tom and me and the woman (sorry but I keep forgetting her name!) and her daughters lived here. She does the workshops to earn a little bit extra as her husband died years ago and she is raising her daughters on her own. Not an easy task I would imagine.

On the menu was a fish curry (the fish looks a bit like tilapia but is most likely a Nila, which is from the area) so first we had to start preparing all the ingredients for the curry paste. Garlic, onion, turmeric (and yes ofcourse I was the lucky one to get yellow fingers) kemiri, sereh, galangal, chili and the like. A regular pestle and mortar is not used here but it is a flatter version of it which is called a Tjobek when it comes from java. It’s called differently in Sumatra but not sure what the name is.

And you can buy kemiri nuts here as well in the chinese stores but you’d find them peeled and ready to go. We had to smash the outside first. Like a kind of homemade nutcracker. A special stick and a stone is all you need. The kemiri nuts are than ground and give a creamy texture to the curry. Same goes for the coconut milk. You’d maybe think you can buy a can of coconut milk here and I’m sure you can in the supermarkets but we made it from scratch… First you chop the coconut in half, remove the liquid inside and scrape the coconut from the halves into a bowl.

Next you ad water to the coconut mixture and you knead that until you get milk from it. That is poured in a separate bowl and strained. The process is than repeated to get as much milk as possible from the coconut.

Not something you really think about when you get a can from the store right? I did find it a lot of fun to see how you do it from scratch. We have made our own paste before but never our own coconut milk. And – by the way – that is the driver you see kneading the coconut. He was also helping with the cooking.

For the cooking it is traditionally done on an open fire but in this case there was a bigger fire in the kitchen so it was not safe to go there. They received a gasburner from a tourist who bought it for them after having a workshop too and that is what is being used for cooking now. And… I was in the kitchen as I needed to go to the toilet and I’m quite happy we didn’t have to cook there as it didn’t look too safe and we would have probably fallen through the floor! And the end result is the same after all; a fish curry!

Now you have to know I am not a big fan of fishbones and in these parts of the world the fish is usually cut into pieces with everything intact (except the insides) so lots of bones. And especially in a curry where it is cooked for a fairly long time and that makes it hard to eat. And it’s no small bones either so you have to be careful as they would be dangerous when swallowed! but the flavors where ok and in the end the fun part was the cooking and not so much the eating… 🙂

They hardly made dishes like this on their own as it was too much work to do and I can see how that would be half a days work for one person. Working on the floor is also something different and takes longer too…And count a visit to the market to get fish and getting things from the garden too…But we had a fun day!

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Written by
Simone van den Berg

Travelling makes my heart beat just a little faster. Ever since I can remember I have wanted to discover the world and experience other cultures. Ever since our first far away trip to Mexico in 1997 I love to explore outside of Europe. Having said that: there is so much to see closer to home still! Combining travel with delicious food is the ultimate combination as far as I'm concerned. Of all my travels I have kept journals. That's why this site is called 'Paper Travels"

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Written by Simone van den Berg