Catpoochino to Snake Wine: Adventure Foods in Southeast Asia

Luwak eating coffee berries

Luwak eating coffee berries

Part of the fun of traveling is to experience new foods and beverages. Part of the mystery of Asia is to discover exactly what it is you’re consuming, as the name may be misleading.

Kopi Luwak

Take kopi luwak, for instance. A luwak is a civet, a member of the weasel family found in Indonesia. Normally weasels’ major contribution to humanity is small rodent control or fur (think minks) but in Indonesia, luwaks are prized for their feces. Yup, those little nuggets of luwak feces are as valuable as gold. Kopi luwaki is a highly prized and tasty coffee made from the fecal pellets of coffee. I know because I’ve drunk it.

The nocturnal luwak dines on ripe coffee berries. Somehow the civets’ digestive process gives the berries a robust, tasteful flavor — once the berries have been separated from the fecal matter and roasted, that is.

How did weasel shit become a worldwide phenomenon? Short History Lesson (SHL) #1:The Dutch controlled much of present day Indonesia for centuries. Among the spices and foods that made the Dutch East India Company the richest conglomerate in the world was the discovery of coffee. Soon coffee plantations sprouted all over Indonesia, and the natives, who formerly enjoyed cups of this tasty beverage while relaxing in the sun were transformed into near-slaves working the plantations while their Dutch masters enjoyed their coffee in the sun. In order to maximize profits, the Dutch forbid the Indonesians to consume any coffee. At some point the workers noticed that luwak poop contained partly digested coffee berries which they collected, cleaned, roasted and brewed into a delicious tasting coffee. Kopi luwak or weasel coffee was born. Now it is an industry in Indonesia, Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia.

IMG_4060_Luwaks, mostly nocturnal, snooze during the day

Nocturnal animals, luwaks snooze most of the day.

Kopi luwak is not without its production issues, however, not the least of which is animal abuse. In order to maximize their profits, Indonesians began to capture and keep luwaks in cages in order not to have to waste time searching for those small weasel pellets in the jungle. Often these cages are highly restrictive and the luwaks are forced to eat nothing but coffee berries, sparking a rash of protests from animal rights activists. From the natives’ point of view, caging luwaks is expedient. Besides, there are poisonous snakes and other venomous creatures out there in the jungle, just waiting to nab some poor guy scooping up weasel poop from the jungle floor. For the average Indonesian, luwak poop is a highly profitable commodity: one cup of this brew can sell between $30 to $100 in the U.S. Roasted and bagged for sale in the Western markets, the beans can sell for as much as $650 a kg (about $340+ per pound).

A pile of luwak feces with partially digested coffee beans. The beans are separated from the fecal matter, cleaned and roasted and are ready for brewing into "cat-poo-chino."

A pile of luwak feces with partially digested coffee beans. The beans are separated from the fecal matter, cleaned and roasted and are ready for brewing into “cat-poo-chino.”

Roasted coffee beans

Roasted coffee beans

Thankfully, the voices of activists have been heeded and many luwak coffee “growers” are providing more humane treatment of their captive luwaks or just plain harvesting the coffee dung the old-fashioned way.

One of the plantation's luwaks awake near dusk and rarin' to go...

One of the plantation’s luwaks awake near dusk and rarin’ to go…

Putting aside my scruples, however, I drank a cup of luwak coffee in Bali after forking over $5 USD, what is in Indonesia an outrageous sum to pay for a cup of coffee. Yes, it was tasty, but so is a cup of well-brewed French or Italian roast coffee. The coffee plantation workers who were leading our tour and hawking the various coffees to us were somewhat amazed that any of these weird white folk were actually drinking weasel fecal-processed stuff, but hey: they were the ones pushing “Cat-poo-chino” as proclaimed on their T-shirts and menus.

Personally, I thought “Crap-pu-cino” had a snazzier ring to it but hey, I’m the consumer, not the marketer.

Egg coffee at Coffee Long in Hanoi

Egg coffee at Coffee Long in Hanoi

Egg Coffee

A more innocuous, coffee-based drink is the egg coffee consumed in northern Vietnam. While in Hanoi, we drank this delicious concoction. I’d expected coffee with curdled egg mixed in it, kind of like a a coffee-based egg-drop soup. Thankfully, the egg coffee was far more pleasant – very rich and sweet.

As recipes go, it couldn’t be more simple: brew some good, strong coffee, let it cool slightly, add sweetened, condensed milk and one egg yolk, and stir: egg coffee. Loved it.

Snakeskin fruit -Salak_Indonesia

Snakeskin fruit or salak in Bali

Snakeskin Fruit, Durian, Dragon fruit and Vietnamese Glutinous Wine

In the past five weeks of our Southeast Adventure, Michael and/or I have tried various other local delicacies.  I ate some snakeskin fruit (salak in Indonesian) in Bali. The name is derived from its formidable looking skin which does resemble that of a brown snake. The cream colored wedges inside taste both sour and sweet at the same time with a nice crunch, not dissimilar to  a slightly unripe pear.

Dragon fruit is upper left fruit in this Buddhist altar offering, Hoi An, Vietnam

Dragon fruit is upper left fruit in this Buddhist altar offering, Hoi An, Vietnam

Clockwise from top left: orange, dragon fruit and passion fruit

Clockwise from top left: orange, dragon fruit and passion fruit

Dragon fruit looks quite formidable, earning its name. Inside, dragon fruit is white, somewhat soft, with tiny black seeds which have a sweet, soft crunch. I eat it for breakfast almost every morning, along with passion fruit, if available. Passion fruit is a bit more of a visual-taste challenge. The seeds are encased in a glutinous jelly that reminds me of frog eggs. Once I got past the image, I could eat the pulpy mess which also tastes both sweet and very slightly sour.

Fresh durian with processed durian chips.

Fresh durian with processed durian chips.

Durian is a gustatory challenge I’ve never mastered. People either love it or hate it. The majority of westerners fall into the latter category, but it’s worthy of note that Singapore bans open durian from any form of public transportation. When opened, durian stinks to high heaven. Processed into candied fruit bites or chips, however, it’s palatable.

Glutinous Wine

Vietnamese “glutinous wine” causes pause when first encountered on a drinks menu. However, it’s just rice wine; whether it has a milky or glutinous quality depends on how well it has been distilled and filtered. Home-brewed rice wine will be both milky and quite glutinous with characteristics I really didn’t like to contemplate and that I’m sure were never in the glossary in a sommelier’s curriculum.

Cooked rice dumped out on a tarp before distilling in a Hoi An shophouse.

Cooked rice dumped out on a tarp before distilling in a Hoi An shophouse.

Home still for brewing "glutinous" (rice) wine in Hoi An, Vietnam

Home still for brewing “glutinous” (rice) wine in Hoi An, Vietnam

We actually sampled the rice wine from this still, then allowed ourselves to be “persuaded” to buy a bottle. I was a bit perturbed when the shopkeeper fished a filthy plastic bottle out of a bucket of other used bottles, then filled it for us from the still, but we paid the one dollar and took it. I fed the fishes with it later.

And I thought that home-brewed plain old glutinous rice wine was revolting…

Snake wine: cobra and other snakes fermenting in rice wine. Blood from the snakes give this wine its reddish-brown color.

Snake wine: cobra and other snakes fermenting in rice wine. Blood from the snakes give this wine its reddish-brown color.

Snake Wine

The one local product I absolutely refused to sample was snake wine. The preferred snake in this type of rice wine is cobra, but smaller snakes usually are added to the brew.

Our guide poured snake wine fro this teapot after filling it from the jar of snake wine behind her.

Our guide poured snake wine from this teapot after filling it from the jar of snake wine behind her.

Michael, however, was game. Quite honestly, I could barely take the pictures, but to the guide’s amazement, he downed the entire cup she poured for him.

As it turns out, Michael didn’t just drink snakes-fermented-in-rice-wine. He had “snake blood wine,” where the snakes’ bellies are slit to allow blood to seep into the mixture, giving the liquid that reddish tinge.

Michael drinking snake blood wine.

Michael drinking snake blood wine.

And, no, Michael didn’t go puke in the bushes afterwards. He wanted to buy some. I threatened divorce. (I think he sneaked some into his back pack so look out, friends.)

As we head off to Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Korea, I can only imagine what additional gustatory challenges await. But I know one thing: if it’s reptile, I ain’t touching it. Michael, go for it, babe!

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Komodo Island’s Dragons Extraordinaire

Komodo "Dragon"

Komodo “Dragon”

Komodo Island, famous for its giant monitor lizards, is one of the thousands of islands comprising the Indonesian archipelago. Whether it is one of 1,700+ or 1,300+ Indonesian islands depends on if you’re including uninhabited islands and atolls in the count. Nevertheless, the ratio of inhabitants to dragons on Komodo is about 1:1, with the dragons winning because they’re allowed to occasionally maul and/or kill a villager whereas the hapless human inhabitants can’t touch the dragons: they’re protected by the Indonesian government as an endangered species and “national treasure.”

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The majority of Komodo Island’s 300+ square kilometers is a National Park. Most of the park beyond the village and nearby Pink Beach is fairly rough terrain but is hikeable. Park and government regulations require that all visitors must be part of an organized tour led by an officially-approved guide, and no one is allowed in the park without at least one of the rangers to lead the group.

Tourists make their way to Komodo for one or both reasons: see the dragons and/or go scuba diving. Unfortunately, we were unable to go diving as our cruise’s allotted time in port wasn’t sufficient. But, I did organize a combined “dragon trek” and snorkeling tour which was a lot of fun. The guides and Komodo National Park rangers were very knowledgeable and great to talk to, and we learned a lot about the dragons and island.

For starters, the majority of the islanders are descended from convicts exiled to the island in the 19th century by the sultan of nearby Sumbawa. The dragons live here naturally, as well as on the nearby islands of Flores and Rinca. This small area of the Pacific is the only area in the world where the Komodo dragons naturally exist. The islanders are a mix of Muslim, Christians and Hindus. The dragons have no known religion, other than cannibalism…

Dear old Mom

Dear old Mom

In fact, these giant monitor lizards are not great parents. The female will lay about 15-30 eggs once a year; gestation is about 9 months. Like many reptiles, the female alone will guard the eggs initially, but once the young dragons emerge, the hatchlings have to take to the trees to avoid being eaten by Mom and her relatives.

Dragon hatchlings live the first couple of years up in the trees to avoid being eaten by more mature dragons. They hide out in holes pecked out by birds.

Dragon hatchlings live the first couple of years up in the trees to avoid being eaten by more mature dragons. They hide out in holes pecked out by birds.

The first written recording of these giant lizards was about 1910 when Dutch sailors reported seeing fire-breathing monsters of up to 7 meters long (about 23 ft.). An exploratory expedition by the local Dutch Colonial Administration established the lizards were usually about 2 meters long, and could find no evidence of them breathing fire. The largest dragon on record was 3.1 m. (10.3 ft.), but these days the average male dragon usually measures much less than 2 meters, and the females are slightly smaller. While they don’t truly breathe fire, their saliva is toxic and can kill a good-sized human. They have an exceptionally keen sense of smell and can particularly hone in on blood. On board we were repeatedly warned not to shave the day we landed in Komodo, and menstruating women were not allowed on the island. (How that applies to villagers somewhat baffled me.)

Ironically, the first Komodo dragon I saw was at the ranger station, just about 100 feet from the beach – and it was trying to get away from the tourists as quickly as possible. I managed to snap this photo before it disappeared under one of the local’s houses.

IMG_4222

Another fascinating feature about the dragons is their digestive process. They eat their prey whole, or at least in large chunks if it’s big enough, but their gastric juices are so powerful that they can digest almost everything, including the bones. Thus, in their scat, all you see is a mucous-like puddle with some whitish congealing which is all that’s left of the bones.

Dragon scat with dissolved bone material

Dragon scat with dissolved bone material

Another major attraction in Komodo is Pink Beach, whose sand is a mixture of ground white and red corals from off-shore – which gives you an idea of the beauty of the coral and other underwater sights. Our snorkeling expedition off Pink Beach was a bit daunting due to an unusually strong current. However, there was enough coral and fish to make the effort worthwhile. In all, a unique island to have visited.

Especially the dragons.

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Tirta in Bali is Alive and Thriving

Temple of Tanah Lot, southeastern Bali

Temple of Tanah Lot, southeastern Bali

Reflect on Bali, and near-mystical images spin through one’s mind. The mist hanging on smoking volcanic cones, people laying offerings by roadside shrines, ancient temples, solemn cremation ceremonies, gracefully peaked, ornamented houses, terraced rice paddies: all these scenes are a part of Bali that is timeless and untouchable. Yet, even as all these ancient scenes and settings are still plentiful here, so are the tourist-clogged mega malls, the surf hangouts and the tawdry bars. By comparison, images of South Pacific seem nostalgic. Thankfully, the “new” Bali is still somewhat contained in the southeast quarter of the island while “old” Bali can still be found within an hour or two drive of the 21st century hedonism that seems intent on drowning this ancient culture.

Bali, the first island east of Java in the Indonesian archipelago, is one of the most spiritual places on earth. And it is because of Bali’s spirituality that this island maintains its unique place in our modern world. By spirituality, I don’t mean strictly religious practice, although religion is not only present, but an ingrained part of Balinese life. “Religion” in Bali is a seamless melding of early Hinduism, Buddhism (also with origins in India), ancestor worship, and native animism. Life in Bali is not just about nominal participation in certain ceremonies at specific phases or benchmarks of life, or require participation in the occasional ceremony. To the Balinese, religion is part of the living belief system, the daily acts of life, from rising in the morning, preparing food, going about pedestrian chores, to just being alive – and always remembering and honoring the multitude of gods, ancestors and spirits that surround and form daily life. For a Balinese, placing an offering at a small shrine on a median strip in the middle of a congested roadway is as natural and part of life as crossing that street. Laying another small offering seemingly randomly in a passageway or entrance is a quotidian act of appeasement for any ground-based demon spirits that may lay lurking nearby. Of equal dedication and spirituality is the daily ritual of placing small packets of fruits, rice and other offerings to household gods and ancestors in the family temple.

Small shrines are found in every Balinese courtyard, on the roadside, in rice paddies.

Small shrines are found in every Balinese courtyard, on the roadside, in rice paddies.

Small offerings of rice or fruit are laid on paths, in doorways, or sidewalks to appease any evil spirits.

Small offerings of rice or fruit are laid on paths, in doorways, or sidewalks to appease any evil spirits.

Traditional Balinese homes have their own family temples within the home kampong.

Traditional Balinese homes have their own family temples within the home kampong.

Temples abound in Bali, whose origin may have from the ancient Hindu religion, but have evolved over the centuries as just one source for the uniquely Balinese religion of Tirta. “Hindu” is a brand only recently given Tirta, but delve past the for-tourist-patter and you will find the differences. Yes, there are familiar Hindu-inspired gods nearly everywhere, but Tirta is so much more.

I am no expert in any of the multiple religious origins comprising Tirta but I will name some differences I’ve noticed. Unlike Hindus and some Buddhist sects, Balinese eat meat: chicken, beef, pork, seafood – all are part of the Balinese diet. An exception is the priests; they cannot eat the flesh of a four-legged animal. And while some animal-human figures, such as Ganesha, the Hindu god with the elephant visage, are honored, no animal is considered sacred, as in India. In fact, a favorite Balinese sport is cock fighting.

But the most important aspect of Balinese Tirta is water. Water is both life-giving and purifying, a blessing and a necessity. Some of the most important Balinese temples are either dedicated to specific bodies of water or are placed at specific conjunctions of land and water, such as the temple of Tanah Lot, the first picture in this posting.

At this point I will halt the verbiage and share mostly images of some of the shrines & temples we saw during our 3 day stop in Bali. Without a doubt, the temple of the holy water spring was my favorite and which I found so moving to witness.

Roosters bred for cock fighting are kept  ratan cages to prevent unplanned skirmishes.

Roosters bred for cock fighting are kept ratan cages to prevent unplanned skirmishes.

Entrance to the temple of the holy water, Pura temple Empul, built about 960 A.D.

Entrance to the temple of the holy water, Pura temple Empul, built about 960 A.D.

Pura Tirta Empul's purifying pool, fed by the holy water springs.

Pura Tirta Empul’s purifying pool, fed by the holy water springs.

Young women praying in the pool, going from spout to spout, dousing themselves in a purification ritual.

Young women praying in the pool, going from spout to spout, dousing themselves in a purification ritual.

Pool into which the two holy water springs feed.

Pool into which the two holy water springs feed.

Tirta priests, dressed completely in white, lead ceremonies within the sanctum of the Pura Tirta Empul.

Tirta priests, dressed completely in white, lead ceremonies within the sanctum of the Pura Tirta Empul.

Pura Dalem, temple in the midst of the Ubd Monkey Sanctuary.

Pura Dalem, temple in the midst of the Ubud Monkey Sanctuary.

Entrance to temple Uluwatu in the southernmost part of Bali

Entrance to temple Uluwatu in the southernmost part of Bali

One of the temples at Uluwatu, perched on the mountainside.

One of the temples at Uluwatu, perched on the mountainside.

A different viewpoint, demonstrating the height of the cliffs Uluwatu is perched upon.

A different viewpoint, demonstrating the height of the cliffs Uluwatu is perched upon.

In ending, I will simply share that my own interests in “religion” have gravitated more towards the “spirituality” of humankind, where there is a stronger tie to mutual acceptance of certain universal, benevolent precepts of how to conduct your life and less emphasis on monotheistic dogma. As a girl of 16 the Balinese perception and interaction with the universe made a great deal of sense to me. Nearly 50 years later, I’m so glad to find Tirta is still strong and an integral part of Balinese life.

NOTES

I would like to thank Ketut Singer for being the most wonderful guide in the 3 days we recently spent in Bali. Through is patience and thoughtful answers, I rediscovered the Bali I’d loved so much so many years ago. For anyone traveling to Bali, I highly recommend you retain “Singer” as your guide. He can be contacted at ketutsinger@gmail.com.

Ketuk Singer, in traditional Balinese dress, explaining the behind the Holy Water Temple, Pura Tirta Empul. "Singer" is enthusiastic about his culture ad religion and was a wonderful teacher in communicating the basic precepts of Tirta.

Ketuk Singer, in traditional Balinese dress, explaining the precepts behind the Holy Water Temple, Pura Tirta Empul. “Singer” is enthusiastic about his culture and religion and was a wonderful teacher in communicating the elements of Tirta.

Penang’s Buddhist Temples

Decorative panel at Kek Lok Si Temple

Decorative panel at Kek Lok Si Temple

One of the most fascinating aspects of Southeast Asia travel is to experience the dazzling weave of ethnic groups, languages, religions and customs, all blended yet distinct. Penang Island, strategically poised at the head of the Straits of Malacca, has been endowed by geography and shaped by trade for centuries. Beginning with the Malays, other peoples have lent their influence (by whatever means) into the mix: Arab traders, Hindu and Chinese immigrant laborers, the European traders and colonists — Portuguese, then Dutch — and finally – British, both before and after WWII’s Japanese occupation. Sometimes it seems that only the Roman Empire has not left its genes and culture in the region.

George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia

View to the east of George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia

Still a lively port city, Penang of today shows most clearly the influence of four different cultures: Chinese, Malay, Hindu and British. However, despite being a region of Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, Penang clearly reflects the culture, architecture and religion of its southern Chinese majority from the mid-19th century up to today. Since its independence from Great Britain, the Malaysian government has “re-balanced” the Penang population so that the numbers of Chinese and Malays are now fairly even at 46% and 43%, respectively. Additionally, the inevitable blend of Chinese and Malays over the centuries has resulted in a unique culture, Peranakan, both in Penang and in other “Straits” cities such as Malacca and Singapore. The Chinese influence is still quite visible in today’s Penang, especially in Chinatown and the more urban areas of the island, by the number of merchants and shops, and, not least, the number of Buddhist temples on the island. (Buddhists comprise 36% of the population, second only to Muslims at 45%.)

Tek Lok Si

Main temple at Kek Lok Si

Main temple at Kek Lok Si

Tek Lok Si is not only the largest Buddhist temple complex in Penang, but the largest in Southeast Asia. Also known as the “Chinese Buddhist Temple” and “Temple of 10,000 Buddhas,” Tek Lok Si is dazzling in size and beauty. The main temple was begun in 1890, with additional edifices constructed over the years.

The cavernous main temple is dominated by three golden statues of the Buddha in meditative pose. In a ship-board lecture series on Buddhism, I learned the symbolism of a three Buddha display: the center statue is of the current Buddha, the one who most Westerners think of as the Buddha, Sidhartha; the Buddha on the left depicts the future Buddha, while the one on the right represents the Buddha of the past.

The current Buddha

The current Buddha

IMG_4391_(right, past) Buddha

The Past Buddha

To the left, the Past Buddha; above, the Future Buddha.

The Future Buddha.

The walls were lined with niches containing far smaller statuary of the Buddha. (We didn’t attempt to count them all!)

Kek Lok Si's walls are rows of niches containing small, gold Buddha statues

Kek Lok Si’s walls are rows of niches containing small, gold Buddha statues

IMG_4401_Wishing Tree

The Wishing Tree

Incense wafted through the cavernous hall, where various folding tables displayed offerings for purchase to lay before the Buddha of choice. A “Wishing Tree” stood in one area, festooned with colorful ribbons upon which various blessings and wishful outcomes were written.

Elsewhere within the temple complex stands the seven-story Pagoda of the 10,000 Buddhas, along with additional prayer halls and plenty of stone and painted statuary nestled into the hillside. In addition to its height, the pagoda is unique in that it combines three different cultures’ temple architecture: Chinese, Thai and Burmese.

                               

Pictures above from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kek_Lok_Si

Another interesting feature is the 30 meter (99 feet) statue of Kuan Yin, an East Asian Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion. Most often Kuan Yin, also known as “Guanyin,” is depicted as a woman, although this statue seems more androgynous.

Reclining Buddha Temple

Wat Chayamangkalaram, better known as the “Reclining Buddha Temple” or “Thai Buddhist Temple,” holds the 3rd or 4th largest statue of the Buddha in a reclining pose, depending on your source. At 33 meters (108 ft.), the statue is quite imposing, especially as the Buddha’s robe is gold-plated.

A common misconception among Westerners is that the reclining figure of the Buddha shows him at rest or asleep. The reclining pose actually depicts the Buddha in his last illness, near his death.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Chayamangkalaram. At 33 m in length, this is one of the largest Reclining Buddhas in the world.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Chayamangkalaram. At 33 m in length, this is one of the largest Reclining Buddhas in the world.

The Standing Buddha Temple

IMG_4427_Standing BuddhaDirectly across the street from the Reclining Buddha is Wat Dhammikarama, or the “Burmese Buddhist Temple.” Heavily ornate in its exterior, the simpler interior hall is dominated by the serenely calm “Standing Buddha.” Built in 1803, Dhammikarama was the first Buddhist temple in Penang and reflects the Burmese influence on the island at the time. Dhammikarama is also the only Burmese Buddhist temple outside of Myanmar (Burma).

IMG_4431__Lion outside Standing Buddha;note detailed filligree on above portico & roof

Lion outside Standing Buddha;note detailed filigree on portico & roof

Gate to Burmese Temple

Gate to Burmese Temple

Selamat Tinggal, Penang*

The city of George Town and Penang Island have many more Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, and other natural and man-made wonders. Unfortunately, our port of call was only a half day, and these three temples were the only ones we managed to get to. On the more secular end of sights, we drove across both of the two bridges connecting Palau Penang (Penang Island) to the Malaysian mainland. (The newest, just opened in 2014, is the longest bridge in Asia at 27 kilometers.) We also took the incredibly steep funicular up to the top of Bukit Bandera (Penang Hill). Regrettably, afternoon rain clouds had rolled in so the spectacular view from 800 m. (2,730 ft.) was obscured by the mists. The gardens on the Hill are beautiful, though, and splashes of color made up for the lack of a view.
IMG_4416* Goodbye, Penang!