Patin and Baong – The ‘Kings’ of the Mahakam River: Kalimantan

Each island in the archipelago has its own cuisine and Kalimantan is no different. You can obtain most of the dishes from the other islands in the restorans and warungs but it is the fish (ikan) that is cooked in several ways that you will find the most inviting and appetising.

Suryatini N.Ganie, Indonesia’s top gastronome and epicurean wrote an excellent article about the food in Kalimantan. When you read it, you will be booking a flight on the orders of your stomach!. Here’s the article:

I once was invited to Balikpapan by a friend who wanted me to taste the regional foods of East Kalimantan. The capital of the province and an important oil harbor, Balikpapan is a busy place.

The second longest river in Kalimantan, the Mahakam, runs through it and on to many important areas in the region.

East Kalimantan is important historically because by the fourth century, during the reign of King Mulawarman over Kutai, the oldest Hindu Kingdom there, Malay, Chinese and Middle Eastern traders were dropping anchor and had important trading activities with the people in the inland. The kingdom of Kutai and its mighty kings are long gone, but the fame and grandeur of the Mahakam River stayed and other things attracted people to its shores, changing many typical customs and traditions.

One of the interesting things along the River Mahakam is the local food, primarily fish caught at the river and unique local ingredients like the souring agent terong asam (sour eggplant) which grows wild only on East Kalimantan.

There are two famous fish found in the Makaham’s waters, renowned for their juicy meat and succulent flavor. The ikan patin, a fat and meaty fish with little thorns, is covered by a whitish skin and has meat with a compact consistency. While some decades ago the ikan patin was only available in its natural habitat, it is now cultivated and available anywhere, in traditional markets and supermarkets. In East Kalimantan the ikan patin is usually prepared spiced with shallots and garlic, salt and herbs, wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed or grilled, like the Sundanese of West Java do when they prepare their dish called pepes.

Next to the ikan patin, there is the ikan baong an adventurous fish that can also found in Muangthai and the Philipines. In Indonesia, the baong can be found in Sumatra, where it goes under the name of beringit or garingan, while in Java it is known as ririg and in the Sunda Highlands, sigaringan.

But the ikan baong is known first and foremost as an East Kalimantan fish from Kutai. As a result of the industrialization of the area, the fish is losing its native habitat of the river and waterways. Fresh ikan baong is now rare in traditional markets, although it is possible to find it dried or smoke. It is a dark, black fish around 35 cm long, and is prepared in a manner similar to eel and catfish.

The locals boil the fish and shred the meat, which is then stir-fried until it is dry, like the Javanese cook abon ikan. The difference is in the spices. In East Kalimantan, coarsely pounded chili is added to the meat.

Also be found along the Mahakam are bananas, the most common of which is the pisang sanggar, known as pisang kepok in Java and Sumatra. Like its cousins in Java and Sumatra, it can’t be eaten raw and instead is fried, boiled or steamed as a common snack.