Traditional Foods: Kendari, South Sulawesi

A friend once brought me back a silver filigree necklace from Kendari. The silver craft of this town in Celebes, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi, has captured the imaginations of people the world over. But increasing numbers of people are also discovering the rich diversity of the region’s traditional food. There are seven main ethnic groups and 73 sub-ethnic groups in Southeast Sulawesi.

The staple food of Kendari is sago, but for the Wolio people from Buton it is cornmeal mixed with rice. These carbohydrates are consumed with fish, generally tuna or crustaceans like udang barong, which are plentiful in the waters off Sulawesi as Indonesia’s top epicurean and gastronome, Suryatini N. Ganie, explains.

One of the most popular methods of cooking the tuna there is dousing it with lime juice and grilling it. It can then be enjoyed with a coconut milk sauce seasoned with shallots, finely sliced lemon grass and sour fruit or belimbing sayur (Averrhoa bilimbi), the usual souring agent.

When I asked my friend what she liked about the food in Kendari, she smiled and said the dishes were as soft as the silk threads woven into traditional clothing, compared with the spicier dishes available elsewhere on the island.

It is said that the people of Southeast Sulawesi are very friendly but soft-spoken, expressing their feelings through their home-style cooking.

Jambu mete (cashew nuts) are a common ingredient in Kendari cooking. The delectably soft custard decorated with buttery cashew nuts is the cream of the crop.

The jambu mete fruit grow on a huge, spreading tree. One cashew nut hangs from the bottom of each fruit. Southeast Sulawesi exports the nut to various countries. Roasted and salted, cashew nuts are a favorite munch-on snack.

There is also a unique selection of desserts using pumpkin in Kendari.

Many people consider pumpkin — which thrives in Southeast Sulawesi’s dry climate — an economical ingredient for both soups and sweets. Bananas also appear frequently on the dining table, particularly kepok, which is essentially a cooking banana. Sanggara mekongga is a dish made from steamed bananas dipped in beaten egg, fried until golden brown and then coated with gooey caramel. It is the perfect accompaniment for tea or coffee.