Welcome to Ambon. I’m sitting in Sari Gurih, a bright, busy restaurant in the middle of town, faced with an enormous terracotta pot of papeda, transparent, glossy, boiled sago teamed with a large bowl of ikan kuah kuning, golden, fish soup. A young woman sings jazzy numbers alongside a DJ on a small stage and she does it well. That’s right. Glen Fredly is from Ambon and this is the city of music!
The papeda and the fish soup are to be eaten together in a culinary marriage of sorts and it’s enough to feed a whole wedding party (but there’s only two of us!). The art of serving papeda is rather like a ceremony; the soup is ladled in first and then the papeda is scooped up with two special bamboo tongs, twirled around and pushed softly into the bowl. The combination of the elegant, tangy broth and sweet, tender white fish combined with the silky, jelly-like sago is an extraordinary mix that gives the grace of texture a whole new meaning. The colours are glorious: an island of pearly sago floating in the middle of a sunset-gold broth. But the revelation is the belimbing wuluh, teeny starfruit-like fruit, that I thought were green tomatoes, and the confetti-style flecks of kenari, local almond, that I find bobbing in the broth, adding a soft, nutty crunch. Eating papeda and yellow fish soup in Ambon is worth the trip alone.
On Jalan Piere Tendean we entered a bakery wonderland. Ibu Etha and Ibu Coning run a small roadside cake stall and we found them busy making bakpao unti, buns with sweet coconut filling, pancake vla coklat, light chocolate pancakes with custard filling, Ambonese kue timus, cassava cakes with coconut and other local sweets on the premises, mixing and kneading mountains of silky dough. Years of hard work and dedication has paid off and as fast as they were producing the goods, albeit at Ambonese pace, a string of loyal customers were buying them. Ibu Coning whipped up about 200 pancake vla coklat while we watched and then made 250 roti goreng, bread donuts with potato filling. “ I make these just the way my mother taught me,” she said proudly. I sampled one, still warm, and it tasted like a brioche donut, the potato adding elegance, flavour and just enough texture. I’m dreaming of it filled with salted caramel custard. Road-side stalls sell cakes in Ambonuntil the wee hours. ‘People here love sweet things,’ laughed Ibu Coning.
Next stop, Betarumah in Jalan Said Perintah. This charming café boasts a mouth-watering selection of Ambonese home-style cooking presented neatly on banana leaves. I decide to try everything and I’m blown away by the vitality and freshness of each dish, by the similarity and yet difference to Balinese food. It proves to be the best meal I eat in Ambon. We feast on kohu-kohu, a smoked fish salad, sayur jantung pisang, cooked banana flowers, bunga pepaya, papaya flowers with cassava leaves, ikan asin bumbu cili, salted fish with chilli, colo-colo, sambal with fresh tomato and chilli and ikan kuah kuning, braised fish in turmeric, among others.
Sibu-Sibu coffee house next to Betarumah offers its own brand of Ambonese chic and spiced up coffee with a colourful interior that would make Gauguin proud. Posters of famous Ambonese singers and assorted glamorous others, (circa Englebert Humperdink judging by the hairstyles,) fill the walls, right up to the turquoise-green ceiling. Coffee has always been synonymous with conversation and I read that Sibu-Sibu was the meeting place during the recent conflict for locals to discuss the fate of Ambon and probably just about everything else. It certainly feels a bit Che Guevarra here. The star attraction is their famous Rarobang coffee, scented with the legendary spices of the region and floating with a halo of slivered kenari, almonds. Coffee with crunch: I’m loving this kenari madness. There’s an interesting menu to dine on and a selection of puffy local cakes but I chose a small banana leaf package of nasi uduk a la Ambon (in Bali we call it Nasi Jenggo) because I can’t resist it. I tucked into the moist, aromatic coconut rice that had just the right amount of seasoned grated coconut and fish. Who says you have to eat cakes with coffee?
After lazing on the terrace of our hotel, the Natsepa Resort, and soaking in the grounds of the hotel and the magnificent ocean panorama of distant islands, home to some of the world’s best diving, we venture down to Natsepa beach to eat rujak. A string of road-side stalls, precariously perched above the sea, sell Ambonese-style spiced-up fruit salad until dusk. It’s late afternoon and we tucked into a small plate of thinly sliced pineapple, guava, papaya, star fruit and rose water apple slathered with rujak sauce. I’m gobsmacked by the peanut base; the sauce resembling Bumbu Pecel, peanut sauce, with tamarind, chilli (toned down because I’m a tourist I heard them say) and coconut sugar. “The peanuts make it so delicious, don’t you think?” said the grandma who continued to grind peanuts for the next order. The rose water apples were unbelievably soft like peaches, unlike the ones I have eaten in Bali. We ordered a second plate and watched the sun set over the expansive ocean enjoying a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavours.
Ratu Gurih, in Jalan Diponoegoro, serves the full gamut of seafood cooked with different sauces. I opt for char-grilled baronang and wok-fried sprouts flecked with smoked fish and chilli. The regulation fresh tomato sambal, green tomato sambal with lemon basil and peanut sauce served alongside. With sambals like these, you only need rice as an accompaniment.
But the highlight of my trip was a cooking lesson at Natsepa Resort with the gracious Ibu Ratih and staff. In the spacious downstairs dining room with an ocean view hard to beat, they kindly prepared a breakfast of champions; ikan kuah kuning, my new favourite fish dish, kohu-kohu, smoked fish with grated coconut, lime and fresh chilli, sambal mangga, green mango sambal and colo colo, sambal with tomato, red shallots and lemon basil. I always measure a place by the people and the Ambonese are supremely sweet and hospitable; my daughter deemed them the friendliest she has met in Indonesia. And then, of course, the food is spectacular too. Two good reasons to visitAmbon,,,,and if Glen Fredly is performing in Ambon, that makes three!