There are various aspects that can explain cultural connections, and the food is probably one of the most intimate, since it is related to our daily life. West Papua has distinctive foods, root mostly in Melanesian cuisine. At first glance, Papuan foods look very different from cuisine in other Indonesian provinces. However, if you look at the characteristics, you will find a lot of similarities that connect Indonesian with Melanesian cuisine.
Here are some interesting connections between Melanesian, Papua, and the rest of Indonesian cuisines.
Edible Roots and Pork
Edible roots, such as sweet potatoes, taros, and yams, are the staples of people in the Pacific. Polynesians and Melanesians have consumed these foods since centuries ago, probably brought by sailors who had visited South America (the theory is still sometimes debated). Roots are also important food staples in Papua. They are fulfilling, easy to cook, versatile, and contain nutrition such as vitamin A, vitamin B, and carbohydrate.
Sweet potatoes are not just eaten in West Papua. Almost all Indonesian provinces know and consume them, and they are considered as delicacies. However, unlike in West Papua, sweet potatoes are usually consumed as alternative carbohydrate sources (outside rice) or snacks. Sweet potatoes are also turned into various products, such as chips and cake.
Another popular staple among Melanesians is pork, and the connection with West Papuan cuisine is very clear. Pork is eaten a lot in Papua, and pigs are considered treasures. Pork is not too popular in the rest of Indonesian provinces, since most the populations are Muslims. However, pork is still popular among Chinese Indonesians, and in Bali, Maluku, and many parts of Sulawesi Island.
Indonesia is the biggest archipelago in the world, so fish is a big part of many of its cuisines. Indonesians, West Papuans, and other Melanesian populations are no stranger to fish dishes. Grilled fish, for example, is easy to find in various areas, including West Papua. Manokwari is famous for its grilled fish, because the fish is served with a special chili paste that can only be found in the area.
The more specific example is a dish called ikan bungkus (“wrapped fish”). The dish earned its name from the cooking method, which uses a thick layer of spice paste on a big piece of fish. After being covered with spice, the fish is wrapped with a large leaf, and grilled. This dish is known as pepes in other parts of Indonesia, and has similar cooking method despite all the variations.
Round Tart Variations
Some of Indonesian cuisines were influenced by the Dutch. Ronde taart, for example, is a type of small, pie-like pastry filled with cream. In Indonesia, this dessert is called rontar or sometimes lontar, due to the difficulties of pronunciation. In Bali, ronde taart is also known as pie susu or “milk pie”, but the recipe and look are similar with rontar from other areas.
Rontar or lontar are famous as dessert and gift in West Papua. The filing is also similar, with solid, creamy texture that tastes quite sweet. The size of Papuan rontar is usually larger than the typical rontar in other Indonesian provinces. However, the big size is usually just for special occasions, such as Christmas. Smaller rontars are available as gifts.
Sago is a popular starch source in West Papua, since the plant is more suitable for the local soil than rice. Sago is usually consumed as gelatinous mass called papeda, with fish and yellow broth to accompany it. However, sago is also popular as bread and dessert ingredients.
Sago is not a staple in other areas in Indonesia, but it is still used extensively. From Sumatra to Sulawesi, there are various dishes that use sago, such as sempolet sago (a type of porridge), sago cookies, and sago noodles.
Martabak or murtabak (from the Arabic word mutabbaq) is a popular dish brought by Tamil Indian traders to Indonesia. The dish consists of several layers of batter that are filled with eggs, chives, and meat. The sweet variant is usually made of one thick batter layer, topped with chocolate, cheese, nuts, or milk. Martabak creation also made its way to West Papua, although with a different form.
Sago martabak is made of sago flour, as the name suggests. Popular in Fakfak Regency and Raja Ampat, this food is also referred with the name Baha-baha. Sago martabak is made by drying sago, before grinding and mixing it with shaved coconut. The mixture is later fried on a flat skillet, and topped with anything you wish, from cheese to sweet condensed milk.
Sago martabak can also be eaten with savory dishes, such as fish broth or grilled fish. In this case, skip the sweet toppings and simply serve the fried sago batter while hot.
Foods often reflect the way culture changes or adapts, especially when people from different groups make connections. By examining the similarities, you can easily see how Indonesia has strong ties with West Papua in the cultural aspect.