Sharanya Deepak travels to Sulawesi and finds raw comfort in a bowl of pork soup.
Bakso Babi di Toraja, pork soup, is warm delight on a cold day. It is also fresh delight on a warm day, and raw comfort on a bad one. I travelled to Indonesia two months ago in pursuit of the largely evasive reward that travel is supposed to bestow, but also plainly, to eat. After two weeks of repetitive Nasi Goreng and crackling pork that didn’t catch my fancy (I prefer my pork steamed or cooked), I had decided Indonesia and I would differ on culinary terms. This bothered me, because here I was, deeply in love with the people, the majestic waterfalls, the marketplaces full of sleeping men and dancing children, and yet, still waiting for the one meal that blew my mind.
In Sulawesi, a northern island on the archipelago, everything changed. An island of diverse natural landscapes and an ancient people, Sulawesi promises the unexpected. The only travellers that visit are old Dutch tourists on organized tours, and National Geographic hopefuls. North of South Sulawesi, Tana Toraja is a group of mountainous farmlands that has become vastly popular amongst tourists in the last five years. In a country that has been stereotyped by Islam, sandy beaches and various kinds of fried rice, Tana Toraja will give you none of these. Though it is known for its death rituals and elaborate funerals (the Torajans don’t bury their death immediately, instead conducting elaborate funerals similar to weddings, treating corpses like the living), Toraja is also home to more spectacular things. One of these is Bakso Babi. The Indonesian meatball soup is eaten in many parts of the country, but Torajan Bakso Babi is it’s own little world. The soup is simmered for hours, giving off a wholesome, spicy taste, until you bite into a perfectly cooked meatball, deeply savoury and full of flavour. Crunchy wantons, garnish and chilli add finesse, and the soup comes together with intricate details merging into a beautiful whole. Eaten especially in Toraja, and made with a local chilli called tottakon, Bakso Babi cannot be grouped into the usual genre of Asian noodle soups. Simpler and humbler than soups like the Vietnamese Pho and Thai Tom Yum Kha, it is specific, fulfilling and the kind of soup that leaves you sighing and in exclamations.
After travelling many parts of the country and some of the world, I came to a stoic realization – through steamed fish in Brussels, Pizza Frito in Napoli, Nalli Nihari in Delhi, and beef fry in Kochi, the only way to know a culture, to make a home, to love a people, was to eat.
My first tryst with spiced, brothy Asian soups was in Cambodia in 2009. I had missed a flight, and found shelter in a little shed in Kampot, Cambodia, knee-deep in existential doubt and homesickness. The shed was owned by a petite Vietnamese woman who brought me a bowl of soup, smiled at me, patted me on the head and left. Renewed with new appetite and newer determination, in one bowl of soup then, I found everything I needed: comfort, spice, and reminders of maternal affection. Like Indian food, soups from different parts of Asia speak the voice of the people. Indian food is indulgent, rich, often confused, and stays in your body for hours after consumption; Asian soups are simple, fleeting and comforting. Pho then became a symbol of travelling to eat. With chopsticks in hand and a picture of Anthony Bourdain in my wallet, I decided to put aside homesickness for a few more weeks and continue making my way through Cambodia. If not now, then when?
Unlike then, I am now more sceptical and less adventurous. But a bowl of fresh broth still sparks joy. Fast-forward to a few years later, I first discovered Bakso Babi when friends and I lunged into a restaurant after biking on a rainy day, and found seats while we waited. Bakso Babi arrived in a cloud of steam, with a side of sticky rice, meatballs made from fresh pork, rice wontons and chilli. Like everything in Toraja, the broth is unique and sophisticated, and settles into your brain as a solid memory.
At a funeral, the first day of a seven-day-long affair, an old woman told me that Torajans don’t do anything like anybody else. Torajan funerals are elaborate affairs, celebrated over seven days and curated over months. When a man or woman dies, the family keeps the corpse in the house, treating it as living but ill, until its final send-off. Funerals are extravagant affairs; pigs are bought, buffaloes are slaughtered to accompany the soul of the deceased to heaven, and of course, meals are planned and executed with splendour. As the corpse makes its way through guests who have come to pay respects, I am presented with coffee and cake to ease my nerves, and eventually with pa’piong — pork cooked in bamboo. The same pork, I am told, will be given to the village to cook — the same pork that I eat the next day in another memorable bowl of Bakso Babi. As I washed down this last bowl with a cup of Arabica coffee, hills in full view, I knew the rice fields of Toraja had made their way into my heart, but my stomach belonged only to Bakso Babi.
Illustration by Parul Kanodia, a consulting graphic designer and illustrator who enjoys travelling, sketching and working with children.
Sharanya Deepak is a writer presently living in New Delhi. Her work has previously appeared in Tehelka Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms. She has also written a children's book and hopes there will be many more.