When we set our sites on Borneo street food wasn’t even on our minds (for once). In fact, this might have been the least food motivated stop of our trip.
But therein lies the magic of eating on the street—it doesn’t take buzz to make delicious food. Meeting the Borneo orangutans was guaranteed to be a fabulous experience. But as an added bonus we soon learned that in the gateway town of Pangkalan Bun, Borneo street food offers one pleasant surprise after another.
Borneo Chili Crab
We’d had an absurdly long trip from Hanoi—three flights over two days including a 14 hour layover in Singapore and 8 hours chasing down a lost bag that never arrived in Jakarta—and were wiped upon arrival. Luckily we didn’t have to go far from the hotel to find a pre-slumber snack. At the end of our street, vendors clustered together in an empty lot. Some cooked at typical push carts. A couple had more permanent setups behind tarps painted with this proteins they serve. The walls doubled as the menu. We pointed at the illustrated crab and what we believe was a red snapper to order.
Crab is one of our favourite foods anywhere in the world. Chili crab is a popular dish across South East Asia, and we’ve eaten our share. But this chili crab was hands down the best we’ve ever had. The crab was perfectly fried. The chili sauce was fiery, rich, and complex. And the fresh-made house sambal—fried tomato, chili, onion, garlic, and a little fish paste mixed with a splash of cooking oil—goes on record as the tastiest we’ve had in Indonesia. The snapper was just as superlative: perfectly pan-fried and the perfect vessel for getting more sambal from bowl to mouth.
Each serving came with a steaming bowl of rice and a heap of fresh herbs. The chili crab sauce and sambal were so good that even rice-loathing Natalie polished off her bowl. We washed it all down with mugs of iced tea sweetened with absurd amounts of cane sugar. We both usually take our tea black (or green, etc) but stirring, spooning, and even chewing the raw sugar in this arctic cold tea really struck a chord.
The vibe was as good as the food. A husband and wife team ran the kitchen along one “wall”—he sat over a frying wok minding the proteins and she expo-ed. Another woman ran food and kept the tea flowing. The “dining room” was a collection of long and low communal tables. Tables turned over quickly but remained full. Lots of folks pulled up on their scooters to get takeaway on their way home. As we waited for our meal, we caught the attention of women’s rec soccer team. After lots of giggles back and forth, they initiated a little photo shoot.
Our first morning in Borneo started like most days in South East Asia: over a bowl of soup.
Before sending us off to orangutan land, Arif wanted to introduce us to another central Kalimantan icon: coto manggala. He took us to Mama Dewi, a local institution that specializes in this local delicacy. We could tell by the groups of women clustered on mats around low tables and the school children ordering takeaway that Mama Dewi’s is the coto manggala spot in Pangkalan Bun.
The name coto manggala—also known as soto manggala—simply means cassava soup. It is (you guessed it) a gelatinous soup that features cassava and not a more typical rice base. The cassava is boiled until half-cooked before chicken legs and/or feet and seasoning—garlic, salt, pepper—are added. Coto manggala is served piping hot topped with celery, fried onions and airy prawn crackers, with a spicy house-made sambal close at hand. At Mama Dewi, four delicious styles of corn, onion, and tempeh fritters come as standard sides. Our beloved sweet tea made another appearance. This time Arif taught us how to order it “sort of sweet”.
After breakfast we departed for the port town of Kumai, a 30-minute drive from Pangkalan Bun. Best known as the departure docks for klotok boats heading into Tanjung Puting National Park, Kumai also holds the fascinating distinction of being the “bird hotel” capital of Indonesia.
Driving into town, we heard what sounded like thousands of swallows belting their little lungs out. We stuck our heads out the window trying to catch a view, but the skies were empty. Massive concrete buildings loomed large on either side of the road, but we saw not a single bird in flight. We asked Arif what was going on. He told us that Kumai is filled with commercial nest farms or “bird hotels”. Cliff’s eyes lit up.
Edible swallows’ nests—most famously used in Chinese “bird’s nest soup” in which nests are dissolved into a broth to impart a uniquely gelatinous texture and sublime flavor—are among the most expensive ingredients on Earth. In China and Thailand wild made nests sell for upwards of $10,000 per kilogram. But demand outpaces natural supply, and commercial nest farming has become big business. Farmed nests pull in $2,500–$3,000 per kilogram.
Borneo is home to Indonesia’s largest swallow population. It’s estimated that the swallow nest industry in Kumai—a town of 25,000—accounts for about .5% of Indonesia’s GDP.
The town is packed with industrial nest-building complexes. (Like many business ventures in the developing world, once one entrepreneur turns a profit with a new idea, all of his neighbours jump on the very same wagon, often in the very same seat). The large, faceless concrete buildings have little entry holes on all sides, blast swallow recordings on loop to lure the birds in. Almost as soon as a bird moves in, the nest is harvested and shipped out the far corners of the ultra-luxe world. We begged Arif to get us inside, but he assured us that was an impossible ask.