Where to stay

Grand Dafam Bela Ternate Comfortable hotel right in the heart of the action, with an excellent breakfast buffet featuring a wide array of local and global dishes, breads and pastries. Doubles from £48. Jalan Jati Raya No.500, Ternate, 00 62 921 312 1800

Grand Hyatt Jakarta Smart, palm tree-flanked, centrally located hotel just minutes from many of the city’s major landmarks and attractions. Doubles from £130. Jalan MH Thamrin Kav 28-30, Jakarta, 00 62 21 2992 1234, hyatt.com

Mandarin Oriental JakartavWell-located local outpost of the dependable luxury chain with pool, bar and spa. Doubles from £130. Jalan MH Thamrin, Jakarta,v00 62 21 2993 8888, mandarinoriental.com

Villa Ma’rasai Friendly, family-run boutique hotel located in the heart of Ternate’s jungle among verdant palm, clove and muscat trees. Doubles from £45. Jalan Kampus II, Unkhair Gambesi, Ternate, 00 62 813 9288 9475, vilamarasai.com

Travel Information

Ternate and Tidore are in the Indonesian province of North Maluku, which is located in the Maluku Sea. The islands were once the world’s single largest producer of cloves, a commodity that allowed their sultans to become among the wealthiest and most powerful in the Indonesian region. Currency is the Indonesian rupiah (IDR). Time is nine hours ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to Jakarta take around 15 hours. From Jakarta, Ternate is 4 hours away by plane and Tidore is around 15 minutes further (Lion Air lionair.co.id offers local flights). In April,
the average high temperature is 31C and the average low is 24C.

offers regular flights from London Stansted and Gatwick to Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International via Dubai. emirates.com

Qatar Airways flies from London Heathrow to Jakarta, with one stop at Hamad International in Doha. qatarairways.com

Wonderful Indonesia
is the islands’ official tourist board and its website is packed with useful information to help you plan your trip, from upcoming events to practical advice for getting around. indonesia.travel


To offset your carbon emissions, make a donation at climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 4.13 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £30.97.

Where to eat

Prices are per person for three courses, with an alcoholic drink unless otherwise stated

Bahari Berkesan Market The best place to try traditional sweets and snacks. Don’t miss the stalls selling bags of moreish miluv(sweetened corn with coconut). Jalan Sultan M Djabir Sjah, Ternate

Cengkeh Afo and Gamalama Spices Community Visit the world’s oldest clove tree and enjoy a stunning traditional feast of foods cooked inside bamboo, among other specialities, at the cultural centre. From £33. Tongole Village, Marikrubu (Call Kris Syamsudin to arrange a visit, 00 62 813 4010 0140)

Grand Fatmah Seafood Excellent spot for barbecued fish and lobster with fantastic panoramic views of Tidore island. Don’t miss the grilled snapper cooked with fresh turmeric. From £12. Moya, Central Ternate, Ternate, 00 62 921 620 6628

Kopra An excellent coffee shop whose brews are made with quality native beans and sweetened with local spices. From 80p per cup. Jalan Sultan Babullah No.253, Ternate, 00 62 852 5621 1039

Lilian Restaurant Family-run restaurant serving ‘garden food’. Try the popeda with soup, and tumis bunga. From £10. Jalan Nuri, No.478, Lingkungan Cempaka Putih, Kelurahan Santiong, Ternate

Pasar Tradisional Gamalama Ternate This bustling night market offers numerous grilled fish stalls for visitors to browse. The best stall, displaying the freshest fish, is the largest, and therefore very easy to find. Large fish, from £8. Ikan Bakar Terminal, Ternate

Ratu Sayang ‘Garden food’ restaurant serving all the classic dishes. Don’t miss the green banana cooked in coconut milk, and a truly delicious coconut milk version of tumis bunga. From £14. Depan Masjid Terminal, Malaha, Tidore, 00 62 813 4086 7346

Rumah Makan Popeda Gamalama Buffet-style dining located within Bahari Berkesan market which serves an excellent version of gohu ikan. From £5. Jalan Sultan M Djabir Sjah, Ternate

SS Home Resto Traditional seafood, chicken and vegetable dishes. Try the grilled bubara, and the rich, spicy mie goreng. From £17. Jalan Mangaa Dua, Ternate, 00 62 8529 2225 5884

Food Glossary

Aer guraka
A very sweet, spiced coffee topped with kenari, a local nut
Smoked small tuna
Colo colo
A spicy salad of tomatoes, onions, calamansi lime and lemon basil, served with grilled fish
Gohu ikan
Raw fish dish of tuna marinated in lime juice, chilli, shallots and lemon basil, often topped with peanuts
Gula gula
The general name for sweets and confectionery, such as palita and popaca – both flour based
Kecap manis
Sticky, sweetened soy sauce used to flavour lots of dishes and also as a table condiment
Makanan kebun
Phrase translating to ‘garden food’, referring to the local cuisine which uses the freshest produce
Mee bakso
A popular meatball soup served with noodles and condiments
Mie goreng
Ubiquitous dish of fried noodles with seafood, vegetables and lots of kecap manis
Nasi goreng
Fried rice prepared in the same manner as mie goreng
Sago made from the spongy stems of palm trees and served as a sticky, glue-like carbohydrate
Sago lempeng
A type of sago made from cassava root, which is pressed and dried into a bread shape
Endlessly variable chilli condiment eaten with every meal, which may contain dried fish, spices and different types of chilli
Small, dried anchovies eaten as a garnish on steamed rice.They are extremely salty and a local delicacy
Tumis bunga
Stir-fry of papaya flowers and cassava leaveswith chilli, sometimes served with fresh coconut milk

Food and Travel Review

Amid the shimmering turquoise seas and dense jungle islands of Indonesia’s North Maluku province lie the twin volcanic islands of Ternate and Tidore. With a combined population of just 300,000, the pace of day-to-day life is one which belies the region’s dramatic history. Once a centre of great wealth and power in Southeast Asia, these ‘Spice Islands’ were a target for Europeans, keen to take control of the lucrative trade in cloves, nutmeg and mace. The Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch all wrestled for domination over one of the most powerful trading currencies the world has ever known.

Indonesia regained independence after a brief Japanese occupation at the end of the Second World War, and although the market power of spices has diminished, they’re still an economic foundation. The majority of islanders farm cloves or nutmeg, which grow on the steep slopes of Ternate’s Mount Gamalama. This active volcano last erupted in 2011, its destructive power visible across the landscape as deep clefts through roads and bridges, jagged lava mounds and beaches of glittering black sand.

Around this remarkable landscape buzz small towns: rows of pastel-painted houses mingle with stalls peddling mee bakso (meatball soup) and mie goreng (fried noodles) sticky with kecap manis, a sweetened soy sauce. Mopeds swerve through narrow streets filled with the aromas of chilli and coconut. Perhaps uniquely, the further one moves into the mountains, the stronger the spiced scents. Cloves are everywhere, spread out to dry in the sun, their perfume thick and sweet on a humid afternoon.

Cengkeh Afo, literally meaning ‘old clove’ in Ternatese, the local dialect, is the oldest clove tree in the world. It sits 800m above sea level in a spice plantation of around 50 trees which provide an essential, if unpredictable income for local people. While the trees may produce cloves twice a year under perfect conditions, some years they don’t bear buds at all. Nutmeg is more reliable, producing fragrant seeds up to three times annually, providing a dependable filler crop sold at a more consistent price.

‘Around this remarkable landscape buzz small towns: rows of pastel-painted houses mingle with stalls peddling mee bakso (meatball soup) and mie goreng (fried noodles) sticky with kecap manis, a sweetened soy sauce. Mopeds swerve through streets filled with the aromas of chilli and coconut’

Many farmers share a patch of jungle, shinning up trees to pick sprays of cloves or hook ripe nutmeg from the branches. Taher, at 70 years old, is an experienced picker, his leathery skin a sign of a life lived in the canopy. ‘I started picking in elementary school, as soon as possible,’ he says. ‘My parents taught me how to choose spices, which ones to take and leave.’ Now, his age means he finds climbing difficult. He’s been picking since daybreak, with a bag of nutmegs to show for it; he’ll dry them in the sun before selling on to a distributor (1kg will fetch 80,000 Indonesian rupiahs, around £4.50). They’ll go to Surabaya and Singapore with the other 6-10 tonnes leaving the island every day, along with 10 tonnes of cloves at peak season. For locals there’s no need to buy any, of course – they’ll just pick them right from the tree.

One of the most ingenious nutmeg businesses is owned by Siti Sulastri, known locally as Su. She set up her company Tanawan as a way of using up the seed shell of nutmeg, usually discarded once the pod has dried and its inner seed and spidery red coating harvested as nutmeg and mace. She soaks the pods in saltwater to remove acidity, before peeling off the skins to make a refreshing cold drink called sarabati, which tastes like a blend of iced tea and hibiscus. The flesh of the pod she slices thinly on a homemade wooden mandoline, before coating it in garlic powder and salt, then deep-frying. The twisted morsels are crunchy, with just a background hint of nutmeg, a perfect salty snack. Finally, there’s her award-winning version of the ubiquitous and endlessly variable sambal, a chile condiment served with every meal. Hers is flavoured with nutmeg, of course. ‘I am the first woman to make these local products,’ she explains, beaming, ‘and now I teach others how to make them, too.’

‘Many farmers share a patch of jungle, shinning up trees to pick sprays of cloves or hook nutmeg. Taher, at 70 years old, is an experienced picker, his leathery skin a sign of a life lived in the canopy’

It took her months to perfect her recipes but now she sells them to shops all over the island. ‘It was my mother-in-law who encouraged me to start the business. She said, “you have won cooking competitions, you are smart, you can do it”. So I did.’ People use the spices to flavour sweets, too, a tradition introduced by the Portuguese, who were skilled at turning local palm sugar into elaborate confections. There is popaco, a cone of banana leaf filled with a sticky green paste, and palita, a square white confection flavoured with almondy pandan leaf. Nasi pulo is particularly good – pucks of coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves at the market, where ladies languidly swish fans over multicoloured displays. The North Malukans’ sweet tooth extends to their coffee habits, too. Aer guraka is a rich, thick coffee flavoured with ginger and cinnamon and topped with chopped kenari, a waxy nut like a large almond. Just a seven-minute speedboat ride away, on the smaller, sleepier island of Tidore, locals are drinking kopi dabe, a similarly sweet, spiced drink made with pandan leaf, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger, again topped with kenari. At the island’s popular Jojobo coffee shop, owner Taiba Danobagu sells the drink along with sarabati and innovative creations such as spiced-coffee ice cream. ‘A chef from Sweden taught me to make the ice cream,’ she smiles, ‘when he came here to visit as a tourist.’ Now, she sells it all over the island.

Almost everything the people sell, they harvest from the land, but spices are not the only crops. Cassava is a mainstay, its waxy roots cooked in coconut milk and leaves stir-fried into an earthy vegetable dish with chilli and papaya flowers, called tumis bunga. On Tidore, the root is also used to make sago, a staple food which is transformed into a unique, regional kind of hard ‘bread’ called sago lempeng, eaten as the main carbohydrate at every meal. First the root is ground to a paste, then pressed to remove the liquid and packed into a unique mould shaped like a toaster, called a ngura. These moulds are set over fire to dry before the ‘toast’ is removed and the slices laid onto a grill where they finish drying and hardening.

It’s a highly skilled process which takes time to learn. A woman called Hadijah makes it at home, starting at 6am to produce around 500 pieces of sago lempeng per day. ‘Older generations must pass on the knowledge of how to make sago lempeng,’ she says, constantly rearranging the ngura. The mould must be exactly the right temperature to make sure they don’t burn, but they must be cooked enough to be removed intact and transferred to the grill above. The end product is smoked gently over fallen branches from clove and cinnamon trees to make a toasty, smoked regional variation on the usual sun-dried product.

Back on Ternate, sago is made from palms, and it couldn’t be more different. Extracted from the spongy centre of the tree, the resulting crude ‘flour’ is mixed with water to make a gluey, flavourless paste which is served with soups and stews and swallowed without chewing. It’s an essential part of makanan kebun or ‘garden food’, meaning a spread of dishes made from ingredients growing right outside the many, almost identical family-run restaurants of Ternate. Seafood is also celebrated, and it’s some of the best in the world. Bonito, tuna, snapper and grouper are all popular served grilled or fried. The most lucrative catch for local fishermen are yellowfin tuna. It’s early morning at Bastion, a port built by the Portuguese in 1522 to defend their control of the clove trade, later turned into a fishing port by the Japanese. Fisherman Nurdin Sahaba has been out all night and is finally landing his catch. ‘We travel to the open water where we have a raft,’ he explains, ‘then we hang palm fronds from it to attract smaller fish, which bring the tuna.’ This morning he feels particularly pleased with a 35kg yellowfin, worth 42,000 Indonesian rupees, or £2.30 per kilo.

The wet market at the harbour is basic but bustles with the chatter of customers and dank thud of cleavers. Mother-and-daughter team Fahim and Ayu have been selling fish here since 1999 and today they have a table of gleaming bonito, plump and round. Ayu has just finished school and will join her mother full time on the stall, ‘I am very happy!’ she shouts, delighted at her own mastery of English. Customers shop for small fish to cook whole or grill at home, while shiny-coated cats wait patiently under tables, ready to breakfast on any fallen or discarded fish. Raw fish is a delicacy on tables around the market, too; gohu ikan is a culinary legacy of the Japanese – a bright, ceviche-style dish of tuna marinated in lime juice, chilli, shallots and plenty of lemon basil.

At the Cengkeh Afo and Gamalama Spices Community, a spice farm and local food experience, cook Norma A Bladu demonstrates a traditional method of cooking seafood, called masakan rimo rimo, or ‘steaming inside bamboo’. Squatting on the floor of her traditional kitchen, she uses a traditional volcanic stone pestle and mortar called a cobek to grind ochre-coloured turmeric root, ginger, lime leaf, coconut and a local chilli called gufu to a fragrant paste. She marinates the fish in the juice of tiny, fragrant calamansi limes and packs it inside the bamboo, bunging the end with a rolled-up banana leaf. Each length of bamboo is propped against a fire where the fish steams with the aromatics to milky, pearlescent flakes.

There’ssmokedfish,too–alocalspecialitycalledcakalangmade from small tuna. Sadek Wambes has been smoking around 100 fish per day at his home for more than ten years, although he jokes that it took him a while to get the hang of it. ‘At first I couldn’t get it right, and every time I made a mistake, my wife would hit me,’ he laughs.

The fish are gutted, split and smoked over smouldering mangrove wood until lacquered a shiny burnt umber. He sells them locally at the market, where regulars snap them up to eat with steamed rice, tiny crispy fish called teri and sambal dabu dabu, a condiment made with chillies, shallots and tomatoes. After sunset, the action moves to Ikan Bakar Terminal night market, where the air is thick with smoke and chatter as locals gather for barbecued fish. Customers make their choices from an iced fish counter, where fish are split, dipped into calamansi juice and then moved to the grill, where they’re brushed with turmeric, onion and coconut oil. ‘A popular order is the fish head,’ says long-time griller Sardi. ‘We cook it over coconut husks and people play live music. It is a very good time.’ Diners share long tables lit by dangling bulbs, eagerly topping their plate with colo colo, a spicy salad comprised of tomato, onions and lemon basil.

Looking around at these spirited scenes, it’s hard to believe that the people of North Maluku don’t receive many visitors these days. The economic power of the spice trade may not be what it once was, but the riches from fertile volcanic farmland and warm tropical seas are still present, and the people keen to preserve their culinary traditions. It is now up to us to join their table.

Food and Travel travelled courtesy of The Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy for Republic of Indonesia. indonesia.travel

Words by Helen Graves

Photography by Peter Cassidy

This feature was taken from the April 2020 issue of Food and Travel.

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