Makassar is Indonesia’s fourth-largest city and one of the country’s grand aquariums, brimming with an astonishing bounty of seafood.
When I think Makassar, I think grilled fish, and I am here on a mission to sample as much as I can muster, served with some of Makassar’s legendary sambals. It’s still breakfast time when I arrive. “Would you like to start the day with our famous coto Makassar?” beams Irfan the driver. “Let the feasting begin,” I reply.
Curiously enough, Makassar is most renowned for its coto Makassar, a smooth, meaty soup that is sold on just about every street-side warung, bold flapping banners sporting the name proudly in huge bright letters. In Makassar they are serious about coto. “Fish is everyday fare,” the driver explains. “Meat dishes are more special.”
Coto Nusantara is renowned for its full-flavoured version, and by ten in the morning, this small no-frills café is wall to wall with customers. I join the crowds and squeeze on to a tin chair at a small table, rubbing shoulders with school students, businessmen and locals, to savour the pride of Makassar.
One of the wait staff approaches our table. “Would you like coto with beef only or with beef and innards?”
“Meat and innards. Let’s have the lot!” I reply, eager to tuck in. I am presented with a small bowl of coto, topped with a modest pile of finely chopped chives and fried shallots. Ketupat (compressed rice cake), slices of lime, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and a sambal worthy of its name partner the dish, do-it-yourself style. The secret is revealed in the first mouthful; the stock and the slow cooking of the meat create a mellow, aromatic and deeply satisfying broth that’s worth all the fuss. I can identify a dash of tamarind and palm sugar, but the rest is a mystery.
“In Makassar, we only eat coto before midday,” explains Irfan.
“Obviously,” I reply, as I look around at a healthy quota of customers and even more lining up at the door. If only Casa Luna had this many guests at breakfast time.
Lunchtime, and pallu mara, another local favourite of tender fish simmered in a mist of gentle spices: turmeric, red shallots, tamarind, palm sugar and lemongrass, enough to excite but not to overpower. A banquet of sambals complete the feast: slivered green mango with sliced red chilli and a hint of terasi (shrimp paste), dice-size chunks of red and green tomato with more chilli, an almost sauce-likeblend of ground peanuts with green mango and tiny cheeks of lime and kemangi, one of the world’s most alluring lime-scented herbs. I’m especially excited about the green mango. Supremely elegant and refreshing, you can understand why pallu mara is eaten at any time of day.
Sop konro for dinner is next on the list at Sop Konro Karebosi. Sturdy beef ribs simmered until tender in a luscious, dark broth that contains just enough kluwak (the seed from the kepayang tree) to make it seductive. Kluwak is what I call the olive of Indonesia, with a similar flavour and colour, albeit a tad bitter. I imagine it’s loaded with iron and all sorts of minerals. These fragrant, hefty bones are served straddling the broth, topped with spring onions and crisp shallots with the regulation slices of lime and sambal on the side. “The lime breaks down the fat of the meat. Makes it healthier for you. In fact, we eat lime with just about everything.” I am enjoying the idea that certain foods are eaten at certain times of the day.
The Paotere Market is where all Makassan fishermen converge, bearing their catch of the day. It’s 6am and business is frenetic. I dodge fishermen bearing sacks of tuna and squish and squeeze past local traders, shoppers, restaurateurs and dozens of young boys, tomorrow’s fishermen, eager for a photo amidst all this piscine joy. We are surrounded by baskets of sardines as shiny as ornamental bait, torpedo-shaped mackerel in soldier-neat rows, tiny anchovies, piles of exotic coral-coloured and small spotty fish, belt fish, catfish, garfish, red mullet, squid, clams and prawns: held to ransom by just about everything from the sea.
Apart from the intense market experience, I am here to bask in a breakfast of grilled fish. We buy fresh baronang and a bag of small squid for just over two dollars and proceed to the warung near the market entrance. Our humble purchase is tossed on their roadside barbecue, basted with an aromatic mix of coconut oil, sea salt and garlic and cooked to perfection over smoky mangrove wood and coconut husks. In Makassar, they like their fish relatively naked. It is presented with steamed rice, a light coconut-milk broth of cellophane noodles with vegetables, a full-fired, ground-shaking sambal, peanut sauce, sliced lime and kemangi.
I watch a fisherman at a nearby table as he slowly squeezes lime juice into his broth, followed by leaf after leaf of kemangi and a careful measure of sweet soy. It’s feeling like a ceremony as he stirs slowly and tastes after each addition, a process as earnest as the conversation at his table. Breakfast is serious in any culture!
For something sweet, we head for Mama Toko Kue dan Es Krim on Jalan Serui and meet Ibu Mimi, the proud mama behind Mama’s! Devoted to traditional Bugis cakes, Ibu Mimi uses only the finest ingredients to create her Makassar-famous sweets. I love soft rice-flour desserts so I pile my plate high with an assortment of pink, green, coconut milk-white and banana-leaf wrapped cakes, but the kue bangko, coconut milk with sweet corn, is my favourite.
My Makassar culinary retreat ends with pallu basa at Pallu Basa Serigala. This is a slightly creamy version of coto that features a shy beef broth that is simmered with grated, toasted coconut and spices. From the tinge of golden yellow, I can see it contains turmeric, and after a few mouthfuls I detect coriander seeds.
It’s starting to feel like home and my Sherlock Holmes detective taste buds kick in. “Does it contain galangal? Maybe lemongrass? How about pepper, tamarind and palm sugar?” Yes, grins the young cook, while chopping chunks of cooked meat with a fat cleaver. Or was he just saying that?
But the highlight of the trip was a humble lunch on tiny Lae Lae island, a ten-minute boat ride from Makassar. A trip to this neighbouring island was arranged by Makassar Writer’s Festival director and friend Lily Yulianti Farid. Grilled mackerel, vegetables with extra chunks of tender jackfruit in coconut milk and a glorious sambal, brilliant in its redness of fresh tomato mixed with ground peanuts and kemangi, was prepared by a team of mothers on the island. Sometimes the simplest meals are the most satisfying.