31: Big Fish

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Giant gourami lunch

Aftet leaving the Samudra Raksa Museum I went in search of my driver, Nana. I walked through the site grounds, past the exterior market stalls selling refreshements and toward the car park where I found him having a little down time with the other drivers who were waiting for their tourists. When he saw me approaching he quickly broke off from his conversation and switched his big smile back on as he walked over to resume his role as the tourist’s driver. I was hungry so the first thing on the agenda before we continued on the rest of the day trip was food.

I had asked Nana to take me to a nice Indonesian place to eat – nothing too extravagant, but a good few tiers up from a street warung. Although I know he meant well, when we rolled up at some swanky looking outdoor restaurant with a roofed terrace and a mâitre d’ I laughed and shook my head. The place was full of couples and looked more suited to a wedding reception than a tasty lunch.

“No no Nana” I said, “This is too much. We’re not going on a date mate. I don’t want to be sat in here on my own with all these couples. Just take me to an ordinary place. Somewhere decent, but not a full-on restaurant.” Of course he didn’t understand a word I said, but the paralinguistics were clear. So we got back in the car and he drove us a few meters up the road to another restaurant. This place also had an outdoor terrace area along with its own pond and a little bridge that led to a pagoda with seating on the other side. There were islands of seating dispersed pleasantly amongst the dried grass around the edges of the pond and it all looked very nice. Unfortunately, whilst it was a good idea in theory, the reality was that the pond feature was little more than an algae filled stagnant body of water that looked like a murky green soup. Mosquitos and flies were hovering and pestering and it just wasn’t a place where anyone would want to sit and eat food. So we walked back inside the main building and took a seat by the window.

I had an aquarium for many years and I’ve had all manner of tropical fish as pets, including gouramis. Gouramis are a colourful species from Asia that are a good addition in a tank full of community fish, or even in amongst a semi-aggressive collection with breeds like cichlids and catfish. They typically have two little whisker-like pectoral fins, which are their genetic trademark, and there are numerous colourful varieties ranging from silvery blues and golden oranges to luminescent pinks. Since I had been in Indonesia I had noticed gourami being offered on a few of the menus and was intrigued as to what breed they used for cooking. I’ve had dwarf gouramis, pearl gouramis, kissing gouramis and even giant gouramis, but none of these had grown more than two or three inches long. So when I ordered the gourami that was on the menu I wasn’t expecting a ten inch-long beast of a thing spilling over the sides of my plate. Clearly this breed of gourami wasn’t on offer in the pet shops in England.

The beast of a fish dish I got was delish. It was covered in a pineapple, pepper and a sambal sweet and sour sauce and served with sticky rice. My mouth watered just looking at it. But it was way too much for one person to eat so I invited Nana to share. He declined at first, I assume because he wanted to retain the driver/client professional protocol (he was going to wait for me in the car until I told him to come in). But I insisted. It would have just been a waste otherwise.

As Nana and I sat sharing the monster gourami in the air-conditioned cool of the café I asked him about the rest of the day’s agenda. He told me our next stop was Telaga-Warna – the Colour Lake – after which we would be heading to the sulphur mines and craters of the Dieng Plateau. He said that this was going to take another two hours or so of driving. Another two hours listening to those three decades of love ballads again with a man who only spoke about twenty words of English. This wasn’t what I had planned for and I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Sometimes though, the best experiences are those ones of which you have least expectation.



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