Did you ever ‘bake’ mudcakes as a child? I don’t know whether Australian kids still do it – perhaps they have too many other less messy things to do. However, in at least one a village on the island of Halmahera (Maluku Utara, Indonesia) the craft is definitely still alive and well.
The floral decorations were a very nice touch.
The girls were at first a little embarrassed by our interest in their ‘cooking’, but laughed when we asked if we could eat some of the biscuits, and soon were showing them off proudly, and posing for us with their mothers.
There is nothing ‘standard’ about the bird known as “Wallace‘s standardwing” (Semioptera wallacii). Actually it gets its name because the wings of the male bird are anything but ‘standard’. It has two long white plumes extending from the top of each wing which, when raised during display, vaguely resemble military pennants (sometimes called ‘standards’).
The Standardwing is a species of bird-of-paradise, found only on the North Maluku islands of Moratai, Bacan and Halmahera – which is where we encountered it. It’s named ‘Wallace’s standardwing’ in recognition of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1858 was the first European to describe it.
Back in April we witnessed this display in the Akatajewe Lolobata National Park on the island of Halmahera. We set out at 4:00am from the ranger’s house where we were boarding, trekking for two hours through primary forest along a partially overgrown path. At that time, and under the dense canopy, it was quite dark, and we certainly needed our headlamps to make our way through.
Sounds from the forest (tweets, squawks, whistles, rattles and hoots) hinted at an abundance of life waking up around us.
Along the way, we disturbed a Black-chinned whistler (Pachycephala mentalis) and a pair of Shining flycatchers (Myiagra alecto) who were asleep on branches beside the path.
Every dawn during mating season, a large number of male birds assemble in a treetop location and display their plumage, flitting from branch to branch in a frenzy, flapping wings, biting on the branches and squawking. This behaviour, which I now know to be called a ‘lek’, is either designed to impress the females (how could they resist?) or to establish a hierarchy of breeding rights amongst the males. Whatever the function – it’s quite a performance.
We watched and photographed the birds for an hour or so, enthralled by all of the action above. Then we paused for breakfast as the lek seemed to be winding down. But at that moment two male Standardwings began noisily fighting above us and, locked together in a tight wrestling embrace, they fell about 20 metres from the treetop and plummeted to the ground near us. One flew away, but the other was quite stunned by the fall, and we nursed it until it had recovered enough to fly away again.
But it wasn’t until we returned some hours later that we could appreciate the full grandeur the landscape through which we had travelled.
We finally arrived at a rocky knoll where the lek takes place, just as the dawn light was gradually brightening.
Our encounter with the Standardwings was a great and memorable experience, and well worth getting up for the pre-dawn hike. We were ably guided by Pak Bahar, Park Ranger extraordinaire Pak Roji and his son Anggie. Sarapan dibungkus (yellow rice, chicken, veggies and sambal) was kindly provided by Ibu Ena. Big thanks to them all for making it possible.
Next time you open a can of coconut milk (or sip on coconut water or perhaps enjoy a lamington crusted with crumbs of desiccated coconut), spare a thought for the people who harvest the coconuts.
In some places, mature fruit is cut from the smaller palms (Cocos nucifera) using a long bamboo pole with a blade on the end.
In parts of Thailand, trained macaques are used to climb and remove the coconuts. In other locations (e.g. New Guinea) they often just wait for the fruit to fall naturally.
But in Indonesia, which is the largest producer worldwide, the usual method is for plantation workers to free climb to the top of the palms (which can be up to 25 metres tall) and cut the coconuts off with a long knife, dropping them to the ground below.
Safety harnesses are rarely used.
For copra production, it’s best to harvest the coconuts at about 12 months after flowering. So, to optimise production, each palm is climbed about once every six weeks.
The trunk of the palm has notches cut into it to facilitate the climb. But it’s hard and dangerous work, and serious injuries and deaths are all too common.
Sago starch is produced from several species of palm, but mainly from the ‘True sago palm’ (Metroxylon sagu), which originated on the islands of Maluku and New Guinea. Now it is found cultivated in equatorial regions around the world. It is still a major food source in some communities, especially in Papua, Maluku and Sulawesi, and was even more important in the times before rice cultivation arrived in Indonesia. Sago (called ‘sagu’ in Indonesia) is very high in carbohydrates (about 94%), but low in protein and mineral content.
The sago palm thrives in swampy locations, and tolerates soil conditions (poor nutrients, heavy clays, high concentrations of metallic elements) that would kill other plants. It grows to 15 metres high, and spreads by suckering. It doesn’t branch, and after about 12 years a mature sago palm stem will produce one large umbrella-like flower head, and the entire stem dies off after fruit has matured. The starch content of the sago palm is highest just before the flowers open – so this is when the stem is cut down and harvested.
Back in April we were fortunate to chance upon some men harvesting sago. They were more than happy to demonstrate the process of production – and to be photographed while doing so.
Sago palms are widespread on the Moluccan island of Halmahera.
The tall sago trunk, 30-40cm in diameter, is chopped down, cut into lengths and laid flat on an open area of ground.
Two men rasp the truck to break down the pith into coarse crumbs, pushing backwards and forwards with a 2m plank through which a large number heavy nails have been hammered.
During this stage they may also find that red palm weevils (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) have bored into the trunk. These are larvae of a variety of ‘snout beetle’, which is regarded as a major pest in plantations of coconut, oil palm and dates.
However in Halmahera these 2-4cm long grubs are prized as a delicacy, and they are carefully extracted from the holes they have drilled into the trunk, and put aside for later consumption.
The ground pith from the trunk is transferred in batches into a long tub, which has itself been formed out of a large palm frond.
Water is bucketed into the tub, and the mixture is vigorously kneaded and squeezed to extract a solution of starch from the fibrous material of the trunk.
The tub is raised at one end, and the starchy liquid runs out the other end, filtered through a coarse cloth which removes any remaining fibres.
This solution falls into a large settling tub (which was made out of an old canoe!), where it is left for a time for the heavier sago starch to sediment down to the bottom. The water is drained off the top, and paste of starch is removed and dried ready for use.
Sago may be ‘pearled’ to produce the familiar little sago beads. But on Halmahera it is mostly baked in a clay ‘forna’ to produce a long-lasting bread called ‘sagu lempeng’, or little hard cakes known as ‘bagea’. Also, in something of a regional speciality, sago flour is boiled to make a clear gelatinous porridge known as ‘papeda’. The papeda has little flavour of its own, and so is usually eaten in a soup along with fish, sambal and vegetables.