Our histories never unfold in isolation. We cannot truly tell what we consider to be our own histories without knowing the other stories. And often we discover that those other stories are actually our own stories.
Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle
What are my stories, my histories, my memories? What are the foods that carry these stories, histories, and memories? There are not easy answers but this is part of what I am hoping to untangle a little bit as I cook, write and share here with you.
I’ve recently been learning about the area in which my mother’s family comes from in Holland. Both my grandmother and grandfather on that side were born in the small northern province of Groningen, in towns about 15km apart. About 25km from where my grandfather was born, one of the more noted Dutch explorers of the 17th century was also born – Abel Tasman. He is most lauded for being the first European to ‘discover’ Tasmania (which subsequently bears his name), New Zealand, Tonga, and Fiji. He sailed under the Dutch East Indies Company flag, that ‘mercenary company’ which, in the pursuit of spice trading and immense profit, ruthlessly took control and ruled what is now called Indonesia.
As I’ve been reading about his travels, I’ve been reflecting on particular episodes of his story. On one of his first voyages, a number of the written accounts note that he attempted to land on an island named Seram (Ceram) in what is now Indonesia. The landing is remembered in retrospect as ‘ill-judged’ because a number of his crew lost their life and he had a ‘narrow escape’ after the local inhabitants attacked them. Those Indigenous folks knew what was up, as the Portuguese had already been sailing and trading for spices in the area and even beginning to set up missions. And long before them, the Chinese and Indian traders had been sailing back and forth from these islands for nearly 1000 years to acquire the rare spices that grew exclusively there. The locals knew by now how to treat unwanted visitors.
Abel, though, perhaps didn’t learn his lesson. He kept sailing and eventually was selected for some longer, major exploratory voyages. On one of these, when he was the first European to sight New Zealand, history repeated itself; the Maori put their war canoes in the water when they spotted him trying to land, killing a number of his crew and preventing him from landing. Upon returning to Jakarta with two major exploration voyages under his belt, Tasman unexpectedly found himself ‘reassigned’ from exploration duties. His superiors had deemed his voyages as failures because, despite being the first to spot and map these new and wonderful places, he had been unable or unwilling to land and explore them further. Maybe that early lesson in Seram did in fact stay in his memory after all…
I’ve been reading and learning a little about Seram and the region it’s part of, a group of islands called Maluku. These islands were once known as the Spice Islands in the lore of the West due to the large amounts of nutmeg, mace and cloves that were exclusively found there. It’s been said that “these islands were literally responsible for starting the Age of Exploration and for the discovery of America by Columbus.” That seems a little like victim blaming to me, but you get the importance of this area to the spice trade, which is why my ancestors were taking these ‘ill-judged’ ventures here.
I’ve been wanting to learn more about the cuisine as well, to cook something that came from this badass place that once resisted my ancestor’s ill-advised encroachment into their land. Indonesian cuisine is riotously diverse, as you would expect when your country is composed of thousands of different islands populated by hundreds of different ethnic groups. This particular dish that I chose to recreate comes from this Maluku region and, as you might expect from an area composed by islands, is laden with the bounty of the sea. It’s called gohu ikan and is typically served, as I understand, with heaps of steamed cassava to fill you up. I think it is most traditionally found on an island just north of Seram called Ternate (famous for its cloves and its conflict laden recent past), though variations of it are made throughout the region.
There’s not a lot of recipes or information about the dish online in English, so most of the research for this was done thanks to Google Translate, so take the recipe with a pinch of… nutmeg. But this is also not intended to be an ‘authentic’ take (whatever that might mean to you) as I’m not Indonesian, I’ve never been to Maluku to try it, and my experience cooking this region’s cuisine is meagre. It is more of a toast to their resistance, to their spirit of struggle, an ‘I’m inspired-by-your-anticolonial-resistance’ recipe. I’ve also adapted it to be more of an appetizer, light dinner, or drinking snack – it goes down incredibly well with a glass of beer at just about any time of day.
The dish is sometimes called Ternate sashimi, thanks to Japanese influence in the Indonesian cuisine, but it perhaps more closely resembles other dishes from around the world such as ceviche or aguachile which are also ‘cooked’ by the acidity of the citrus juice used and, in the case of aguachile, complimented by the addition of chilies. This version is wonderfully spicy, tangy and crunchy; its buttery tuna is complemented by fiery chilies, crunchy roasted peanuts, and the particular citrus sourness of the calamansi. It grabs your tongue from the very first bite and doesn’t unhand it until you’ve polished off the whole plateful. And a couple of beers as well…
To accompany this, instead of steamed cassava I decided to fry up some cassava chips because ceviche, tuna tartare, and the like are often served with chips of some sort here in North America. The chips serve primarily as a ‘vehicle’ or utensil, helping you to pile the seafood high and carefully navigate it into your mouth. For the cassava, as it might be in Maluku, I seasoned it by frying the chips in coconut oil and dusting them with coriander and salt, common flavor combinations from the region. I’ve chosen to deep fry the chips for that perfect golden crispiness (and, if you’re going to deep fry them then coconut oil is probably the healthiest option), though they could also be baked to nearly as good results, I imagine. The key here is uniform thin-ness which can be achieved by using a mandolin.
Did you try cooking this dish? If so, let me know what you think in the comments!
Gohu Ikan with Cassava Chips
A spin on a spicy raw tuna dish from the Spice Islands of Indonesia.
- 1 small cassava
- Coconut oil, enough to cover the cassava slices in whatever pan you're using
- sea salt, to taste
- freshly ground coriander, to taste
- 10-12 ounces yellowfin (ahi) tuna
- 1/4 cup fresh squeezed calamansi juice (can be substituted with lime juice)
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil
- 4 French shallots
- 1/2 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped
- 2-6 Thai bird's eye chilies (this depends on how spicy you want the dish. You can also control this by removing the seeds of the pepper for less spice. To give you a totally vague idea, I am someone who enjoys spicy food without being someone who pursues the spiciest chilis for the sake of punishing myself. I enjoy using Thai chilies because they are not as spicy as many others and I used six chilies, but removed about 1/3-1/2 of the seeds for a lovely, mouth warming but flavourful kick.)
- handful of fresh Thai basil, cut chiffonade
Peel the cassava and slice into thin circles using a mandolin. Soak immediately in ice cold water for 45-60min. Dry before frying.
Heat the coconut oil in a pan or pot until it is around 350F. A clip on candy/deep frying thermometer is super handy here, and an actual deep fryer is even more handy! If you don't have either, dip the handle of a wooden spoon into the hot oil and if it bubbles around the handle of the spoon, the oil is hot enough.
In batches, making sure not to fill the pot too full, fry the cassava until it is starting to brown around the edges. Once you’ve taken the chips out, dry on some paper towel and toss with sea salt and ground coriander. These are ready to go. Set aside so you don't eat them all before you need them. They're that good.
Cut your tuna into small squares and pour calamansi or lime juice over them. Mix and set aside in fridge for 10-20min.
Heat 3 tbsps of coconut oil in a frying pan. Once hot add diced shallots. Fry until starting to turn translucent, approx. 2-4 minutes. Add the chopped peanuts and fry until peanuts are lightly browning and fragrant. Remove from heat.
Stir in peanut and shallots with citrus marinated tuna. Stir in the bird’s eye peppers and Thai basil. Serve immediately with cassava chips.
For the calamansi, you need to find them in season or, as I did, you might be able to find frozen whole fruits in your local Asian grocer's freezers. Also, did I mention that this goes well with beer?