It was exactly one year ago that I wrote a 45-page research paper themed Gorontalo as a Food Tourism Destination to earn a Certified Culinary Travel Professional certificate from the World Food Travel Association. The Association also runs a webinar on Starting and Running a Culinary Tour Business.
Since then, as a non-profit organization, the Omar Niode Foundation has arranged a number of events using the research paper as a reference, with some experience posted on this website. A small booklet, Gorontalo, the Charms of Fauna, Flora and Food Travel was an attempt to interest foodies to visit the area.
Gorontalo is not yet famous as foodie destination. It is getting attention for diving spots and is known as the ancestral land of famous Indonesians including the third Indonesian president, a national hero, singers and business moguls. Those who have visited Gorontalo, however, realize that the city has potentials to attract foodies.
The main challenge, as often raised by the World Food Travel Association is whether people would want to travel far to a place to experience the food and drink it has to offer. The city of Gorontalo is 3 hours flying time from Jakarta with a transit in Makassar.
The ultimate test to see the pull of Gorontalo as foodie destination was the Gorontalo Food Tour organized by Arie Parikesit of Kelana Rasa on 8-10 May 2015.
Noor Sitoresmi, Omar Niode Foundation’s chief representative in Gorontalo communicated intensively with Arie, a seasoned culinary guide who has guided dozens of culinary journeys at home and abroad. They worked closely for more than three months for an itinerary that Arie considered fit to be marketed, armed with a clause: “schedule may change, adapted to conditions on the ground.”
It was touch and go for a while because the trip could not go on if there were less than 15 people listed. Finally at 6.00 AM on Friday May 8 we, a group of travelers, assembled at Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta for a food tour to Gorontalo, a city that is celebrating its 287th birthday.
The Kelana Rasa group arrived in Gorontalo, population 180 000, past lunchtime under sunny sky and transported by a mini bus straight to Bantayo Poboide, a traditional house in the center Limboto sub-district. Literally “bantayo” means building and “poboide” means a meeting place. Bantayo Poboide is taken apart as a symbol of Gorontalo culture and also has a function as a place for arts and cultures activities.
In contrast, not far from Bantayo Poboide stands Menara Keagungan, the Majestic Tower, a 65-meter Eiffel like structure built in 2001 but has since lost its luster.
On the way to lunch, Noor distributed bottles of cold mineral water and warm lalampa, sticky rice filled with spicy tuna, wrapped in banana leaves. Passing hills, rice fields and the city center, Arief Ismail a school teacher taught the group some Gorontalo words. If someone asked you: wololo habari? (how are you?) answer with: piyo piyohu (fine).
Starving we arrived at RM Melky Brazil, a simple eatery overlooking Gorontalo Bay. Nevertheless, the lunch spread was not simple at all, as we enjoyed super fresh seafood like goropa bakar (grilled grouper), ikan goreng kakap merah (fried red snapper), kuah asam ikan batu (sour stone fish soup) and the legendary wokured snapper. Woku is a gravy dish made from15 herbs and spices including ginger, turmeric, lemon grass, lemon leaves, and candle nut.
Melky also served tilumiti lo kando (sauteed water spinach) accompanied by very hot dabu-dabu, a salsa like condiment but tastier due to several spoonful of home made coconut oil and a taste of lime juice. The group was impressed with the cooking method where in some cases, except for woku, Melky does not need extra herbs and spices due to the fish freshness.
There is no better way to cool off in the 30 degree Celcius temperature than Regina Bakery & Café, a trendy hang out place. It sells fruit salads, some Chinese food, toasted sandwiches and juices. Our aim however was its es cukur, shaved ice desserts, specifically Es Meralda, a bowl full of shaved ice, durian, red bean and chocolate syrup that give unique flavor combination.
Thirst quenched, our next visit was to Olivia Resto owned by Ester Kalangi, to watch pia pastry making and to savor a selection of crusty chocolate, cheese and mung bean pia, fresh from the oven. Pia by carts left the shop as well-liked goodies from Gorontalo.
Sweet tooth satisfied, we headed to Jalan Panigoro. From afar it looked like there were some houses caught on fire, it turned out that street vendors were grilling ilabulo (chicken, egg and sago wrap in banana leaves) on coconut shells. Ilabulo was a favorite snack of Gorontalo kings in the bygone era and is now a popular street food, Warm, chewy, spicy characters are powerful combination for ilabulo assault, as some of us gobbled three to four packs of this delight.
Close to dusk it was time to have a short break and the group checked in at New Melati Hotel located in the city center facing Taruna Remaja Square. The square is popular among locals and can be distinguished for its iconic statue of Gorontalo national hero Nani Wartabone, and often packed with communities organizing gatherings and those taking part in outdoor exercises.
New Melati is a modern expansion of Hotel Velberg, the first hotel in Gorontalo built by Hendrik Velberg, a Dutch shahbandar (port master) more than a century ago. The Velberg family still owns and manages the hotel, listed in Lonely Planet Guidebook as a meeting point and an accommodation of choice for divers heading to the Togean Islands.
Back in the 16th century, Gorontalo was the center of Islamic teaching in the eastern part of Indonesia and a well-known port for traders from China and Saudi Arabia. We can still trace the Arabic culinary influence in RM Diva. Owned by Hamid Basalamah and Munifah, Diva is famous for its sate kambing garo balanga (cubes of grilled lamb dish) and nasi kebuli (fragrant lamb rice). Hamid revealed the secret of his small business. It serves dishes made of free-range mountain lamb that he termed fitness lamb. He swears that the taste would be different if the main ingredient is not free range.
Reminded that the Diva trip is only for food tasting the group held its appetite intact and headed to Tangga 2000, a spot overlooking Gorontalo Bay, to enjoy jagung putungo, spicy roasted corns with grated coconut and slices of banana blossom, grilled on candlenut shells.
Raja Tuna, The King of Tuna was our next destination where we had all things tuna dinner with tuna satay, rahang tuna (grilled tuna jaw), dada tuna (fried tuna breasts), and slices of raw fish “sashimi” Gorontalo style. The place was unbelievable packed with visitors, but fortunately Noor Sitoresmi had called days in advance with the menu order, even though not all had a chance to taste the grilled tuna jaw. As the food is prepared from scratch, sometimes it takes more than an hour until orders arrived especially for food.
It was a long first day as some members of the group left home around 5.00 AM for the early flight to Gorontalo, but most were enthusiastic awaiting the second day.
The members of Kelana Rasa Group for the Gorontalo Food Tour come from different backgrounds encompassing IT professional, environmentalists, journalists, bankers, consultants, traders, event organizers, home makers and retirees. Such variety makes good conversations especially since most are food enthusiasts.
The second day began with a 6.00 AM breakfast at RM Sabar Menanti. As an old eatery, its popularity is high. It offers a variety of dishes including lontong sayur (rice cakes served with coconut milk curry & vegetables),nasi campur (rice with a number of side dishes), and nasi goreng (fried rice), but most people go there for the famous nasi kuning Hola (turmeric-based rice).
This common Indonesian dish is served with a twist. In this eatery, the nasi kuning is served with fish, a pleasurable clear soup and hard-boiled egg to go along with it. It also comes with deadly chili sauce. Flavorsome, inexpensive, and with fast service, this place even plane-packs the food for travelers to bring back home.
Arie Parikesit said that Kelana Rasa often has surprises for its travelers, such as a vist to an eatery not on the agenda or an extra ice cream. After huddling with Noor Sitoresmi and rearranging some items on the itinerary for Arie’s approval, the surprise for the Gorontalo Food Tour was humongous, a trip to beautiful Saronde Island on Sulawesi Sea in North Gorontalo.
As this is a food tour, on the 90 minutes road trip to the Port of Kwandang and the 30 minutes boat ride to the island we snacked on apang bale (steamed cake made of rice flour filled with durian, palm sugar and young coconut), cucur (bowsprit cake with palm sugar), potato donut, and cara isi (savory custard cake), all made by Sartin Ishak in Talaga known as Ta Uchi.
Saronde Island maybe a match for Cote D’Azur, the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France, also known as the French Riviera for its white sandy beaches, and amazing blue and green hues of the sea. Noor arranged for two cooler boxes full of iced bottled water, and fruits to replenish the body minerals.
Walking along the beach, sleeping on soft white sands and swimming in the cool water made all of us hungry and patiently waited for ikan batu bakar (grilled stone fish), ikan batu bala rica (spicy split stone fish), ayam iloni (grilled chicken with coconut milk and 10 types of herbs and spices, including candlenut), tilumiti lo kando (sautéed water spinach), and dabu-dabu.
Binthe biluhuta and the forts
Two hours on the island was just not enough but we had a full program ahead of us, hence we reluctantly sailed back to the Port of Kwandang towards the city of Gorontalo.
Assisted by Omar Niode Foundation’s friends Budi Akantu and Rahman Dako, Arie Parikesit was scheduled to speak at RRI Gorontalo, a branch of the National Public Radio, to introduce Kelana Rasa, and the benefits local food travel. He did not want to miss a visit to RM Syakinah for binthe biluhuta, Gorontalo traditional corn soup, with milu pulo (waxy corn) and ikan oci bakar (grilled spicy mackerel). Ibu Sunarti, Syakinah mom entertained us all with binthe biluhuta cooking demo. The group was even allowed to visit the kitchen to see how the eatery produced home made coconut oil, an must ingredient for most of Gorontalo dishes.
A small eatery that provides a selection of Gorontalo foods was the next target for tasting bilenthango, fish split cooked with spices accompanied by pilitode lo poki-poki (eggplant cooked in coconut milk). In preparing bilenthango, one usually fries the fish with a small amount of oil on top of a layer of banana leaves. To keep the fish intact its scales should not be fully cleaned and the fish is only fried on one side with splash of hot oil to cook the spices on top of the fish.
Prior to a short break at the New Melati hotel the group visited the Otahana fort near Lake Limboto, 8 km from the city center. According to history, in 15th century, Portuguese sailors stopped in Gorontalo because of bad weather, pirate threat and lack of foods. They offered the then King of Gorontalo to build three forts on top of hills to protect the area. The uniqueness of the forts lies in the materials used to build them, which was a mixture of sand, plaster and the white part of the endemic Maleo bird (Macrocephalon maleo) eggs.
The panorama of Limboto Lake also can be seen clearly from the Fort of Otanaha that stands on the top of a highland. Adjacent to the Otanaha fort, there are two more forts: Otahiya and Ulupahu.
The highlight of Kelana Rasa Gorontalo Food Tour was a Mini Food Festival in a century old heritage house not far from New Melati. It was a cozy gathering with local food experts, journalists and coffee farmers. Noor prepared walimah, a two-meter bamboo structure with decorated tiny poles full of traditional snacks.Walimah is usually consumed in Gorontalo on Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
The heritage house was decorated with a number of tables full of Gorontalo delicacies.
Snack table : Biyapo ayam (pao/steamed bun filled with chicken), biyapo unti (pao filled with shredded young coconut mixed in palm sugar wapili (waffle), popolulu (sweet potato, grated coconut and palm sugar),aliyadala (grated cassava, shredded coconut and palm sugar), dumalo (weaved sweet potato and palm sugar), curuti (crispy and sweet egg rolls) , kacang dan pisang (roasted peanuts and banana), milu pulo (waxy corn), pisang goroho (wild banana), and permen soba (palm sugar candy).
Main table : Abon ayam moronggi (slow cooked shredded chicken, with spices and coconut, cooked for 10 hours), kare ayam (chicken curry), sate balanga (marinated satay cooked in frying pan), sate sapi rica bawang(beef satay with chili and onion), sambal goreng daging ala Gorontralo (fried chopped beef, chili and dried vermicelli), sambal goreng putungo (banana blossom, chili and dried vermicelli), sop lo hulondhalo (traditional rich soup), pilitode lo paku (fern with coconut milk), fried payangga (endemic fish from Lake Limboto) and, tabu moyitomo (black soup with 30 herbs and spices) and nasi tumpeng Gorontalo (cone shaped turmeric rice with assorted side dishes).
Dessert table: Tobu’u (boat shaped cake in pandan leaves), gohu (semi ripe papaya with vinegar), omu(young coconut with palm sugar), es sirsak (iced soursop), and Kopi Pinogu, an organic coffee, a favorite of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (1880-1962).
While some in the group felt content and sleepy after consuming an assortment of food and took a five minutes walk to the hotel, the younger travelers chatted until midnight and as practiced in Gorontalo, scrambled for the traditional snacks in walimah.
On the last day, the group was ready for more trips as at noon they had to be ready at the airport. What a surprise to see that Taruna Remaja Square was full of street food vendors selling stuff not found in Java such as bubur ayam sagela (chicken porridge with garfish).
We only had a few minutes to take some shots before heading to Tempat Pelelangan Ikan, Gorontalo fish auction blocks. Shouts and screams of the fisher folks welcomed us offering tuna fish, crabs, squids and nike fish just harvested the night before.
According to Syamsul Huda Syuhari, a journalist in Gorontalo, nike (gobies) surface in the waters of Gorontalo Bay once a month during the new moon. Although the nike fish is small, ranging from 2 to 8 centimeters long, Gorontalo fishers always welcome them, as the small fish is a high-priced delicacy.
Nasi kuning is a daily breakfast in Gorontalo while in Java it is only for special occasions. We traveled to Jalan Diponegoro near where the ilabulo vendors set up shop. The place is a simple residential house with no sign and only four communal tables in its living room. The food taste however is incomparable to any place that we have been. We ordered nasi kuning with vermicelli and skipjack on top, lamb satay, beef satay, and bone marrow soup. It was really a rich and sinfully delicious breakfast feared by many due to its cholesterol content.
Karawo is a traditional embroidered crafts from Gorontalo, the result of perseverance, hard work, and skill of artisans. The embroidery process itself is handmade and known as mokarawo, an art that has been handed down from generation to generation from the 17th century until today. We visited Cahaya Kerawang, an outlet for beautiful pieces of karawo and traditional hats made famous by Gus Dur, Indonesia’s fourth president,
Interestingly the motifs of karawo inspired bakers in the area to produce Karawo cookies, snacks presented at gatherings and popular as takeaways from Gorontalo. The best are cookies produced by Ms Telda Muli in Siendeng area, the southern part of the city. The cookies are too beautifully decorated to eat that we bought several jars for souvenirs.
We rushed back to New Melati to pack and laughed all the way to the airport as most have bulging luggage and extra carry-on bags.
Since it was lunch time, we stopped by Prima Rasa an eatery near the airport to pick up lunch boxes filled with iloni grilled chicken, ilabulo, some vegetables and peanuts. Duduli was the last Gorontalo delicacy relished by the group. Made from glutinous rice, coconut milk, palm sugar and crushed peanuts, duduli is a traditional welcome and farewell snack.
When it was time to board the flight back to Jakarta, some were not ready to leave the memory of Gorontalo Food Tour behind, making Noor Sitoresmi busy receiving orders of food to be sent to Jakarta.
Our experience emphasized what the World Tourism Organization has underscored: communication plays an important role in food tourism success. Destinations must articulate a credible and authentic narrative of their food tourism offerings.
Travelers started their activities since the planning stage where they begin to be interested in an area, gather information, and try to get the best deal. The involvement with the destination may end when travelers share their positive and negative through social networks.
Gorontalo may not be ready for a prime tourism destination but Kelana Rasa has proven the city’s readiness for food travel destination, provided there are culinary champions like Noor Sitoresmi and her team who explore the culinary gems of Gorontalo and anticipate everything from arrival to departure of the travelers.
Noor’s tenacity is no wonder for some who have known her as she has worked on a national scale for many years in hospitality and entertainment industry. The highest appreciation however goes to the 16 travelers brave enough to venture into the unknown territory of foodie destination, tasted more than 70 local food items and hopefully rewarded by a memorable experience, the essence of food travel.
Text: Amanda Niode
Images: Donald Wahani, Omar Niode Foundation