Nutmeg Islands

By James Oseland

Published on January 8, 2008

All day, the water has been as smooth as glass. Occasionally I've seen lonely clouds move by overhead and small green islands appear in the hazy distance. Otherwise the landscape has been featureless, a clean slate of blue sky and sea. I've been sailing on the Banda Sea for the past three days from the city of Makassar aboard the Ciremai, a large passenger liner, bound for Indonesia's Banda Islands, a 23-square-mile archipelago of nine dots of land in the Moluccas (formerly called the Spice Islands). Though sparsely populated and remote—Java, Indonesia's main island, is some 1,000 miles to the west—the Banda Islands figure prominently in history. For at least 1,500 years, traders and fortune seekers from as far away as China and Arabia and, later, Europe journeyed there for native Bandanese nutmeg and mace—commodities that were once nearly as precious as gold—and wrote romantic accounts of the archipelago's turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, and spice-laden jungles.

I first heard about Banda in 1982. (The entire archipelago is colloquially known as Banda; the word means port in Indonesian. Banda Aceh, devastated in the 2004 tsunami, is a city on the distant Indonesian island of Sumatra.) At the time, I was a college student in San Francisco, eager to see the rest of the world. By chance, I befriended Tanya Alwi, an Indonesian classmate from a powerful Bandanese Muslim family of nutmeg and pearl traders. Perhaps sensing my wanderlust, Tanya invited me to stay with her and her family during summer break at their home in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city, on Java. During my visit, Tanya and her father, Des, a businessman widely known as "the raja of Banda", captivated me with tales about Banda's history and its physical beauty. They also introduced me to its deliciously hot-sweet-sour-spicy cuisine. The curries, stir-fries, and grilled dishes that I ate, all lavishly seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, and cassia, were like no other Indonesian foods I'd known. Although I traveled extensively throughout the country on that trip (and many subsequent ones) and always intended to visit Banda, I never made it. Years later, I'm finally getting my chance.

From the deck of the Ciremai, in the orange glow of twilight, most of Banda finally comes into view. I pull a map out of my back pocket for reference. Up ahead I spot Banda Besar, "Big Banda", with a craggy spine of mountains running down its center. To my right is cone-shaped Gunung Api, an active volcano that looks like Mount Fuji in miniature. To my left lies Neira Island, the location of Banda's largest settlement, Bandaneira, my destination.

As the ship pulls in to the town's small dock, I see a large crowd of people down below. All of Bandaneira's approximately 6,000 residents, it seems, have come to greet the Ciremai. I grab my suitcase and am heaved along with everyone else exiting toward the narrow gangway. Once on land, I feel someone tugging at my bag.

"Mr. James!" says a tall man in a bright red shirt. "I am Abdul Kadir! Welcome to my home!" Kadir explains that he is the manager of Banda's sole hotel, the 25-room Maulana Inn, where I'll be staying. When I ask him how he's recognized me, he laughs: "Mr. James, you are the only white man for a thousand miles!"

The next morning I awake to the sound of laughter and the sweet aroma of garlic being cooked. I throw on some clothes and venture downstairs to the Maulana's brightly lit kitchen. Inside, six women are seated around a table, at which they are variously bruising and pulverizing the spices and aromatics (called bumbu-bumbu in Indonesian, as well as in the Bandanese dialect) to be used in that day's lunch. "Selamat pagi [Good morning]," says one of the women in a singsong voice. She introduces herself: her name is Aca (pronounced AH-cha) Magrib, and she, along with Siti Mohammad and Ajeng Hamzah, are the hotel's main cooks. I ask whether I may watch them work.

"Of course you can—just no snacking," says Magrib in Bahasa Indonesia, a language I picked up on my visits to the country. She hands me a glass of teh halia, a room-temperature breakfast beverage made of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and palm sugar. As I sip my drink, which is intensely spicy and sweet and reminds me of pumpkin pie, Hamzah tells me of the local specialties they're about to prepare. First, there's ikan bumbu rujak, a dish the Alwis introduced me to: tuna (Banda's staple protein) braised in kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) and tamarind extract and seasoned with ginger, galangal, chiles, lemongrass, cassia, cloves, and cracked whole nutmeg (which infuses the dish with its sultry flavor but isn't intended to be eaten). Then there's sasatay, which is, as Mohammad describes it, a sort of tuna-based take on falafel, made with toasted ground cumin, fresh mint, poached tuna, and kenari, a variety of local almond. Nasi kuning, a fragrant, turmeric yellow coconut rice, completes the menu.

I'm curious about the kenari, and Mohammad offers me one to sample. It tastes exactly like the skinless blanched almonds I know from the States—that is, sweet and somewhat earthy. "Kenari is what keeps our nutmeg trees growing," she says. "They're tall trees, as big as your buildings in New York, and they were planted to protect the nutmeg from the sun. Nutmeg trees don't like to get hot."

About an hour and a half later, the dishes are ready. Since no one is staying at the hotel except me, I invite the staff to join me for lunch on the patio. With the sound of the Banda Sea lapping at the shore just a few feet away, we eat.

The next day I take a trip to Banda Besar, where most of Banda's nutmeg is grown, a 15-minute water taxi ride away. Once there, I follow Kadir's instructions and ask the first person I see to direct me to Pongki van den Broeke, Banda's "nutmeg king". ("Everyone knows him," Kadir said.) Within minutes, I am being led by a sarong-clad villager to van den Broeke's crumbling 19th-century Dutch-built estate (van den Broeke himself has Dutch ancestors), a small, colonnaded home around a grassy area used for drying nutmeg seeds.

As Kadir promised, van den Broeke, a slim 50-year-old whose face seems to wear a perpetual grin, is happy to tell me anything I want to know about Banda's nutmeg. He invites me to join him on a stroll through his nutmeg groves. Soon we are walking down a dirt path that snakes through his property, a jungly thicket that seems more wild than cultivated. Yes, there are nutmeg trees here—identifiable by the hundreds of ripening yellow fruits that hang from their branches—but they grow randomly among other native specimens like kenari and nonnative ones like mango.

Years ago I learned a lot about Banda's history from the books that lined the shelves of Tanya's father's library. I've since forgotten many of the details, but van den Broeke helps refresh my memory. One of only a few places to which nutmeg is native (the nearby islands of Ceram and New Guinea are others), Banda came to the outside world's attention by way of Chinese sailors who operated extensive trade networks in the Spice Islands starting in approximately A.D. 500. The first Europeans to "discover" Banda came from Venice, in 1505. They were followed, in short order, by other spice seekers from Portugal, England, and Holland. The Dutch ultimately beat out the rest of Europe and gained control of the islands in 1621, establishing an outpost of the much feared Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (United East India Company). Holland ruled all of Banda except for a two-mile-long island called Run, which the British governed in the early 1600s; they eventually traded it to the Dutch in exchange for another small island—Manhattan.

By the late 17th century, Banda was virtually the only place on the globe where nutmeg grew. The spice, believed to be a prophylactic against the black plague, was sold in Europe by the Dutch at a 60,000 percent markup. So fiercely did the Dutch monitor its growth and sale that they made any attempt to smuggle nutmeg trees out of Banda a crime punishable by death. But during the Napoleonic Wars, from 1810 to 1817, the Dutch lost control of the islands, and the British were finally able to get their hands on some seedlings, which they began growing with great success in Sumatra and Grenada, among other places. Thereafter, Banda began a two-centuries-long descent into obscurity.

Van den Broeke stops at a tall, leafy nutmeg tree. "They say my father's grandfather planted this tree," he says, looking up. "She's over 100 years old." With that, he shimmies up the tree's thick trunk, Spider-Man style, using his hands and knees to propel himself. Almost as quickly as he went up, he's back down, handing me three nutmeg fruits warm from the sun. Until now, I've been familiar with only the dried seedpod, not nutmeg in the raw. About the size and color of a large apricot, each firm fruit has a narrow slit running down one side that reveals a flash of crimson within. This thin, red covering, or bunga pala, which surrounds the seed shell, is actually itself a spice—mace.

"When a nutmeg is ripe," van den Broeke explains, "it begins to open, like a doorway." Using a knife, he splits a fruit in two, cracks the shell open, and shows me the fresh nutmeg inside, more pliant and lighter in color than the dried version. I smell it. It's like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one, with sharp hints of licorice, lemon, and menthol.

"Here in Banda," he continues, "we say that nutmeg is a gift from Allah."

One unusually hot afternoon a few days later comes a knock on my hotel room door; it's Kadir. "Mr. James, you're very lucky! You've been invited to Ibu Lila's house!" he says with the same thrilled-to-be-alive enthusiasm that he reserves for, well, apparently everything. "She and her daughters are the best cooks in Banda!" In her 60s, Ibu Lila Adjis (ibu means mother and is used as a term of respect) comes from a long line of gifted cooks and still makes many of the time-consuming dishes that younger cooks tend not to bother with anymore.

That afternoon I am met at Ibu Lila's home by her daughter, Sapri Adjis, and her daughter-in-law, Liza (pronounced LEE-za) Ba'adilah. They walk me to the open-air kitchen at the back of the house, where Ibu Lila, a smiling woman in a kebaya (a traditional batik blouse), is grating nutmeg on a tin spice grater. She's making spekkuk bumbu, she tells me; it's a layered Dutch-Indonesian butter cake flavored with, in adddition to nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Since she doesn't own a gas or electric oven, Ibu Lila says, she'll bake it in an old-fashioned tin "oven"—basically a two-foot-tall container whose top she heats with burning coconut husks (the bottom is heated with a kerosene flame).

Meanwhile, Sapri and Ba'adilah help prepare the rest of our supper. Among the dishes are kacang panjang kecap, a stir-fry of long beans and tomatoes with kecap manis; kare ikan, a coconut milk curry with mackerel and potatoes; and rice. With the aid of a large stone mortar, Ba'adilah begins to hand-grind the aromatics that will go into the curry, including shallots and fresh turmeric. Next, she gently sautes the paste, along with some additional, unground spices and aromatics—including daun pandan, an herb with a vanilla-like taste—in a small aluminum wok. In good time, a deeply layered aroma drifts sleepily through the kitchen. In it, I can make out cumin, nutmeg, and cinnamon—a spice market's worth of smells.

Soon the four of us head to the table. The meal is delicious: the long beans are crunchy and sweet; the curry demonstrates a careful interplay of warm spices and cooling coconut milk. After enjoying the spice cake—subtly perfumed with the smoke of the fire that helped cook it—we go for an after-dinner stroll. As we walk through the quiet streets of Bandaneira, the night air fragrant with nutmeg blossoms, I'm reminded of something Tanya told me many years ago: "I don't feel at peace until I'm in Banda," she said. "For me, it's like paradise." Boy, did she have that right.

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