Feeding The Nation
The Edge of Wilderness
Words Will Meyrick
Lying just east of Sumbawa, about an hour by air from thriving Bali, Sumba’s rugged natural landscapes, beautiful culture and simple homely cuisine will leave you grateful that it’s still something of a traveller’s secret.
I arrived on the island of Sumba to experience the food of a timeless culture and to experience the number-one hotel in the world as rated by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Nihiwatu, on the edge of the Timor Sea, is an outpost of luxury in an ancient land. Established in 1989, the award-winning resort (still the only one on the island) has quietly grown into one of the most legendary destinations for experienced surfers and intrepid adventurers from around the globe.
Set against the wild beauty and rugged nature of the island, the resort has become a popular hideaway for luxury-seekers with a conscience. The original owner of Nihiwatu, American Claude Graves, established the property together with the Sumba Foundation (www.sumbafoundation.org) with a vision to protect and preserve the unique culture of Sumba and empower the local communities to support themselves and their families. The resort is proud to employ over 90% local Sumbanese, a team with a genuine spirit of hospitality.
Sumba is magniﬁcent to look at, but the land is dry, and the subsistence farming reﬂects this scarcity of moisture in its soils. The Sumbanese plant corn and cassava, and tend to roaming herds of buﬀalo. They live closely in their communities of high-topped, low- hanging thatched houses, sharing and surviving much as they have done for hundreds of years; still using the small stocky ponies for transport, and feasting on buﬀalo to celebrate the bounty of the seas and soils.
Despite royal families, a tradition of ancestor worship, intricate, beautiful weavings and riches counted in horses, the food of Sumba is simple and hearty, highlighting the natural ﬂavour of each ingredient used. Dishes use only minimal seasoning, local pepper, lemongrass and galangal. Unlike other islands Sumba has no spices to export, but you will ﬁnd edible blossoms here, something the Balinese don’t eat.
Papaya ﬂowers and banana blossoms are served, with cassava and corn, taking the place of rice as the main staple. However, nasi jagung, rice mixed with the older maize corn, is also found in most areas across the island. These simple staples are supplemented by kampung chicken or catch from the sea including octopus, sea urchin and mackerel, which are then prepared as inviting curries and soups as the main dish of the day. I couldn’t resist slicing up some sashimi from my impressive catch from my own day out on the open ocean – the seas around Sumba are deep and generous.
Sumba’s appeal for me lies in this contrasting combination of raw, untouched nature and access to incredible ﬁshing, surﬁng, trekking, equestrian, and cultural adventures.
If you’re keen to explore more of the local ﬂavours in a modern context, Nihiwatu oﬀers reﬁned, relaxed dining experiences that use the best homegrown ingredients, whether it is a ﬁsh just caught from the sea, delicious vegetables and legumes from the property’s three bountiful organic gardens, items from the grill and daily rotisserie from the on-site animal farm, or even freshly made wood-ﬁred clay-oven pizzas and organic chocolate from a quaint chocolate factory actually owned by someone named Charly.
During our stay at Nihiwatu, the headquarters of the Sumba Foundation, we found a shared admiration of Sumba, the island and its people, and I saw how Nihiwatu, rather than changing Sumba to suit mass tourism, supports it to retain its heritage and culture through programmes aimed at addressing education, disease and poverty. There is a recognition that Sumba needs to have strong leaders who can preserve what is unique about this island long into the future with the spirit of Sumbanese pride.
With Scottish heritage, an Australian accent and an Indonesian home, the ‘street food chef’ Will Meyrick isn’t easily categorised. He has more than 25 years of experience, numerous awards to his name and four buzzing restaurants under his belt – including his most recent opening Hujan Locale in Ubud, Bali. His passion for culinary travel inspires him to endlessly explore the archipelago and beyond.