Culinary talk |

Cooking On the Edge of Wilderness

Culinary Talk | 2 November 2016

Recently returning from her guest chef assignment at Nihiwatu, Sumba, Chef Petty Elliott shares her enchanting experience.

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With the culinary team of Nihiwatu

It took a 45-minute flight from Bali and another hour’s drive from Tambolaka Airport in West Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara, to get to Nihiwatu, a hotel that has been voted as the best in the world, according to readers of the US Travel + Leisure Magazine, who ranked it higher than any other signature hotel and resort in ant of the world’s leading cities and islands.

As I was about to find out, it was a title well deserved.

But first, the trip from Tambolaka into the wilderness of West Sumba took me on a thrilling 4x4 adventure that would not be out of place in a Jurassic park movie. At the end of the road awaited a stunning, surf-filled sandy bay, stretching out along the southern coast. As we descended, I caught a glimpse of distinctive traditional thatched roofs among the trees—the 28-villa resort is almost hidden from view.


With the kids from Wehola village

Up until four years ago, Nihiwatu was a surf lodge with a celebrated left hand break, attracting surfers from around the world to the gloriously wild coast of Sumba. Fashion billionaire Chris Burch and hotelier James McBride have completed not only the transformation of this idyllic setting but carried on the excellent work of the Sumba Foundation and its original founder Claude Graves to help support and improve life for the local community. Over the last 13 years the Foundation has set up more than 15 primary schools, supplied 172 villages with clean water and reduced malaria by 85% in neighbouring villages. Today Nihiwatu is the largest employer on the island.

I was there for a few days to provide guests with an introduction to Manadonese cuisine. Thanks to a very warm welcome by Executive Chef Ben McRae and his all-local and very capable culinary team, I was off to a great start.

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Slow-cooked pork neck with fresh roots spices, with chilies, lime and lemon grass

That the kitchen was ultra modern and meeting five-star standards was perhaps no surprise, but the ability of the local staff—most of them of whom had actual formal culinary school training—was truly a revelation. Their skills, the friendly “can-do” attitude and professional discipline made a big difference. Many ingredients are sourced locally, with a good range of vegetables and herbs grown at the resort, including tomatoes, chilies, lemongrass and basil. The rest, such as meats and selected other produce, are flown in from Bali.

The team produces bread and pastries every morning. Whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, the choices were extensive, from Indonesia and Asian specialties to European and North American cuisine.

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Deconstructed ‘kolak pisang’ - grilled banana, palm sugar syrup, coconut ice cream with cash

My four-course Manadonese dinner began with raw tuna with chili and basil salsa. It was then followed by slow cooked porktinorangsak with fresh roots of ginger, galangal and turmeric, as well as lemongrass, lime leaves and lime juice, served with apples, carrots, cucumbers and pineapple salad accompanied by sweet and sour dressing. As main course was fillets of locally caught baby snapper in woku blanga sauce, served with sautéed French beans, corn kernels and yellow turmeric rice. Dessert was a creamy klappertaart made from young coconut with vanilla bean custard, raisin almond flakes and dusted with cinnamon.

To be honest, I was a little bit nervous as the guest list for dinner that night included none other than the resort owner Chris Burch and hotelier James McBride. However, I survived the test, and over the next couple of days, I got the chance to develop a few more dishes for the hotel’s regular evening and beach barbeque menus.

There’s nothing better than a silky warm breeze, flame torches and the sand between your toes as you enjoy your dinner and indulge in great conversations. The informal, relaxed setting just made it very easy and natural. It was a second visit for several of the guests that night, and it’s not uncommon to hear requests to extend—which in some cases can be up to a month!

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Morning coffee with a view

The returnees seemed keen to hear and see progress by the Sumba Foundation. They’d taken the time to visit local community schools and do volunteer work—twice a week, the Foundation provides lunch to 1,100 local children. Earnings from the hotel are used to help fund Foundation operations. Upon my visit a local village not far from the resort, I felt like I was stepping back to another era as I witnessed how the local people cling to their traditions and lead a completely different pace of life.

My stay proved to be a rewarding experience in so many ways, including sharing ideas with the Nihiwatu team, together serving good Indonesian food and doing so with impeccable service. Guests from Europe, US and Australia kindly complemented us on the food and praised the diversity of Indonesian cuisine.

Yes, Nihiwatu is a pristine beach with perfect surfing, fishing and endless other adventures. It also boasts superb facilities, a chocolate factory, a magical spa and exceptional service. But there’s so much more than that meets the eye—it’s also a bridge to support local communities and create opportunities for this delightful island to determine a sustainable future. I hope, like every guest, it will not be too long before I can visit Nihiwatu and the Sumbanese people again.