Six unforgettable reasons to visit Indonesia’s Spice Islands

Travelling Well | Story: Peter Wilmoth | Photos: Amaia Maguregui | Posted on 23 September 2019

Cruise into a world of flavour in the deliciously lost-in-time Spice Islands.

There are some places whose very names evoke intrigue, the mythology of history and wonder about their place in the world today. The Spice Islands is one. Its name redolent of the lucrative nutmeg, mace and other spices that once grew exclusively there, this group of islands dotted around the Banda Sea in far-east Indonesia remain as remote, inaccessible and untouched by the modern world as they were in the 1770s when the English and Dutch fought decades-long battles to control that trade.


From vibrant spice markets to nutmeg plantation tours and cooking demonstrations, Indonesia’s Spice Islands are a feast for all the senses.



I’m exploring this exotic corner of the world on board an eight-day Food as Medicine Tour, a small group cruise hosted by Bali-based Melbourne expatriate Janet deNeefe, who is largely credited with putting Bali’s food and culture scene on the map – long before Elizabeth Gilbert ate, prayed and loved her way to fame.  

Learn about the islands’ spicy history 

Each of the several islands we visit has a history as a colonial Dutch, Portuguese or English outpost or trading centre. From the 1660s to the 1770s immense wealth and power lay in control of the nutmeg plantations and there are remnants everywhere of this brutal quest.

In centuries past, people believed nutmeg cured plague and merchants arriving back in England from a far-east sojourn with a boatload of the precious spice became rich beyond their wildest dreams. Today forts built by the English, Dutch and Portuguese, complete with cannons, jails and storage rooms for the spices, stand as reminders of just how much was at stake.

Feet leaning on a railing on a boat
Three young children
A small boat heading off from a larger boat


Sail on a pirate ship to remote islands 

Our embarkation point is Ambon Island and our vessel, the 28-metre Kurabesi Explorer, is a wooden schooner in the style of the ships originally used by pirates from South Sulawesi. Our cabin includes a small bathroom with shower. On the boat there are communal living areas but also spots to find yourself alone. At the stern is a large dining table where we will spend some sublime moments courtesy of Janet and her culinary team.

Visit vibrant food markets on Sapura island

Heading towards the cluster of tiny islands at the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago, we travel most long stretches by night and in the morning anchor at one of the islands. On Saparua Island we visit the markets where Janet and her culinary team buy ingredients for our meals: fish curries, satays, curried squid using coriander seeds, galangal, turmeric, kaffir limes, lemongrass, bananas, sweet potato and wild star fruit.

At lunch and dinner Janet presents cooking demonstrations using spices from the particular island where we’re moored. She shows us how local spices such as nutmeg, galangal and turmeric are used for healing as well as flavour. One memorable lunch consists of papaya flowers, potato fritters, fried tempeh and sambal matah. 

Between such delicious repasts, island tours take us to forts, churches, cemeteries and nutmeg plantations, much-reduced from those that made this string of islands so strategically important 250 years ago.

A lady serving local food dishes
A local house
Three men on a motorbike delivery wood


Step back in time on Run Island

Our final and most dramatic destination is the tiny Run Island, a footnote in history famous for one of the worst real-estate deals ever done. As part of the Treaty of Breda signed in 1667 the Dutch agreed to hand over the swampy island of Manhattan to the British in return for Run. The island, once coveted for its nutmeg plantations, is extremely remote: there are no cars, no internet and limited hospitality options. It has the feel of a once-famous place now lost in time.

Snorkel through remote reefs

But the tour is not all history. Our schedule includes lots of snorkelling. One day we explore the warm waters at the base of a volcano that erupted in 1817. Stepping carefully over black lava deposits to reach the water, we discover an extraordinary array of fish life of all colours.

Enjoy warm hospitality and seaside sunset serenades 

Next day on another island we bring a table across on the tender and enjoy the sunset with some Bintang beers, heading back just before dark to freshen up for a feast in the warm night air.

It happens to be my birthday, and I am honoured that evening by the crew, who play the ukulele and serenade us with folk songs. It is a wonderful way to end what has been one of the truly great adventures to a part of the world that, until now for me, existed only in my imagination.

Plates of local curries and stir fries lines up along a wooden table
Close up of crushed nutmeg
A local spice mixture

Janet deNeefe’s must-have Spice Islands dish

Nutmeg fish soup

Local to Banda Neira, this recipe sums up the food of the region, where fish reigns supreme. Only a small amount of spices are used, all fresh, and all delicate and highly aromatic. 

In the original recipe from the Nutmeg Tree Hotel, slices of nutmeg fruit are added, creating an elegant gingery, slightly peppery taste. 

Add a dash of soy or fish sauce if you like.

Ingredients

  •  tablespoons sunflower or safflower oil (not olive oil)
  • 4 lemongrass, bruised and tied into loose knots
  • 5 lime leaves
  • 9 red shallots, sliced lengthwise, or half a small brown onion
  • 7 garlic cloves, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 to 2 mild red chilli, sliced finely
  • 2 cups water or fish stock
  • 40 grams sliced nutmeg fruit or a 30-gram piece of ginger, smashed
  • 40 grams galangal, smashed 
  • 1 kilogram fish such as trevally or snapper, in 5cm x 5cm pieces
  • 2 tomatoes, sliced into 8 pieces
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • A handful kemangi (lemon basil) or Thai basil, chopped
  • Sea salt to taste
Method 
  1. Heat the oil over a medium flame. 
  2. Fry the lemongrass with the lime leaves for a minute to release the fragrance. Add the red shallots and garlic and fry lightly for 20 seconds, then add the chilli and fry just for 10 seconds. 
  3. Add the water, bring to the boil, simmer for three minutes. Toss in the nutmeg fruit or ginger and galangal and stir for one minute. 
  4. Add the fish and lower the heat, simmer gently for five minutes. Add tomato, cook for two minutes. 
  5. Before serving add lemon juice and kemangi. Check seasoning.
     


The hostess

Janet deNeefe’s Food as Medicine Tour is a heady mix of the fascinating history of this still remote island chain and the food locals have been preparing for centuries. Janet, who has lived in Ubud in Bali since 1984 and is sometimes known as ‘the queen of Ubud’, owns Casa Luna and Indus restaurants,  Bar Luna and the Casa Luna Cooking School, sharing the secrets of Balinese cooking with visitors.

In 2004 she created the international Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in response to the 2002 Bali bombings. Janet deNeefe will host a range of tours in the region in 2020 and 2021 including Komodo Islands (21 to 24 April), Spice Islands (4 to 12 November) and Raja Ampat (16 to 22 January, 2020 and 16 to 22 January 2021).  casalunabali.com.

Peter Wilmoth travelled as a guest of Casa Luna.