Ikimasho!

Drinking blood with the Bataks. Christmas Day in Sumatra.

Lake toba sumatra batak

Forget turkey and trifle. The Batak people of Sumatra do things a little differently.

This is what I woke up to on Christmas Day in Lake Toba: my Sumatran friend Batin shouting “Look at me I’m Jesus” while standing on an underwater rock in the middle of the lake. He then fell in when he attempted to walk on water. It set the standard for the rest of the day: with constant reminders of it being Christmas, but with none of the twinkle-twinkle glitz and glam that we are all so used to in the west.

At around 1pm on the 25th, Batin and I set off on a motorbike to visit a restaurant perched over rice fields at the base of a hill. They only serve one thing, Babi panggang Toba: grilled pork that comes with a bowl of pig’s blood mixed with spices. You dip the meat in the blood then drink the rest. It takes a while to get your head around, but the Batak people of Sumatra are known for eating every single part of the animal. Nothing goes to waste. Pigs are slaughtered and used in their entirety – bones for a clear soup, meat (including offal) to be grilled, and blood for the accompaniment. I questioned Batin about this, both of us coming to the conclusion that if you are hypocritical enough to eat certain parts of a certain animal then you shouldn’t feel weird about other people’s preferences.

batak toba lake sumatra
Thick spicy blood

The Batak people of Sumatra

Early visitors to Southeast Asia were fascinated by rumours of a cannibal tribe called the Batak in the interior of Sumatra. From early times, cannibalism became associated with Batak identity and had the desired effect of limiting the intrusion of Europeans until the nineteenth century. I asked Batin about his ancestors, thinking that maybe these notions of cannibalism were over exaggerated. “No, we did eat people. People who looked different from the Batakese were simply thought of as an animal, like a pig. Eating people made us stronger.”

These days, human is off the menu, but apart from this nothing is really off-limits. The Bataks still regularly eat snake and monkey, but it was Batin’s New Year’s Eve feast that threw me a little. I asked him what he would be doing to celebrate on the day. “My cousin’s dog just had puppies a few months ago so we will kill one and roast it.”

The restaurant was filled with locals, all dolled up in their Sunday best. The Lake Toba area of Sumatra is a predominantly Christian area, with a great many protestant and catholic churches. (Some hipster Batak kids I met in Medan actually had Jesus tattoos.) Most of the restaurant-goers had just been to church so this was their Christmas dinner. It was mine too. The seating area was a raised platform, and you sit cross-legged. The food is brought out along with a finger bowl, as you eat it with your hands. During the meal I was watched closely by the table opposite, and I joined them at the end.

Despite their supposedly gruesome past, the Batak people of Sumatra are probably the friendliest people I have ever met on my travels, genuinely pleased and intrigued to see you joining in with their customs.

Sumatra lake toba batak

Like all warungs or casual restaurants in Sumatra, our place was a simple hut made of wood.

Lake Toba sumatra batak

While Lake Toba is beautiful in itself, the surrounding hills are just as epic and well worth exploring

Lake toba sumatra batak

A bowl of blood; grilled pork; sausage made from offal; tapioca leaves; plain rice; clear broth made from pig bones.

Lake toba sumatra batak

Christmas Dinner

Image

This family had just come from church and the mum wanted me to come and live in their house.

Sumatra Batak Lake Toba

Merry Christmas!

20 comments

  1. Morina Sinaga

    Im just read this post and just feel funny. Haha..
    You called them ‘gengster’ haha. So, as a Batak girl, maybe i must tell you Batak culture in Bataknese have words “Marsiadap ari” in Indonesian is “Menghadap matahari” and in english maybe like “face the sun” – (means together) for a better life – but you know, its mean when batak people work in one thing together. And it shows you how our way to socialitation. Culture influence our life-way till today. We have no gengster has long has you visit t’he traditional people and place. Gengster is only in a big city here. When they have money and power. Ahh, okay, i think you need to learn about us (Batak) more and more…
    Regards from Batak Land, North Sumatera🙂

  2. Morina Sinaga

    My last comment is prefer to your post about ‘drink with gangster. And ‘as long as’ sometimes my spellcheck on my phone is annoying.. :l
    Wish you still understand what i means for.
    God bless u🙂

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  7. Hello! I’m a Batak living in Singapore. I love this entry! It made me smile remembering my childhood. My family used to go Toba Lake to celebrate christmas/new year eves there. Never gets old. We also used to visit Berastagi almost every month to spend the weekends there. It’s so fun reading your entries about these places.

    Anyway, I don’t think I know any of my relatives who would actually eat dog meat. But I have a family dog here in Singapore and every time my relatives from Medan visit us here, we always hear the “So when are we eating IT?” joke. “Roast/grilled dog meat tastes really good, you know.” My parents would laugh at those jokes. I find it offensive. But it became an inside joke for the Bataks. We really would consider eating everything.

  8. Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I loved Sumatra so much: the people were so, so friendly and it’s a beautiful part of the world. I want to go back soon – but as long as I’m not eating your dog🙂 I must say I didn’t really like Medan but maybe I just need someone to show me around, plus it was raining when I was there…

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  13. Theodorus Sagala

    Cannibalism was practiced by Batak peoples in the old times (the practice extincted in 1860) as a judicial act and its application was restricted to very narrowly defined infringements of the law including theft, rape, treason or murder. The practice was mainly use to scared the Batak peoples for not breaking the law and proofed very effective.

    The accused will be presented in the middle of the village and the villagers was asked to show the evidences in front of RAJA HUTA (village’s king) and village’s elders. After that, the accused also given the chance to bring witness or evidence to proof if he/she was not guilty. If the accused was found guilty, the village’s elders and RAJA HUTA will state the convict status in society was reduced to “same as livestock” and pass the death sentence.

    The convict will live in the cage with the rest of village’s livestock (for almost a week) and than put to death and cooked. The body is then distributed among villagers; the ears, the nose, and the palms of the hands are the exclusive property of the RAJA HUTA, who has besides a claim on other portions. Salt, red pepper and lemons had to be provided by the relatives of the victim as a sign that they accepted the verdict of the community and were not thinking of revenge. The women and children are not allowed to take parts in these public dinners.

    The practiced was one from many laws created by Batak peoples in their society and some were very complicated. And that’s why many Indonesian lawyers, judges and politician are from Batak peoples in this modern time.

    Some of us (Batak peoples) are very exaggerating when telling the cannibalism practice in the old times, that how much we love of human flesh or eating human flesh to made us stronger. These was told in order to frighten off the outsider (not exclusively to foreigner) for not messing around in our land and respect our custom, or else you will be eaten (hahaha).

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