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.
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.