Tag: Indonesia

Wakatobi: underwater heaven in Indonesia

Wakatobi: underwater heaven in Indonesia

I’m going to find it difficult to explain Wakatobi to you. If you’re not (yet) a scuba diver, I’m going to attempt to describe the whole experience of coral sea diving in a few hundred words. If you are already a scuba diver, you’ll understand the general attraction, but Wakatobi is almost certainly a different experience from anywhere that you’ve dived previously (unless, I’m reliably informed, you’ve been to Rajah Ampat).

Overwhelmingly, people like me who love warm water diving in coral seas do it for one big reason: we love gazing at the wildlife (there are other sorts of diver, like the ones who dive deep into ice cold water to hunt for artifacts in wrecks, which is a different experience altogether). So when we talk about our dives, we discuss excitedly whether we saw a turtle or a shark or a manta ray, or a tiny brightly coloured mandarin fish found only in this particular corner of ocean, or of a coral shrimp so tiny and translucent that it took the sharpest of eyes to notice it. Many divers are obsessive about writing up every dive in their logbook, not least because the major certification bodies make this an important part of one’s training, and old habits die hard. On a good dive in normal sites, which would typically last somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes, you might expect to see a dozen or so notable things (the definition of “notable” is fuzzy, but everyone agrees that it includes sharks, rays and turtles, and it usually includes any bright, colourful or physically odd-shaped fish that isn’t present in massive numbers in the area you’re diving).

The thing about Wakatobi is that on just about every dive, you reach the “dozen notable things” mark in about the first five minutes. Then, the number keeps clocking up as you go, accelerating as you reach the shallows, especially if the sun is out. If you try to remember all the species you’ve seen on a dive, you’re on a hiding to nothing; even counting them is beyond my ability. I’ve tried remembering all the species of butterfly fish – just one small section of the marine diversity out there – and given up when it gets to a dozen (it turns out that around 60 of the world’s 120 species are present in the area). In other dive areas, you might struggle to think of any really significant thing you saw during a dive. At Wakatobi, you have the opposite problem: you’re getting sensory overload. It’s best to start a dive with a couple of things you’re going to look out for, like, for example, counting butterfly fish species, counting turtle sightings (my maximum count was twelve) or searching the sand for its inhabitants. The goby-shrimp combo is a particularly cool sand-dwelling symbiosis: the shrimp lives in a hole and does the housekeeping, ejecting anything it considers not to be nice and clean, while the goby (a silvery fish around 3cm long) stands on guard outside.

If you compare coral reef diving to wildlife-watching on land, the difference in sheer profusion and diversity is simply enormous. Whether it’s a safari in Africa, hoping to see the “big five” (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo), looking for bears or moose in Scandinavia, or just bird-watching in the UK, you can spend most of your hours in the field waiting for some animal to put in an appearance. On a coral reef, by contrast, there is a riot of colour and shape all around you.

It’s not just about the fish. The coral comes in a thousand forms. The hard corals are generally named after things on land: potato coral, lettuce coral, mushroom coral, plate coral, brain coral (you get the idea). They can make very large formations indeed. Some sea fans can be well over the size of a person. Roma, one of Wakatobi’s dive sites, has two enormous “coral roses” of overlapping plates which must measure at least 30m in diameter. Towards the top of the reef, you can see single formations of staghorn coral that last for 100m at a time, hosting an unbelievable variety of reef fish sheltering in its branches. The soft corals can be equally eye-catching, like watching a colony of Xenia coral feeding, each of its dozens of arms waving in the swell, with a star of eight feathery “fingers” opening and closing to grab nutrients which pass by. Blown up in your mind’s eye, it’s the stuff of horror movies. There are many other creatures that are not corals. Ali Baba could hide inside the basket sponges without a problem; Lampert’s sea cucumbers form scary white patterns around the outside. There’s the tunicate family: solitary tunicates with a delicately veined pattern like fine porcelain, bluebell tunicates,  electric blue translucent ovals which you’ll see in colonies scattered across the reef. Sailor’s eyeballs are a type of anemone which look for all the world like giant pearls.

Everyone has their own favourites. I love the ambush predators, like the crocodile fish which looks extremely like its landbound namesake, except that it’s perfectly camouflaged for the underwater landscape. We’ve seen a scorpion fish coloured white as it swims through the water, then settling on a reddish brown rock and then changing in an instant to match the place where it has settled, waiting for prey to arrive. There’s also defensive camouflage: at 20-30cm, a trumpet fish isn’t exactly a small item, but it’s surprisingly difficult to spot one when it’s pretending to be one of a bunch of sea rods. Many divers and most dive guides seem to love nudibranchs; personally, I struggle to see what the fuss is about. At the end of the day, even if it’s brilliantly coloured and boldly patterned, a snail is a snail. But big shoals are always a thrill, particularly when they’re tiny fish swirling around in a “bait ball”, whose shape morphs as they move with the current’s ebb and flow or perform some shift to attempt to confuse predators. I also love seeing parrot fish bump the coral, bite off a chunk and grind it up into fine sand which you can see them excrete (after they’ve ingested the nutrients). It’s not far off the mark to assert that the fabulous beaches of white sands in these parts are largely composed of parrot fish droppings.

By the way, I haven’t attached any underwater photos because I stopped taking them a few years ago: I realised that I wasn’t enjoying dives any more because I was spending all my time worrying about the camera and the pictures. There are plenty of people who disagree with me, as a search for “Wakatobi underwater” will quickly show you.

Wakatobi is located just off the south-east corner of Sulawesi (that’s the spindly one on the Indonesian map) in the so-called “coral triangle”, which brings me to the first of my three caveats: it’s a bitch to get to. If you’re coming from the UK or the US, you have to spend the best part of a couple of days getting to Bali, and it’s then a two and a half hour charter flight to the airstrip on nearby Tomia island. They do their best to make the trip smooth and efficient, but any way you look at it, Wakatobi is in the middle of nowhere.

Second caveat: you won’t see much in the way of large pelagics here (sharks, rays, etc). And finally, Wakatobi isn’t a cheap ticket by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a luxury resort with a capacity of around 60 guests, where they take exquisite care of you. You do pay for what you get, although not at the level of the ritzy international brands. 

Somehow, when you leave, the team there manage to make you feel like you’ve just left a long lost second family. I don’t know quite how they do it, but whatever the magic is, it results in a lot of return guests. We’ve just done our third trip and it won’t be the last.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.70: Kue Lapis Legit – “thousand layer cake” from Indonesia

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.70: Kue Lapis Legit – “thousand layer cake” from Indonesia

Several multi-layer cakes have featured in this series. But there’s one multi-layer cake to rule them all, which is distinguished by the thinness of the layers and the deliciousness of the caramelisation of each. It’s from the unlikely provenance of Indonesia, where it was originally baked by Dutch colonists, and it goes under several names. In Indonesian, it’s Kue Lapis Legit (Lapis Legit for short); in Dutch, its Spekkoek, named because the stripy layers that you see in cross-section reminded the Dutch of the layers in pork belly (“spek”).

What makes Lapis Legit unique is the cooking method: you spread a thin layer of fairly liquid batter over the cake and cook it under the grill (Americans: broiler) until brown and caramelised, repeating this many times to form the characteristic brown and yellow stripes of the cake’s cross section.

In neighbouring Sarawak (the half of Borneo that is in Malaysia rather than Indonesia), they have elevated Kek Lapis (as they call it there) to a fine art, using multiple colours for the layers and cutting the blocks to form intricate patterns. I’m sticking to the basic yellow-and-brown version, starting from this recipe in “Daily Cooking Quest” by Minnesota-based Indonesian cook Anita.

Although the cake looks complex, it’s not excessively time-consuming, certainly not so by comparison with some of the bread and patisserie items in this blog: it took me around two hours end-to-end plus half an hour’s cooling time. However, unlike normal cakes, that’s two hours of constant attention – there are virtually no periods of down time in which you can do something else while the cake is in the oven.

And the results, even on a first attempt, were absolutely worth it – one of the best and most interestingly different cakes I’ve made.

Setting up

  1. Preheat your oven to 200℃ fan.
  2. Use a cake tin with a removable base. If possible, use a square tin, because the cake cuts into rectangles really nicely: mine is 22cm square and worked OK, but 18-20cm would work better, giving you the opportunity for more layers. Line the bottom with baking paper, grease the sides with butter.
  3. You will need three bowls for your stand mixer. I only have two, so I improvised by making the sabayon mix in a separate copper bowl and using a hand mixer to whisk it, thus avoiding scraping and washing up in mid process.

The butter base

  • 300g butter
  • 120g sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 tbs rum
  • 90g plain flour
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp ground mace (if you have it – I didn’t)
  1. If your butter isn’t yet at room temperature, chop it into small pieces and leave it for a few minutes to soften.
  2. In your first mixing bowl, combine the butter, condensed milk and rum. With the standard beater, mix at medium speed until fluffy (Anita says 8 minutes – mine took half that).
  3. Mix flour salt and spices and add to the bowl, mix for another minute or so until smoothly combined.

The sabayon mix

  • 12 eggs
  • 85g caster sugar
  1. Separate the eggs: put 12 yolks in one bowl and 6 whites into another, which ou’ll be using for the meringue part of the cake mix (discard the other 6 whites, or keep them for making other stuff).
  2. Add the sugar to the egg yolks and whisk at high speed until the reach the consistency of thick cream. They’ll never quite achieve the stiffness of whipped cream, but you can get close.

The meringue mix

  • 6 egg whites from above
  • 55g caster sugar
  • ¼ tsp cream of tartar
  1. Using the whisk of your stand mixer, beat the eggs at high speed until soft and frothy
  2. Add the sugar and cream of tartar, and beat at high speed until you have a stiff meringue

Putting it together

  1. If the sabayon mix has gone a bit liquid while you were making the meringue, whisk it for another minute or so.
  2. Add the sabayon mix into your butter base and mix using the standard beater until smoothly combined.
  3. Fold the meringue into your mixture until smoothly combined, with no bits of unmixed egg white left.
  4. Pour a couple of ladelfuls of mix into your cake tin and spread it so that you have a thin, even layer. Ideally, you want around 3-4mm thickness (on the photos here, I was somewhat over that).
  5. Put in the middle shelf of the oven and bake until the top is golden. You’ll need something like 8 minutes, but check it after 5-6, because it really depends on your oven and on the thickness of your mixture.
  6. Take the cake out of the oven and switch it to its top grill setting at maximum temperature (or set up your separate grill if that’s what you have). Move the oven shelf to its highest position.
  7. Pour another ladelful or so of mixture into the tin. It will go more liquid as it contacts the hot surface. Your objective now is to get the thinnest possible layer of mixture that completely covers the whole cake: I achieved this by the combination of using an offset spatula and by tilting the tin in different directions until the coverage was smooth.
  8. Put the cake under the grill, and cook until golden brown. This will take between one and two minutes: you need to watch it like a hawk because the difference between uncaramelised yellow and burnt can be as little as 20 seconds.
  9. Take the cake out and repeat until you have run out of mixture. You’re trying to get as many layers as you can – I managed around 8.
  10. Once you’ve grilled the last layer, take the cake out and cool it in the tin for around half an hour.
  11. Finally, put a knife around the sides to make sure the cake has come away from all four sides, and take the cake out of the tin (if the tin has a removable base, this should be very easy).
  12. Enjoy…