Bizarre food: the story of Bau Nyale
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Picture this: a beautiful tropical island tucked away in the Indonesian archipelago. It’s a place where you’ll find stunning, empty beaches. Rolling hills covered in lush, green rainforest that tumbles down to meet long stretches of white sand. There’s nothing but the sound of the crystal-clear blue waves of the Indian Ocean rolling and pulsing rhythmically. A few palm trees sway gently in the breeze.
This is Lombok. Seger Beach, to be exact. It is the definition of tropical paradise and a place many of us dream of. Yet, once a year, it morphs into something else altogether. Once a year, this stretch of Indonesian shoreline becomes a feeding frenzy as thousands of Lombok locals swarm down to the sea in search of a very rare delicacy.
On one specific day (usually around February or March), the Nyale sea worm surfaces on the shores of Lombok, early in the morning before sunrise. This is the focal point of the annual Bau Nyale festival in Lombok, Indonesia. In the local Sasak language (the tribe indigenous to this island), ‘Bau’ means ‘to catch’ and ‘Nyale’ is of course the ‘sea worm’. But why catch these sea worms?
Legend has it that many centuries ago, there was a beautiful princess by the name of Princess Mandalika. She was so beautiful that princes from all corners of the archipelago wished to marry her. Unsure how else to settle this debate, the king (her father) asked the princes to fight one another. The victor would take her hand in marriage. However, Princess Mandalika hated the idea – she decided that she would not be part of this terrible bloodshed, especially not in her name.
And so, she took herself to the shore and threw herself off the hills above Seger Beach, plunging into the sea below. When the people went in search of her, all they could find were the Nyale sea worms. It’s believed that these sea worms are a reincarnation of Princess Mandalika. They are a sign of prosperity and fertility – to catch and eat them (yes, really) is a special folk festival that thousands partake in. Once a year, on the 20th day of the 10 month Sasak calendar, thousands of locals come marching down the hills to the shore in the dead of night. The peace and serenity of Seger Beach is momentarily interrupted.
It begins at 3am. The roads around the south coast of Lombok suddenly stir. Light after light whizzes along – each a motorcycle, like a firefly in the darkness. Each one is carrying men, women and children of all ages, huddled together grasping onto nets, buckets and bags.
Everywhere you look, motorcycles and trucks full of people are all descending on one place – an unstoppable surge. In the darkness, thousands upon thousands of headlights float and bob, all drawn to this one beach. Looking at the beach, it’s as if the night sky had fallen down and now the stars are floating in the sea. Thousands upon thousands of headlights buzz around in the waves – like some sort of gigantic hive. It’s a sight that leaves you speechless.
Everywhere you look, you’re surrounded by people, all hunched over, net in one hand and bucket in the other, studying the water around their legs in a trance-like state, possessed. The sea worms are here! You’ll find them squirming and floating around in the tidal pools, in all kinds of different shapes and sizes as well as different colours.
As the tide recedes, it reveals channels and cuttings within the rocks left behind. When the waves roll in, they send the fresh sea worms flying down these channels of water and it is here where the locals sit and wait. Each time there’s a big wave, thousands of people begin cheering, whooping and hollering in unison, all adding to the festival atmosphere. The worms are doomed as soon as they enter these channels of water, for a thousand nets await them.
Everyone’s buckets are full of these slimey, wet, slippery, wriggly mysteries of the sea. The question is…how do they taste? The truth is, you can eat these raw. Plucked right from the sea. They dissolve almost instantly in the mouth, like overcooked spaghetti. At first, there’s little to no taste but after a few seconds, you begin to sense something like ‘muddy seawater’ on the taste buds. Of course, the locals will insist, there are far better ways to eat this delicacy.
After two hours of frenzied action amongst the waves, cracks in the darkness begin to appear as the rotation of the earth brings Lombok back toward the sun once more. Suddenly, the sky turns beautiful shades of blues, then pinks, purples and reds. Thousands of people are all revealed in the light. It’s like someone has flicked the lights on in a room where a naked rave has been taking place.
Suddenly, everyone comes to their senses – back to earth and reality. Blinking and shaking their heads, staggering around, they look down at their buckets and nets and began to traipse back up the beach, back across the hills and into the heartlands of Lombok. The festival is over, as quickly as it begun. A few straggling sea worms remain, wriggling in rock pools. The lucky few survivors.
As the rest of Indonesia wakes, the Lombok people return home with their treasure and cook the worms up in a variety of ways. One popular method is to boil and steam the worms before mixing it with shallots, onions, garlic and a little lemon basil. Others prefer to mix them into a special curry made with coconut milk, or to simply smoke them over a BBQ until they’re nice and crispy. By adding seasoning, herbs and other spices, the worms’ dominating taste of sea and salt is tamed, mixing much more agreeably with a well – balanced palette of flavours. The only question left is, would you eat them? Watch Josh visiting this festival for the 1st time on You Tube.