Red, spicy and addictive. Sambal Panggang Pe (smoked ray covered with ground chili paste and spices) look not only visually appealing, but also menacing to some for its generous spread of chilies. Widely available throughout Central and East Java, Sambal Panggang Pe is highly popular among Javanese but curiously less-known to others in a country where chili is adored. Coconut shells and husks are used in the smoking process, creating a distinctive flavor to the fish. That and the keffir lime-infused sambal make a solid spicy dish favored by many, despite the tropical heat and humidity in Indonesia. People think sweating while having spicy dishes actually refreshes their bodies.
As a sambal lover herself, my mother often makes the dish at home, successfully converting my father into a spicy food enthusiast, even though his stomach sometimes does not cooperate. Smoked ray is not hard to find at traditional markets in my home town, enabling people to prepare the dish at anytime all year round. However many don’t realize the long process the smoked fish underwent before reaching those markets.
“I’m going to Kaliasin to see the smoke houses,” I said one morning to my father. “But the area gets rob often,” he replied, voicing his concern of the frequent salt water intrusion in Semarang’s northern districts, a perennial problem in the city since a long time ago. However some research made me confident enough to explore the area, on a motorbike instead of a car.
Weaving my way through small roads with potholes and patches of dirt, I passed by modest houses in this impoverished part of the Central Javan provincial capital to get to Kaliasin. Behind dilapidated houses and a dirty river lie luxurious housing estates, an area some of the city’s richest people call home. I meandered through the paved street along the river – once a dirt road until the recent improvement funded by the city government – to get to the smoke houses.
Soon enough rows of chimneys, made from metal and darkened by silt, emerged as the river bended. Their reflections on the calm water created a bizarrely scenic view in the otherwise run-down neighborhood. It was 6 am and the sun had already started warming up the sleepy smoke houses, no workers yet, only cats. Daily activities usually start a few hours later, beginning with suppliers dropping fresh fish to the smoke houses, commencing a chain of process to prepare ready-to-sell products.
Cleaning the fish is usually the first thing the workers do at the smoke houses where they are later cut into small pieces. Then they are pierced with small wooden skewers to prevent them from falling apart during the smoking process. The next step is the most crucial in the entire process: the smoking itself. The quality of the finished product relies on the quality of the coconut husks and shells, as well as the workers’ skill to ensure all the fish look evenly brown but not burned. Then finally they will be sent to traditional markets to be sold to customers, and eventually end at dining tables throughout the city and beyond.
As the sun rose higher I started the motorbike engine, breaking the silence in the small-scale and labor-intensive industry setting. People don’t make a lot of money there, but their work results can be found beyond the city proper, bringing nostalgic memories to many who miss home and crave for a fiery fix. They create happiness despite lacking of possessions which would normally make many of us happy. But perhaps what the workers have in mind is only how to make ends meet after all.