Cooking on the edge: conservation starts from good meal!

You got no choice on your packed lunchbox and your daily meals when you are staying in the forest and do some conservation fieldwork. Practicality is the key. People need to go to the forest as early as the sunrise to do the survey and go back to the camp feeling exhausted in the afternoon after walking in rugged terrain of tropical rainforest. With the limited cooking skill of field staff, we can only rely on simple omelet, fried noodle, fried rice, or some crackers. On the other side, the siamang group (Hylobates syndactylus) that we follow all day may stop at a fruiting ebony tree (Diospyros sp.), having a hearty meal of the day before moving on to another trees. What a day!

Oh yeah… My friends just got back from the deep rainforest of Bengkulu. The whole story was hike…hike…and hike which reminded me of the 3 hours hike to the forest of Lawele, right in the heart of Wallacean region three years ago, similar to other places in Buton Island in Southeast Sulawesi. My friends worked on enumerating carbon storage of the forest, made me think on our own culinary footprint. Sometimes you don’t have that many choices when you are working in remote places in Indonesia. Many of our conservation field sites located quite far from towns or villages and sometimes need a whole-day walking to reach those sites. In many small towns or villages, there is only weekly market which sells less diverse of vegetables. Meat is even rarer. So, when you are working in the field, the only source of protein only comes from eggs, canned tuna or corned beef. You also have to rely on canned mushroom, canned sweet corn, potatoes, carrots, or cabbages. That’s about it! Our culinary footprint is a balance product of efficiency, healthy but still good food!

Our porters. Taking a rest before having a 3-hrs hike

Our porters. Taking a rest before having a 3-hrs hike

Yup, the latter is my own term to stay focus in the field in which I would spare sometime in the late afternoon cooking for dinner. Efficiency means fewer porters, less transportation costs, and less physical efforts to prepare those meals because fieldwork is our main job. Let’s see this comparison. Some Indonesian dishes use coconut milk. If you have permanent camp, it’s better to buy coconuts from nearby villages because they will be much cheaper. It becomes impractical if you only stay for one week or so in a temporary camp that needs at least 3 hours walk in the forest. In this situation, I’d rather used dehydrated coconut milk that comes in a sachet or even instant spices. Anyway, here’s our regular shopping list for one-week survey on a temporary camp.

Local (nearby markets)


Rice Canned food (tuna, sweet corn, mushroom)
Vegetables (carrots, potatoes, cabbages, eggplant, cucumber) Spices and seasoning (instant spices, onion, instant coconut milk)
Spices and seasoning (shallots, garlic, chilies) Sauces (tomato ketchup, chili sauces)
Eggs Instant noodles
Salty fishes

Here are some tips for managing culinary footprint:

  1. Prepare meal plan to avoid food waste or to avoid carrying too many things in the field (but add an extra meal day for emergency). My friend and I used to do this when we were in Buton. We planned our meals (that we want to cook ourselves) for one week survey, searched for recipes, and then went to local market to find the ingredients. Dishes that need fresh green vegetables should be cooked early of the week. Eggs are usually last up to one week
  2. Take a trip at local markets and see what they offer. Some people in the villages usually plant herbs and spices such as Indonesian bay leaves (daun salam – Syzygium polyanthum), lemon grass, galangal, which can be used for many Indonesian dishes.
  3. Buy less canned food or at least try to buy local canned products.
  4. Harvesting other forest products should be sustainably done. Some of the palm leaves can be used as food wrapper and can make nice stuffed rice rolls.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I wholehartedly agree, I find it difficult when leading teams of conservationists from the UK that unless there is the promise of a good hearty meal, motivation is lacking.


  2. I miss good meal at the forest, i too had some good meal served by the origins of ppl in bengkulu… it was in Bai island… but some of them reminds me not to easily trust the native there… they like to poison new comer just for fun…


  3. It’s true you can use local produce to fuel expeditions, plus the food will be more nutritional than canned food and of course better for the environment. With the help of a guide we were able to survive off local produce and fruit found in the jungle on a one week trek off the beaten path in Tamen Negara, Malaysia. Not a can between us!


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