Shocking: Brad tries the chef’s special at the Tomohon market, the most macabre meat market in Indonesia, but even he did not expect to see this on his plate.

Note: This article contains foods of Indonesia that are not common in the Western World. If you are offended by other cultures, are strictly vegetarian, or simply want to remain blissfully unaware of where meat comes from, this article is not for you.

In Search of Bizarre Foods

Tomohon Traditional Meat Market, Sulawesi-
My mission to debunk perhaps the most notorious travel myth, live monkey brains, has brought me through 8 Indonesian islands to one of the most remote places on earth. I had been through dirty back-alley markets serving some of the strangest animals and dishes I’ve ever seen to find the epicenter of bizarre foods. I was excited but what I was about to see was shocking beyond belief.

It is here in Tomohon, Sulawesi where the local Minhasan people are said to eat anything with four legs but the tables and chairs. This might be the only place on earth with fewer food taboos than China, and likely the only place in Indonesia where monkey is still a chef’s special. What I found was raw was and grizzly.

Ancient Traditions Survive

Tomohon is perched in the hills outside of Manado, Sulawesi, in a region with the highest density of Christians in Indonesia. Weird traditional beliefs are still thriving in parts of Sulawesi because Christian faith has been the least oppressive of the imperialistic religions, so the culture is a mix of Christianity with ancient beliefs and customs. In many Muslim areas, historical beliefs have been mostly eradicated.

Rats, Rats Everywhere

Rats are welcome, in fact encouraged at this market. This is “bush meat” at its most refined, almost everything here was found running around the forest yesterday, and indigenous people travel here from all over the region to show off whatever odd animals they’ve found in the forest. On this mysterious island, hot dog takes on an entirely new connotation.

This food is completely organic, free-range, antibiotic free, locally-sourced and farm-to-table. That’s good, right?

20131102-154804.jpg Vendors come from far and wide to showcase their live animals

The Traditional Market

At first glance, this appears to be no different than a typical traditional market. The parking lot is clogged with shared vans and walking vendors selling everything from ice cream and candy to plastic toys and fresh flowers. The front of the market has colorful displays of colorful fruit and pungent spices. But this facade masks a secret.

20131030-221044.jpg Flamboyant displays of fresh chilis illuminate the streets of Sulawesi

20131030-222128.jpg There is a tremendous variety of fresh fruits and vegetables here

20131030-222331.jpg The fresh smoked fish will make your mouth water

Everything on Four Legs

As we turn deeper into the thriving central market, the stark difference smacks us in the face. The pungent smells of death fill our noses, burning hair, decaying meat, blood and human sweat. Hordes of flies enjoy an unimaginable feast. The raucous excitement builds the closer we get to the action.

If you get squeamish at all, you can read one of my more pleasant articles here

Animals still convulsing in pools of their own warm blood, burning alive in the fires of flame-throwers singing all of their hair off. Saturday is the day the snake vendors come from the villages with their fresh catch, and there is exhilaration in the air. Vendors are welcoming and love to stir the emotions.

20131030-222807.jpg These decapitated pig heads are proudly displayed in their own juices

20131030-222754.jpg They do have the freshest chickens possible

20131030-222720.jpg A bat vendor proudly shows off his prize catch

20131030-222642.jpg These are not your garden variety rats. They taste just like Kentucky Fried Rabbit.

20131030-222632.jpg These charred bats seem frozen in the middle of their final terrifying scream

20131030-222623.jpg Vampire bats: the tongues are the best part if you can stomach the site of them

The Pet Section

The dog area was the most difficult part to see.

Mangy dogs packed so tightly in the cage, yelping and struggling to find a spot big enough to sit down. The puppy dogs cowering with long, pleading faces that tug at your heart strings. Their expressions briefly glow when the cage flies open from a new order, but the optimism is short-lived. They know this is the end for them, patiently taking their last breaths. This must’ve been what Nazi gas chambers were like. As they yelp hysterically, they are bludgeoned on the back of the head with a heavy wooden club to crush their skulls. The cages go silent. Many die with the first blow, but some are still twitching minutes later after repeated beatings.

20131030-223643.jpg Pre-roasted dogs showing off their good side

20131030-223611.jpg Saturdays are extra special because the snake vendors come to town

The Dangers of Bush Meat

Bush meat has long been villainized in western culture as the scapegoat for mankind’s most notorious diseases. The biggest issue is the questionable sourcing animals. Eating here requires a certain degree of trust in the vendors. These vendors don’t know the first thing about the science of food safety. They just know that if they don’t do what they did last week something will go horribly wrong.

Although there is risk in eating bush meat, a line of locals is a positive sign that they are selling reasonably safe food. Their lifelong reputation as a food vendor is tested every day. The entire family business could come crashing down with one small slip-up. Here, food violations are not enforced by the government, but with reputation and the rumor mill.

20131030-223553.jpg You don’t easily forget these expressions

20131030-223628.jpg The best parts of these dogs have been picked-through, leaving only entrails and the less tasty bits

Fine Dining in Tomohon

If you want to eat the more exotic dishes in Tomohon, you must pick your animals at the market and bring them to the restaurants. Walk around and ask the vendors what makes their rats or vampire bats better — there is a fine art to preparing and selling superior rats. With the hair burned off they are easier to transport and cook– just toss them in the back seat and drive off. It is a funny sight to see families carrying bags of dead animals into a nice restaurant.

20131030-222559.jpg This mega bat is letting it all hang out for inspection

20131030-222657.jpg Rat on a stick: examine closely to get a good one

Dogs are reserved for special occasions since they are more costly than other animals, so it is less broadly consumed than other animals. My driver loves to eat dogs, explaining that they taste like monkey, but also has several as pets. He sees no contradiction as nobody would dare eat a pet dog. He feels better that these dogs come from Muslim areas where dogs are not kept as pets.

They prefer very spicy meals here, likely to cover up the taste of noxious organs and any unfresh meat.

I did not finish the hot dog platter, so they asked me if I wanted to take it home. I joked that, back in the US, they are called doggie bags because the leftovers are fed to the dogs. Here, it is very different.

Question: These are far from the strangest thing I’ve eaten.  Should these make my list of the 10 Weirdest Foods I’ve Eaten?

20131030-224743.jpg Paniki: an exotic food dish made with bat, coconut, curry and spices. So good!

20131030-224735.jpg Hot dog Indonesian style. Don’t forget a doggie bag for your leftovers.

20131030-224724.jpg Bat wings will surprise you. They have a soft, velvety feel like a fine pasta.

20131030-224707.jpg Bat penis is pretty foul. It is a thick, chewy skin with a rotten taste and a sticky mouth feel.

20131030-224647.jpg What would you do if you found a rat head in your dinner?

Rat Hunting

For the adventurous, you can get up close and personal with your caveman side by rat hunting with locals in the forest.  Local guides will show you all of the ins and outs of foraging for your dinner.

Now, if you are feeling squeamish and swearing to a life of vegetarianism after reading that, I completely understand.  You should have read the warning.

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About the author: Brad Bernard


Brad Bernard has traveled through 92 countries to find off-the-map experiences and authentic adventure travel. He pushes his own personal boundaries by travelling experimentally. Brad’s personal quest to find the most extreme and unique in travel has bred misadventures and moments of enlightenment alike. You can read his craziest stories on his adventure travel blog