Of Sultans and Spice

How UniSC helped change an island

Sunset at Ternate

Sunset at Ternate

Sunset at Ternate

Mt Gamalama

Mt Gamalama

Centuries-old spice forests, warring sultans, ferocious sea battles between ruthless colonial powers, all set to the backdrop of a jungle island at the foot of a volcano.

Even the most-harebrained Hollywood plotline rarely strays into territory as far-fetched and implausible as this.

But the reality – and the Indonesian island of Ternate is a real place – is stranger than any concocted fiction. It’s a story of war, community, greed, death and discovery.

All in the name of spice.

This is how the University of the Sunshine Coast is helping bring that spice, and the remarkable story of the people who cook with it, back to the world.

It takes a village

It all started with a plan to rebuild a wharf.

A Ternate local government official, Kris Syamsudin, was looking for a way to breathe new life into his tiny island home, which had recently lost its place as the province’s capital.

He’d applied for development planning education and funding through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) Australia Awards program, where he met UniSC Adjunct Professor Bill Carter and told him about his proposal.

Professor Carter agreed to come to the remote island, to take a look.

“I said Kris you have got to be joking. This is going to take a lot of money, time and a great deal of cooperation. He agreed,” Professor Carter said.

“That’s when he (Kris) said well since you’re here, do you want to see the oldest clove trees in the world?” .

Kris led Professor Carter out of the city and into the island’s jungle. Taking him through ancient forests of nutmeg, almonds, cinnamon and cloves, to a village near the foot of Mount Gamalama.

“I said here’s where your project could be. Why not do a traditional restaurant using traditional cooking here? He took the idea and ran with it,” Professor Carter said.

The Australia Awards program eventually brought Kris to Australia and into contact with another UniSC Adjunct Professor Noel Scott, and Associate Professor Harriot Beazley who helped him further develop his tourism plan.

“Kris listened to everything. He went back to Ternate, talked to the women of the village to encourage this small social enterprise around the food they’d been cooking for centuries. He convinced the men to help build this restaurant, the kitchen and little decks all out of bamboo - with planning help from the local Khairun University,” Dr Beazley said.

The vision had come to life. Welcome to the Cengkeh Afo and Gamalama Spice Village – or CAGS.

A bamboo landing at CAGS village

A bamboo landing at CAGS village

When we went to visit the village where this kitchen is… it was the most extraordinary culinary experience,” Dr Beazley said.

“Not just because you’re eating in this amazing bamboo restaurant, surrounded by jungle with curry cooking in bamboo hollows directly in the fire. But because you’re learning about the recipes and spices, and then going on a jungle walk through the heritage trail where they show you the oldest trees in these old colonial plantations.

“It was incredible."

Clearly she wasn’t alone in that assessment.

“Indonesian tourists started to visit. First the mayor of Ternate, then the governor visited,” Professor Carter said.

“All of a sudden international film crews visited from Japan, Germany and the Netherlands. Then it started to appear on Facebook and it took on a life of its own – it went crazy.”

They had become the toast of Ternate.

Soon the women from the spice village were being invited to cook in Paris at an international food festival. They were invited to cook for the President of Indonesia.

People couldn’t get enough. They looked set to conquer the world.

But along came COVID.

“Just like that - they went from good visitor numbers and good income - to zero,” Professor Carter said.

A dining area at CAGS village

The women prepare a traditional recipe

The women prepare a traditional recipe

Something to write home about

The restaurant stopped.

But for anyone who’d had the chance to eat there, the flavours and experience were still alive and lingering in the tastebuds. Michelle Prasad was one of them.

“It’s really fresh, really healthy, packed full of spices. These dishes have been developed over centuries and are all about nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves,” Michelle said.

Michelle had visited Ternate as an Environmental Management student, and was eager to get back there and embark on a research project as part of her Masters of International Development before the pandemic hit.

“I built really strong relationships with Khairun university there and the local ministry of tourism, particularly with Kris who founded the spice village project,” Michelle said.

“We kept in contact over COVID and came up with this idea… it seemed like a no-brainer."

If people couldn’t travel to Ternate for a taste, then why not bring the taste of Ternate to the people?

Through UniSC’s Indigenous and Transcultural Research Centre, Michelle worked with Kris to bring the traditional, centuries-old recipes of the local women from living-memory, to the pages of a cookbook.

“I was holding virtual workshops, and training staff on how to conduct these workshops on the ground. Kris was organising photographers. We had people with drones out there getting shots – all in the height of COVID,” Michelle said.

“It’s a real testament to how well the idea was received and how hard everyone worked to make this happen."

The finished product reflects that.

With a foreword written by none other than the Sultan of Ternate himself, The Heart of The Spice Forest is woven with recipes and stories of the local people, in both English and their native Bahasa.

“I was inspired and captivated by what that told me, particularly their connection to each other. I think that was really quite beautiful,” Michelle said.

“That’s why it’s called The Heart of The Spice Forest, because it’s also about the sense of love between the community members."

Killing for cloves – a bloody past

This interest in Ternate’s flavours is not new.

It’s a centuries-old obsession that has brought about the rise and fall of empires.

Ternate is part of an archipelago off the coast of Indonesia called the Maluku Islands – better known as the ‘The Spice Islands’ -  for the simple reason that until the 17th century they were the only known source of nutmeg, mace and cloves in the world.

The West craved these exotic flavours, but the Arab and Asian traders kept the source of the prized plants and powders a closely-guarded secret.

So they went looking.

“Christopher Columbus was actually trying to find a way to the Spice Islands when he bumped into America. It was all about finding a trade route,” Professor Carter said.

Others succeeded where Columbus failed. Fresh from pillaging Spain’s ships, the queen’s favourite pirate Sir Francis Drake made his way to Ternate and traded with the sultan for cloves. So did the Portuguese. So did the Dutch.

The secret was out, and competition for control of the world’s only known source of spices became ferocious.

“It was like everything you see in the swashbuckling films, the English versus the Dutch in these great sea battles. Everyone wanted those bloody spices!” Professor Carter said.

Fort Tolukko

Fort Tolukko

The Dutch prevailed and for a time Ternate was home to Fort Orange, the headquarters for the Dutch East India Trading Company (VOC) - one of the most powerful companies in world history.

But its power was borne of bloodshed and cruelty.

“They did terrible things. They would go in and just wipe out people. They’d reap the benefits of the cloves and spices, but if they couldn’t occupy and defend an island they’d simply go over and chop all the spice trees down so no one else could get it,” Professor Carter said.

Today Fort Oranje stands in a state of decay, a shadow of its terrible and powerful past.

And its history, is decaying with it.

“In the past, the local people wanted to forget. So the history and knowledge of that time was lost,” Professor Carter said.

“A lot of that history is not really written. It’s in people’s minds, but it’s disappearing at a very fast rate."

Professor Carter has set out to change this, bringing the knowledge of Ternate’s colonial past back to its people, while setting them up with the skills to teach tourists and locals alike.

During the pandemic he also embarked on a book project, collaborating with Roswita Aboe from Khairun University to publish Keeping The History Alive: Heritage Interpretation of Fort Oranje.

“What we’ve tried to do over COVID is provide online training seminars to try and teach people how to interpret the fort to visiting people. So we’re now producing a book of those results, because we think that training is relevant across Indonesia,” Professor Carter said.

A dutch cannon at Fort Tolukko

The women preparing to cook for G20 delegates

The women preparing to cook for G20 delegates

Triumph in disaster

COVID should have spelled the end for the spice village.

Instead, it provided an opportunity.

“Honestly, we never planned for it to be quite as successful as it was, and the building was actually starting to fall. It gave them a unique chance to re-design and rebuild,” Professor Carter said.

“A lot of that is thanks to donations made by the local bank and businesses and local support from the community and provincial governor. Now it’s all happening again. Everyone wants it to succeed."

That's exactly what its continued to do.

The CAGS Village women were recently invited to cook for delegates from the world's most powerful countries as part of the G20 summit in Bali.

Empires once waged war over Ternate’s culinary treasures. Now they’re sharing plates of it.

But success isn’t confined to high-profile customers and acclaim.

“As a result of the project, one of the women involved in the cooking has had one of her children go to university for the first time. It’s had fabulous implications,” Professor Carter said.

Like businesses, most community-based tourism projects fail. So why did this one succeed?

What made the CAGS village special?

“It’s the importance of sweat money, the community investing in their own future. Without Kris, without Khairun University - none of this would have happened,” Professor Carter said.

“To see something small-scale, sustainable, low-impact and engaging with indigenous knowledge succeed… it’s just brilliant,” Dr Beazley said.

All because of one man’s plan to build a wharf.

“It has drastically changed the incomes of the women, children and men. It has changed the village.” Kris Syamsudin said.

“It has changed the whole island."

To keep up to date with UniSC’s Sustainability Research Centre and its projects, visit https://www.usc.edu.au/about/structure/schools/school-of-law-and-society/sustainability-research-centre

The CAGS village community

The CAGS village community