Tomohon Beriman Market is a meat market, in its most literal—and yet still unconventional—sense. It's a place where you can find local butchers selling all kinds of strange, and exotic meats. Bats, rats snakes, dogs, monkeys, tarsiers, all of it, and more, is on the menu.
I wandered through the market during the early morning rush, starting at animals I had never seen before in-person, let alone eaten for breakfast. I eyed the charred-grilled bodies of rats and bats for a bit, but decided that I wasn't hungry anymore. I'm as adventurous as the next guy, but there was something about the scorched smell of the grilled rat that turned me off—almost like it was too cooked to eat.
Watch: Dining on Dogs in Yulin
The market is about 25 kilometers south of Manado, a city on the northern coast of North Sumatra. Local Minahasa people are known for their diverse tastes, and these cravings for macaque monkey meat or freshly slaughtered dog are what's keeping the market alive.
“People outside of Sulawesi would probably be grossed out by this type of food,” said Iskandar, who was there to buy some rat and lizard meat for that night's dinner. “But for anyone who is used to it, it tastes pretty good.”
I was in Manado to work on an entirely different story, one about shady practices in the supply chain of a major palm oil company, but I heard that Tomohon was a can't-miss place to visit when you're in North Sulawesi, so I woke early and hit the road, rubbing the sleep from my eyes as we drove south out of the city and into the hilly highlands.
My driver, a man named Stanley who had a military-style haircut and a friendly demeanor, explained that a recent string of controversies had made it harder to get some of the rarer kinds of meat anymore. President Joko Widodo visited the market back in 2016, and since then the meats of locally endemic creatures, like the Celebes crested macaque, have become harder to find. That monkey, famous worldwide as the first monkey to take its own selfie, is a local delicacy. It's also critically endangered, according to conservation experts.
Then there's the viral videos of market butchers slaughtering dogs right in front of shocked tourists. The blowback over Indonesia's dog meat trade has become so severe that the government is trying to outlaw its consumption nationwide, arguing that it was hurting the country's reputation as a tourist destination.
But, as Stanley explained, the killing of dogs in the market isn't about brutality—it's a way to make sure the meat is safe.
"If we don’t do it on the spot, the meat won’t be fresh,” Stanley said.
This taste for bushmeat runs deep in Tomohon, mainly because a lot of indigenous Minahasa people had grown up around this diverse array of animals for centuries. People eat what's available, and when a giant jungle rat is what's around, it's also what's for dinner.
But today, North Sulawesi is a vastly different place. The forests and hills are still there, but so is urbanization and the ills that come with it. There just aren't enough wild animals to feed the province's demands, so a lot of the meat on display at Tomohon was imported from elsewhere.
“It’s become too difficult to hunt for wild animals in Tomohon,” Stanley said “There used to be an abundance of wild monkeys in the mountains, like in Dua Saudara and Klabat, but not anymore."
And it's not just the monkeys. A study published in the peer-reviewed Global Ecology and Conservation Journal found that bats were totally wiped out in some communities in North Sulawesi, and at risk of vanishing in others nearby as well. In a single year, markets in Tomohon imported 500 metric tons of bat from neighboring provinces to meet the demand. And scientists are still trying to figure out the environmental impacts of a region suddenly losing a vital part of its ecosystem (it turns out the bats were really important when it came to pollinating a certain plant).
Then there's the health risks of butchering so many wild animals all in one place. Agus Setiyono, of the Bogor Farming Institute, told me that bats and rats are full of diseases that can pass on to humans when they are eaten. In China, the SARS epidemic was linked to a rise in the consumption of rare and exotic meats—especially the civet—in dense urban centers like Shenzhen. And in subsaharan Africa, the consumption of fruit bats might be connected to the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.
“The risk of the transmission of diseases from bats to human is on the rise,” Agus said. “Bats are just these reservoirs for so many types of 'zoonosis' disease.”
It's enough to be scared of that I asked Stanley if he was ever nervous about eating stuff like bats. A lot of local residents believe that bat meat can actually prevent you from developing asthma. There's no real evidence supporting the claim, but there is some backing allegations that bat meat is really unhealthy. Have you ever felt ill, I asked Stanley.
“I don’t eat bats too often,” Stanley he said. “And I’ve always been pretty healthy. Maybe it all depends on how it’s prepared."
So, I wondered, will there ever be anything that changes his mind?
"I’m not going to stop eating bats," he said.
Guess not. But for me? I eventually got back in his car. Bats and rats aren't for me. But cap tikus, the local liquor that is known by the rat on its label? That's another thing entirely.