Charles Toto Jungle Chef Papua

“The forest, for Papuan people, is a market where they can get their daily needs such as vegetables and side dishes, all for free.” – Charles Toto

Compared to other large islands in Indonesia, Papua’s forest cover figure is the largest. The area reaches 34,4 million hectares or around 82% of the area of Papua. The Papuan people have known the concept of a ‘customary forest’ long before the birth of the Republic of Indonesia. For them, the forests and everything contained in it is a ‘mother’ that oversees all their activities. Losing the forest means losing their identity as a nation.

As an homage to his homeland’s forests, Chef Charles Toto aims to show the richness and diversity of the Papuan landscape through his cooking, including a food tour into the wilderness.

Papua Jungle

Born in Jayapura and graduating from a culinary vocational high school, ‘Chef Chato’ as he is affectionally called, has been in and out of the forests of Papua since 1997, learning how his brothers and sisters in the forests survive by making dishes from natural ingredients. He has observed the types of plants and animals that are used as food sources and learned to cook them in the forests. He often invites visitors to take a tour with him, where together they will forage for ingredients before cooking in the wilderness. Thus, he has earned the appropriate title of ‘The Jungle Chef’. But his philosophy goes beyond simply foraging and cooking in the wild, it also involves being prudent and resourceful with what nature has made available. Local wisdom, from utilising eucalyptus tree bark as natural aromatics for food, or using the area nut fronds to wrap dishes.

This is no ordinary food tour of course. For one, getting there is a journey in itself: you have to reach Jayapura, the capital city of Papua province, and fly an hour and twenty minutes to Boven Digoel (Tanah Merah) in the south of Papua. Then, you must take another flight — on a 12-seat bush plane! — to arrive at Yaniruma district, a remote hamlet that is one of the places where the Korowai tribe lives, located on the border between Boven Digoel district and the district of Bintang, Asmat, and Yahukimo. Yaniruma can only be accessed by a small plane (45-minute flight), or along the river that empties into the Digoel River, which takes about a week.

Papua Tree House

When you arrive, the Korowai people will help you to build your own treehouse: your accommodation for your week’s stay.  During your stay you’ll explore the density of the forest to find food sources and learn how to hunt with the Korowai tribe. Chef Chato will cook special dishes from natural and fresh ingredients and you can witness how he processes the food with traditional cooking techniques with simple and makeshift equipment.

“The menu that I usually cook is sago which is sought from inland sago forests and eaten with vegetables or ferns. For protein, I cook sago caterpillars wrapped in sago leaves and then roast them over the fire. The Korowai people live in forests near rivers and far from the sea. To flavour and season their food they don’t use salt from the sea, which has been polluted a lot, but come from nipah plants from the forest. Everything is available in the forest and they can manage it for generations.” says the impassioned Jungle Chef.

When the Korowai people hold traditional ceremonies, you can taste chef Chato’s specialty creation: a Papuan pizza, 60cm in diameter. The dough is made of sago topped with tasty sago caterpillars baked inside the traditional houses. The ‘Metroxylon sagu’, locally known as the rumbia tree, is a type of sago palm native to the region, it is used in various ways: to make starch extract (sago), its leaves used for clothing and roofing, its bark for walls of homes.

Charles Toto - Sago Caterpillars

Chef Chato diligently researches and collects thousands of traditional Papuan food recipes. One of the things he often cooks for his guests is Ikan Kuah Hitam (fish in black broth), the colour of which he mixes from boiling snakehead fish skin and taro leaf skin. You can also order this when you take a food tour with him.

During his journey as a ‘jungle chef’ and diplomacy of Papua’s gastronomic heritage, Chef Chato admits that he has become more and more devoted to his job. Since 2008, he has formed the Jungle Chef Community and to date he has been able to mentor 200 Papuan youths spread across six provinces on the island of Papua.

“Unlike most of the others who maybe after taking culinary school they start studying Chinese food or American food or others. But, it turns out that this job is a little different from friends at the hotels because we also need to be physically strong. The main mission of our community is how to encourage young Papuans to learn what is in our environment. ” says chef Chato.

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Sari Widiati

Sari Widiati

Sari has been an arts and culture enthusiast for many years. She has written extensively on the arts, travel, and social issues as Features Writer at NOW! Jakarta.